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.
But focusing on the role of President Obama is less important than asking about our own accountability in these outcomes; the real issue is the work of organized citizens. Consider the week’s biggest win, the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell." Gay rights activist Frank Kameny led his first protest against the military’s exclusion of gay Americans in 1965, so this year’s victory was the culmination of forty-five years of struggle. As that battle raged, thousands of soldiers were shamed, silenced, dismissed and disgraced. America lost their talent, skills and contributions. Yet during these years many gay men and lesbians continued to enlist, to shield their identity, to compromise themselves in order to serve. In short, they accommodated to the policy. And even after nearly half a century, repealing "don’t ask, don’t tell" is an enormous but only a partial win, one that leaves in place discriminatory housing, employment and marriage policies in dozens of states.
These failures and accommodations are not ancillary to struggle; they are the core outcome of struggle. Remember that when Congress passed, and President Johnson signed, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it was more than fifty years after the protesters Kelley writes about had been repeatedly defeated by the entrenched interests of the segregationist South. The standing ovation belongs less to the legislators of the 1960s than to the crushed movements of the 1900s. These movements failed, but their failures were the groundwork on which the civil rights movement built its success.
The nadir was initiated by the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), to uphold the rights of businesses to segregate based on race. This decision revived Confederate dreams of a white supremacist national order and provided the legal tools to enact it. Our moment is marked by the Court’s landmark decision to uphold the election spending rights of corporations in Citizens United. In its wake, the next Congress will feature a well-financed Republican House majority buoyed by a vocal right-wing populist movement and a newly emboldened and fiercely obstructionist minority in the Senate. Arguably, progressives are facing a "superior brute force." It is an era that will undoubtedly produce failures and likely require accommodations. But failure is not an excuse to stop struggling or a reason to deride those who must, and who will, sometimes bow to the opposition. Kelley’s reassessment of the nadir encourages us to measure accomplishment with a long view, to judge first our willingness to sacrifice and refuse to denounce as cowards those who fail today so that we can win tomorrow.