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Four of the most influential blacks in American history authored the Atlantic pieces that follow. Fearing that the sacrifices of the Civil War might be wasted, Frederick Douglass argued in 1866 for "a reconstruction such as will protect loyal men, black and white, in their person and property." He saw black political participation as the primary vehicle by which reconstruction could be attained and protected. Within four years of his essay's publication, black men did indeed obtain the right to vote. But in the South that right was soon subverted by fraud and violence, and within little more than a decade the brutal pigmentocracy of which he had warned had fully reemerged.

Thirty years later, Booker T. Washington articulated his optimistic—some might say naive—belief that by dint of probity, hard work, and prosperity, blacks could persuade white society to accord them respect. He maintained that friction between the races [would] pass away in proportion as the black man ...can produce something that the white man wants." Yet numerous acts of anti-black mob violence stemmed from resentment against the very sort of entrepreneurialism that Washington championed. The final two pieces have each attained iconic status. Any well-educated collegian ought to recognize W. E. B. Du Bois's famous evocation of the African-American's dual identity: "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts; two unreconciled strivings …" A less familiar passage, which also warrants attention, is Du Bois's clear response to the question: What does the African-American want? "He simply wishes," Du Bois insisted, "to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development."

Finally, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter is twentieth-century America's most quoted and inspiring manifesto in defense of humane civil disobedience. Although it addressed most immediately the vexing problem of ends and means in the 1960s struggle for African-American liberation, King's polemic has gone on to enthrall audiences around the world. Nothing better animates the idea of universal human rights than his declaration that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Randall Kennedy

Archival excerpts:
Liberty and Equality for All (December 1866)
by Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, the prominent African-American writer, speaker, and government official, warned Congress of the potential for the de facto reenslavement of blacks in the absence of real reforms to the antebellum political system. In the essay excerpted here, Douglass exhorted Congress to pass a civil-rights amendment affirming the equality of blacks and whites in the United States.

Self-Reliance (September 1896)
by Booker T. Washington
The African-American spokesman and educator Booker T. Washington argued that black education's first priority should be to empower blacks with practical skills like those he taught at his own Tuskegee Institute. By learning to efficiently manage their own households and produce goods and services of use to the community at large, he suggested, blacks would come to be appreciated by their white neighbors as valuable fellow citizens.

The "Veil" of Self-Consciousness (August 1897)
by W. E. B. Du Bois
This essay helped introduce the Harvard-educated black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois to a national audience and went on to become the opening chapter of his classic Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois argued that, given the opportunity to educate themselves, American blacks would emerge from behind what he referred to as their "veil" of self-conscious "differentness."

Letter from Birmingham Jail (August 1963)
by Martin Luther King Jr.
King's famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," published in The Atlantic as "The Negro Is Your Brother," was written in response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. It stands as one of the classic documents of the civil-rights movement.