A Black History Moment: Elusive Unity


Robert Sengstacke Abbott (right)


One of the most interesting eras of black history for me is the early 1900’s.  I find it amazing how much African-Americans were able to accomplish only 50 or 60 years beyond the emancipation proclamation considering that the vast majority chafed under chattel slavery.  That black folks were able to create major business enterprises in the face of virulent and pervasive racism is nothing short of miraculous.

The early 1900’s saw several great black historical figures on the scene at the same time—W.E.B Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington and the publisher of  the greatest African-American newspaper at that time, Robert Sengstacke Abbott of the Chicago Defender.  Originally,  my intent was to have this blog entry discuss Abbott exclusively, but as I was doing my research, I  decided to expand the discussion to illustrate a point.  History is not something just to be “known”, but should be analyzed for deeper lessons.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott, who was based out of Chicago, built the widest circulated black newspaper at the turn in the century and was almost single handedly responsible for the Great Migration of African-Americans from the south to the north with his muckraking coverage of lynchings, his uncompromising stance on black equality and his encouraging of blacks to come north to escape near slavery conditions re-imposed in the south in the aftermath of the Compromise of 1877 ending reconstruction.  Basically, his newspaper was a movement and a well run business at the same time.  His story is an absolutely fascinating read and you can read more about him here.  Indirectly, Barak Obama owes Abbott his presidency because Abbott was the main individual responsible for the massive migration of blacks to Chicago from the south that established the voting block for Obama and other African-American politicians to get their feet wet politically generations later.

Abbott’s wasn’t the only black newspaper, but his was the first to establish a broad appeal by marketing to the masses of black people, whereas the other newspapers focused primarily on the educated elite; a decidedly smaller sub-segment of the African-American population.  The circulation of the Chicago Defender was national and it met a need of the African-American community that no other black newspaper was quite able to do by speaking directly to the needs of the masses of black people.  Those needs revolved around seeing themselves in print and providing an uncompromising voice to rail against the frequent outrages that black folks had to contend with at the turn of the century.

Needless to say, Abbott became very influential and hated in some circles and, as typical, come under suspicion and was under surveillance by the government as a potential “subversive”. 

In the midst of Abbott’s very successful muckraking, another player burst onto the scene in direct competition for Abbott’s demographic—the disaffected masses of black people.  That player was Marcus M. Garvey with his organization the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).  Garvey also met directly a need  of the black masses by appealing to race pride.  Garvey’s response to the virulent racism and lynchings was to encourage his followers to just leave the country and head back to Africa.   His appeal to race pride and his raising of money to purchase ships for his Black Star Line created a rivalry between him, Abbott and a few other prominent African-American leaders.  The rivalry basically started because Garvey was gaining greatly in influence and prominence among the disaffected black masses.  Although Garvey himself was above reproach, there were some charlatans around him and there were problems administering the money being raised and making sure it went for its intended purpose and not to line someone’s pocket. (Garvey’s organization had the same problems with internal accounting controls as we saw here recently with SCLC).

Marcus M. Garvey


Abbott wasn’t Garvey’s only prominent rival.  W.E.B. Dubois was also a committed rival.  The Harvard educated Dubois was a intellectual with little mass appeal and he resented Garvey’s popularity. For the most part, Garvey resented Dubois for being a “mulatto” and said so.  Garvey, like Abbott, had an independent economic base in the African-American community which afforded him the luxury of speaking his mind whereas Dubois was living on the patronage of whites and somewhat resented Garvey for his independence.  He also accused Garvey of being a con artist and set about, like Abbot and others, to undermine him where ever possible.

  W. E. B. Du Bois

 William Edward Burghardt Dubois

Basically, Abbot, Dubois and a few other black leaders “had it in” for Garvey and some of them ultimately penned a letter to the US attorney general encouraging him to go after Garvey, which he did ultimately with trumped up charges for mail fraud.  Garvey was jailed and deported hence eliminating their rival and killing the UNIA.

Then, like now, there’s little need for anyone to mount a grand conspiracy to undermine black people.  When left alone to our own devices, the “crabs in the barrel” mentality will ultimately kick in and we’ll undermine each other with little encouragement.

Considering that Dubois found himself indicted under the Foreign Agents Registration Act after leaving the NAACP and becoming a communist, this “victory” over Garvey was pyrrhic at best.  Ironically, Dubois assumed the mantle of a Pan Africanist  after railing against Garvey’s efforts to do the same.  In the end, Dubois becomes profoundly disenchanted with America winds up deporting himself to Ghana where he dies in 1963.

Abbott’s  Chicago Defender’s appeal began to wane in the 1930’s  as  his demographic became more educated but was capably managed by his nephew John Sengstacke after his death and continues in circulation today.

These were three great minds, each in his own right, but the rivalry over influence basically resulted in less influence for any of them.  Moreover, with all the infighting and telling on each other to the government, it’s ironic that each of them fell under suspicion and surveillance at various times.  So very little was gained from this rivalry.  

What’s the takeaway here from this history lesson?

  1. Keep the big picture in the forefront-the far bigger issue was the daily assaults in the form of  lynching’s and other outrages that were occurring at the turn of the century.  Each of these men were concerned about that and responding in their own way. Each of  them could have continued to do that without harming or detracting from the others’ program.
  2. The best ideas will thrive or die on their own without interference.  The marketplace is always the arbiter of  the long term viability of any idea, so if it’s a bad one it will ultimately die.  Even if it’s a good idea that’s badly managed, it will either die or be resurrected with improved management.  The bottom line is that what you may believe about someone else’s approach will be borne out over time if you’re correct with no further action on your part.  In the case of Garvey’s Black Star Line, poor management would have either killed a good idea or resulted in a way to better manage it over time.  There was no need to write the attorney general to encourage him to bring mail fraud charges.  This was small and petty.
  3. Critical analysis of someone’s approach is good, but destroying them is not.  It’s always a good idea to critically analyze what someone else is doing and to offer public criticism when necessary, but there’s a difference between that and wholesale destruction of another person.  There’s no victory in destroying someone and often one sews the seeds of his own destruction when destroying someone else.  One only need witness how Dubois wound up being as exiled as Garvey was.
  4. Account for the money.  Garvey’s management problems continue to plague with black organizations even today.  The first thing many need to do is before engaging in activism is to plan and put strong administrative and managerial structures in place, including internal accounting controls.  The first line of attack that one’s detractors will mount is through the lack of accounting.
  5. Don’t drown in a puddle.  Pyrrhic victories aren’t victories mainly because you lose when you think you’re winning.  There are some battles that are not worth the time and resources to fight.  This historical battle is a very good example.  
  6. Unity of purpose is the goal, not uniformity of thought. 

 Again, merely “knowing” black history isn’t good enough if we’re not prepared to execute on its lessons.

4 Responses to “A Black History Moment: Elusive Unity”
  1. Gwyn Parker says:

    Thank you, for those of us who know the massive amount of African American history, the great minds that shaped this country, it is their duty to provide this information. You are doing just that for the past and the future. I am grateful, never let it be said that our black voice and our black history is buried forever.

    • Greg L says:

      Thank you Gwyn!

      One of my great loves is history mainly because it explains much in the present as it adds context. We ignore it at our peril.

  2. roofingbird says:

    Nice Post. Thank you. I agree with Gwyn on this issue.

    Knowledge of the past is what can inform our future. Let’s not bury it’s depth in this generation’s avalanche of tweets and sound bytes.

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