A History of the Civil Rights Movement, as Told by Its Pioneers

From the archives: essays written by Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois.


The Atlantic was founded in 1857 as "a magazine of literature, art, and politics" devoted to the abolitionist cause. In the spirit of that tradition, African-American writers and intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King Jr. have appeared in its pages through the years, offering distinctive answers to the same question: How can America promise “liberty and equality for all” without ending racial discrimination?

On this day in 1963, more than 200,000 people marched in Washington, D.C. with that question in mind. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that march, we’re revisiting the articles written by four American icons who helped lead the country toward that historic moment.

Frederick Douglass

Credit: George K. Warren/National Archives
George K. Warren/National Archives

Frederick Douglass is primarily known as an abolitionist--his famous autobiography, Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, ignited abolitionist passions in the North prior to the Civil War, giving the public insight into the abominable treatment of slaves, which he had escaped as a young man. However, following the Civil War, he was also a staunch advocate of black enfranchisement.

In December 1866, he published “Liberty and Equality for All” in The Atlantic, arguing that all African Americans must be given the right to vote:

Slavery, like all other great systems of wrong, founded in the depths of human selfishness, and existing for ages, has not neglected its own conservation. It has steadily exerted an influence upon all around it favorable to its own continuance. And today it is so strong that it could exist, not only without law, but even against law. Custom, manners, morals, religion, are all on its side everywhere in the South; and when you add the ignorance and servility of the ex-slave to the intelligence and accustomed authority of the master, you have the conditions, not out of which slavery will again grow, but under which it is impossible for the Federal government to wholly destroy it, unless the Federal government be armed with despotic power, to blot out State authority, and to station a Federal officer at every cross-road. This, of course, cannot be done, and ought not even if it could. The true way and the easiest way is to make our government entirely consistent with itself, and give to every loyal citizen the elective franchise, -- a right and power which will be ever present, and will form a wall of fire for his protection.

Booker T. Washington

Credit: Library of Congress
Library of Congress

By the end of the 19th century, 30 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment, African-Americans were still widely treated as an underclass. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, two prominent civil-rights leaders of the era, proposed starkly different solutions to this national problem.

In "Self-Reliance," an essay published in September 1896 with its title echoing an earlier essay of that name by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington encouraged African Americans to emulate the kind of life he promoted at the Tuskegee Institute, an industrial college for blacks in Alabama. To achieve equality, Washington suggested that African Americans must lift themselves out of poverty:

When a mere boy, I saw a young colored man, who had spent several years in school, sitting in a common cabin in the South, studying a French grammar. I noted the poverty, the untidiness, the want of system and thrift, that existed about the cabin, notwithstanding his knowledge of French and other academic subjects. Another time, when riding on the outer edges of a town in the South, I heard the sound of a piano coming from a cabin of the same kind. Contriving some excuse, I entered, and began a conversation with the young colored woman who was playing, and who had recently returned from a boarding-school, where she had been studying instrumental music among other things. Despite the fact that her parents were living in a rented cabin, eating poorly cooked food, surrounded with poverty, and having almost none of the conveniences of life, she had persuaded them to rent a piano for four or five dollars per month. Many such instances as these, in connection with my own struggles, impressed upon me the importance of making a study of our needs as a race, and applying the remedy accordingly…

…One of the objections sometimes urged against industrial education for the negro is that it aims merely to teach him to work on the same plan that he was made to follow when in slavery. This is far from being the object at Tuskegee... In a word, the constant aim is to show the student how to put brains into every process of labor; how to bring his knowledge of mathematics and the sciences into farming, carpentry, forging, foundry work; how to dispense as soon as possible with the old form of ante-bellum labor.

W.E.B. DuBois

Credit: C.M. Battey/Library of Congress
C.M. Battey/Library of Congress

Harvard-educated sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, a vocal critic of Washington's, argued that African Americans needed to focus on education in the humanities and "letters" as well. A lifetime of industrial labor, he said, would only cement a black person's role as inferior. In August 1897, he published these views in The Atlantic, proposing that schooling was the only thing that could remove “the veil of self-consciousness” and allow African Americans to become full and equal U.S. citizens:

Up the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily, doggedly; only those who have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understandings, of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people strove to learn. It was weary work. The cold statistician wrote down the inches of progress here and there, noted also where here and there a foot had slipped or some one had fallen. To the tired climbers, the horizon was ever dark, the mists were often cold, the Canaan was always dim and far away. If, however, the vistas disclosed as yet no goal, no resting-place, little but flattery and criticism, the journey at least gave leisure for reflection and self-examination; it changed the child of emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect. In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself,—darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw in himself some faint revelation of his power, of his mission. He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another. […] He felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his ignorance, —not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Credit: AP Photo/File
AP Photo/File

Decades later, in April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama and wrote what would become the galvanizing text of the modern civil rights movement. "Letter From Birmingham Jail" was republished as "The Negro Is Your Brother" several months later in The Atlantic. In that open letter, Dr. King fiercely defended the importance of nonviolent resistance, such as organized marches and sit-ins, which inspired the thousands of men and women who would participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom nine months later:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality ...