Barack Obama’s candidacy inspired comparisons to change agents like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Critics of his presidency have invoked Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to portray him as weak and to decry his rightward shift. In my circle of African-American progressive academics and advocates, the name hissed with particular derision recently is Booker T. Washington, who at the turn of the twentieth century publicly articulated his acceptance of segregation, brokered compromises on racial disenfranchisement and emphasized individual effort over structural justice. To equate President Obama with Booker T. Washington is to suggest that the president is willingly complicit in atrocities of inequality.
The age of Washington is most frequently remembered as an age of accommodation, when black people, led by Washington, cowered beneath the descending shadow of Jim Crow. But in her brilliant new book, Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson, my friend and colleague Blair Kelley alters our understanding of this era. Kelley tells us that the early decades of the twentieth century were not exclusively the story of an accommodating race leader. She details aggressive, organized and courageous protest communities in the South. Far from accepting Jim Crow as a fait accompli, journalists, community leaders, laborers and educators coordinated efforts to resist segregation and disenfranchisement. It turns out that the age of accommodation was not so accommodating after all; these decades are better understood as a time of "thwarted resistance," Kelley tells us, "because their protests ultimately failed, their efforts have not been well remembered."
Kelley’s scholarship reminds us that accommodation is not the same as failure. The men and women of the early twentieth century were not cowards but activists who were forced to bow to, as W.E.B. Du Bois described it, "superior brute force."
This rendering of the nadir of American racial history forces progressives to rethink some of our criticism of the president and to reconsider our role in his administration. In American political history, thwarted resistance is more common than sweeping social change. Efforts to effect change are likely to meet with years of failure before experiencing even the glimmers of success. And in every decade, change is as much the work of courageous citizens as it is the responsibility of empowered leaders.
These lessons were readily apparent when the lame-duck Congressional session of 2010 brought with it hard-fought successes, painful losses and the difficult pill of compromise. In a nearly inexplicable bipartisan effort the Senate voted to end the military’s homophobic "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. Just hours earlier another bipartisan group defeated common-sense immigration policy reform when five Democratic senators joined solid GOP resistance to the DREAM Act. The day before, President Obama simultaneously protected unemployment benefits and likely ensured deepening economic inequality by signing a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts. The proximity of the win, the loss and the compromise produced whiplash for progressives unsure of whether to applaud or boo the president.