Not Alms but Opportunity: The Urban League and the Politics of Racial Uplift, 1910-1950

Not Alms but Opportunity: The Urban League and the Politics of Racial Uplift, 1910-1950

Not Alms but Opportunity: The Urban League and the Politics of Racial Uplift, 1910-1950

Not Alms but Opportunity: The Urban League and the Politics of Racial Uplift, 1910-1950

Synopsis

Illuminating the class issues that shaped the racial uplift movement, Touré Reed explores the ideology and policies of the National, New York, and Chicago Urban Leagues during the first half of the twentieth century. Reed argues that racial uplift in the Urban League reflected many of the class biases pervading contemporaneous social reform movements, resulting in an emphasis on behavioral, rather than structural, remedies to the disadvantages faced by Afro-Americans.

Reed traces the Urban League's ideology to the famed Chicago School of Sociology. The Chicago School offered Leaguers powerful scientific tools with which to foil the thrust of eugenics. However, Reed argues, concepts such as ethnic cycle and social disorganization and reorganization led the League to embrace behavioral models of uplift that reflected a deep circumspection about poor Afro-Americans and fostered a preoccupation with the needs of middle-class blacks. According to Reed, the League's reform endeavors from the migration era through World War II oscillated between projects to "adjust" or even "contain" unacculturated Afro-Americans and projects intended to enhance the status of the African American middle class. Reed's analysis complicates the mainstream account of how particular class concerns and ideological influences shaped the League's vision of group advancement as well as the consequences of its endeavors.

Excerpt

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of
social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all
the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant
struggle rather than artificial forcing
.—Booker T. Washington, 1895

Men have a right to demand that the members of a civilized community be
civilized; that the fabric of human culture, so laboriously woven, be not wan
tonly ignorantly destroyed. Consequently a nation may rightly demand, even
of a people it has consciously and intentionally wronged, not indeed complete
civilization in thirty or one hundred years, but at least every effort and
sacrifice possible on their part toward making themselves fit members of
the community within a reasonable time
.—W. E. B. DuBois, 1899

On September 18, 1895, Booker T. Washington cemented his status as the nation's most “responsible” black leader with an address before the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition outlining the proper role of blacks in the political economy of the New South. Less than a year before the United States Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, the former slave–turned-principal of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute called upon members of his race to direct their attentions not to the rapid erosion of political and civil rights taking place throughout the south but to economic preparedness. Washington's speech, like his work at Tuskegee, proceeded from the view that neither blacks nor whites were ready for AfroAmerican equality. The freedmen and their descendants required time and guidance to equip themselves for the responsibilities of citizenship, while whites needed evidence of blacks' worthiness of inclusion in civil society. Proffering a model of gradual racial progress predicated on self-help and the cultural evolution of AfroAmericans, the Wizard of Tuskegee's philosophy dovetailed with the economic aims and race ideology of southern business and political elites. Indeed, as critics of the day noted, Washington's characterization of blacks as devoid of the intellectual tools necessary for . . .

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