In post-reconstruction America, many Black writers, ministers, teachers and others eloquently argued on behalf of freedom and Justice for Black Americans, advocating various strategies for achieving racial and economic equality. Two such leaders who helped shape the political discourse were Ida B. Wells and Booker T. Washington. Urging politically divergent approaches, they both wanted African American people and men in particular, to be valued and respected by the white south. However, they differed significantly in the means by which they believed such change would come bout. Ida 8.
Wells told the truth in a way that made many whites uncomfortable, addressing lynching and other racially motivated atrocities directly and proposing that African Americans collectively leverage economic power through strikes and boycotts, and individually protect themselves from lynches with weapons. In contrast, Washington was more conciliatory, appealing to whites to give African Americans the opportunity to prove their technical capacity and participate alongside whites as legitimate economic partners. While the “gradualist” gained unprecedented access o formal political power through his white benefactors, I believe Ida B.
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Wells’ argument that African Americans stop conceding power to whites was more persuasive In advancing racial equality for African Americans In post-reconstruction America. Wells and Washington’s thoughts were formed in the period immediately following reconstruction. The 14th and 15th amendments had been ratified in 1868, three years after the civil war ended, bringing much hope about the potential for an economically stable south with enough resources to go around. Wells was born a slave In Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862.
She started teaching In a rural school for blacks, and eventually taught In Memphis schools for African Americans. Around 1887, Wells started writing for several black-owned newspapers, Including Free Speech, which she co-owned. She frequently discussed the “unequal education opportunities for whites and blacks in Memphis” and was fired and ran out of Memphis by whites for the strong positions she took. Including in her March 1892 editorial response to the lynching of three black men, one a friend of Wells. Booker T. Washington was also born a slave in 1856, In Franklin County, Virginia.
At 17, he attended Hampton Institute, a school for African Americans, spent three decades developing the Tuskegee Institute for African Americans, and received an honorary degree from Harvard College in 1891. By the time of the Atlanta Exposition Address in 1895, Washington was considered the most sought after African American speaker in the United States. Leading up to these speeches, which were given in 1892 (Wells) and 1895 (Washington), a scourge of lynching had begun which terrorized African Americans and claimed at least 1357 lives between 1889 and 1900.
On top of this instant threat of murder through Individual lynching, the political establishments In southern states launched a series of official campaigns that would later morph into “Jim Crow laws, which formalized and legitimated the segregated south. Another contenting factor was the region wide need for economic stimulus – thirty years after the end of the civil war, the south was still struggling to define and realize its industrial potential in relationship to the North and the world.
Wells’ and different audiences. Wells’ editorial spoke directly to African Americans, while Washington’s address spoke primarily to white business and political leaders, regardless of who was in the room. Wells’ editorial primarily argues for increased self-sufficiency through African Americans boycotting white businesses, organizing strikes against white employers when needed, and arming for self-defense as a form or protection against lynching.
She gives multiple examples demonstrating the effectiveness of such campaigns, as in the case of the white street car company leadership recognizing the power of the black consumer, suggesting that African Americans could incite a “bloodless revolution” by attacking “the white man’s dollar which) is his god” . Washington’s address primarily argues for hard work and friendliness towards whites, suggesting that African Americans “cast down their bucket” and learn that “it is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. He further warns against the “extremist folly’ of focusing on social Justice through “artificial forcing,” perhaps referring to the well circulated idea that African Americans should be given easier access to land without the “severe and constant struggle” which Washington actually praises and upholds as a true path to economic equality. Both documents had some immediate impacts for their authors and speak quite a bit to their own experiences. Following Wells’ editorial, the newspaper Free Speech was destroyed, and newspaper leaders including Wells were attacked, threatened, and/or forced to leave Memphis.
In contrast, after Washington’s address, he was invited to dinner with President Roosevelt. This speech cemented his position as the African American poster boy for the noticeably faulty vision of a harmonious, interdependent south “in which each component… And each person… Had a clearly defined place. Many signs pointed to the impossibility of realizing a peaceful south without mandating a means for African American land ownership, yet most whites, especially in the North, were happy to keep believing in the broken dream of racial equality without economic Justice.
In conclusion, Washington was feeding white people with what they wanted to hear. Although he was also secretly involved in more radical work to give tangible opportunities to African Americans, his public concessions allowed whites to live in an illusion and believe they were standing on the side of good. His willingness to abandon his more activist peers ether than use his position as a bridge builder to argue for land reparations was unfortunate.
In contrast, although her radical approach was more easily dismissed by whites, Wells spoke truth to power. She used her personal resources and print platforms to mobile, encourage, and incite change among African Americans. Ida B. Wells believed in the internal resources and organizing capacity of African Americans, which I still find to be perhaps the most persuasive of strategies for any oppressed group to achieve equality – to value their lives and demand respect though collective economic power, rather than beg for it.