Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: James Weldon Johnson

Perhaps humans naturally simplify the past in order to make sense of it. Too many people, too many places, too many dates—it confuses people. So people make things nice and easy. They remember 2 or 3 people who played key roles in a given movement. Tales get woven around these people and everyone kind fades into a background role, regardless of the actual reality of the past. Certainly, the civil rights movement of the early 20th century has fallen into this trap. That history gets played as a simple battle between Booker T. Washington’s assimilationist policies and W.E.B. DuBois’ more radical proclamations. Of course, in reality, things were far more complicated.

One of the major leaders almost totally forgotten today by society as a whole is James Weldon Johnson. Johnson was born on June 17, 1871 near Jacksonville, Florida, though interestingly not of ex-slave parents. His father, was a freeborn Virginian and served as a headwaiter in an exclusive Jacksonville hotel while his mother was the daughter of a Bahamian politician who was the first black woman hired by a Florida public school. He attended Atlanta University beginning in 1887 and left the campus in 1894. Johnson became the principal of a black school in Jacksonville. Wanting to do more to fight against the rising tide of American racism, Johnson and his friends began a daily paper entitled Daily American in May 1895, reporting not only news relevant to Jacksonville’s black community, but news around the world. Johnson urged his readers to work together for racial progress while attacking the racism so common in late-19th century America. However, the paper died by early 1896. Johnson continued to write during the following years however, and his work helped found the African-American literary tradition in the United States that would come to amazing fruition in the decades after 1920.

Soon after 1900, Johnson moved to New York and became a leader in the national fight against racism and injustice, though his early years there were dominated by his attempt to make a name for himself in music. Allying himself with Booker T. Washington, he managed to secure a position working for the State Department in Venezuela, although this ended his more lucrative performance career. While living there, he felt mixed—he was happy that the nation lacked obvious racism but was sad that the excellent actions of a black person meant nothing as a racial accomplishment. In 1909, he managed a promotion and moved to Nicaragua, in a Pacific port town only a few hundred miles from the under-construction Panama Canal. He managed to get a promotion in early 1913 to the Azores. However, a new administration was about to take over, that of the racist Woodrow Wilson. Wilson and his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, had little interest in promoting the careers of African-Americans in the government. Rather than see his promotion delayed or rejected, Johnson resigned from the State Department later that year.

Leaving government service was a good move for Johnson. In 1911, he had published his autobiographical novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, detailing his thoughts on race in America. Although the book did not result in immediate success, it found a readership not too long after when the Century, a leading literary magazine of the Progressive Era, published Johnson’s poem, “Fifty Years,” celebrating fifty years since Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation. The poem received widespread praise and vaulted Johnson into a place of importance in the national African-American community.

In mid-October 1914, Johnson took over the editorial page of the pro-Washington African-American newspaper, The Age. With a much larger audience than he had in Jacksonville, Johnson gained great popularity among black intellectuals in New York. He steered clear of the DuBois-Washington debate and his avoidance of partisanship earned him the respect of many. He also went out on a limb, comparing the condition of African-Americans to the Jews; this at a time when black antipathy toward Jews had already appeared due to Jewish ownership of many black-occupied tenements.

The death of Booker T. Washington in 1915 was an important moment in African-American history. The sage of Tuskegee had both powerful friends and enemies and he dominated African-American life during the late 19th and early 20th century. His death coincided with the NAACP looking for a new director. The NAACP had been founded in 1910 by a bi-racial group that included DuBois and Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of William Lloyd Garrison. However, the bi-racialness of the group didn’t extend very far past DuBois when it came to leadership positions as whites dominated the organization. In 1916, the organization still struggled to create a strong organization, although they managed to organize widespread protests over Birth of a Nation and successfully argued before the Supreme Court that Oklahoma’s grandfather clause was unconstitutional. James Weldon Johnson’s general popularity among both sides of the DuBois-Washington debate made him an attractive candidate to work for the organization organizing new branches. He accepted the position and started work in December 1916. His first move was to take the organization south—he toured Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, recruiting 639 members in 13 new branches. African-Americans found World War I and the immediate years after embittering because of the virulent racism within the army and the violent attacks against black communities in 1919. Johnson shared this bitterness but supported the ways that Chicago and Washington blacks fought back, holding off the white mobs. More importantly, he organized the 1917 Silent Parade in Harlem against anti-black mobs causing havoc throughout the nation that year. Johnson organized 10,000 African-Americans to march down Fifth Avenue in silence. His energy and recruiting expanded the NAACP greatly. By the mid-1920s, the association had branches in over 300 cities, many of them in the South. He brought Walter White onto the staff, who later continued Johnson’s leadership.

DuBois had long complained about the white leadership of the NAACP, but the well-meaning but paternalistic white leaders did not want a black leader. Johnson marshaled his forces, making alliances with black organizations around the nation and building a strong base within the black community. Although white leadership resisted strenuously, the black constituency became increasingly impatient with white leadership and in the fall of 1920 they gave him and named Johnson executive secretary of the organization. From that point forward, Johnson steered the NAACP toward many wide-reaching goals, but the most important was anti-lynching legislation. Despite some northern white support for such a law, powerful southern politicians refused to allow legislation to come to a vote. However, Johnson focused so much northern attention on lynching that pressure came upon the South against the practice. While one can question the causation, I have no doubt that Johnson’s campaign went a long way to the decline in lynching by the time he resigned from the NAACP leadership in 1930.

Despite his work for the NAACP and on behalf of African-Americans everywhere, Johnson never gave up his literary life. In fact, he saw civil rights and the arts as connected. He edited the first black anthology of poetry, The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922. He wrote the preface to The Books of American Negro Spirituals which came out in 1925 and 1926. Many have claimed that Johnson made the Harlem Renaissance possible. This is perhaps an overstatement but he certainly fostered many young artists and promoted African-American literature like no one had before him. He wrote not only for black publications but in many white newspapers and magazines as well, including The Nation, Harper’s, and The New York Times. His ability to talk to both white and black audiences made his leadership invaluable. Finally, in 1933 he wrote his autobiography, Along This Way. Sadly, Johnson’s leadership did not long survive the publication of his autobiography. Throughout much of the 1930s, he remained an elder statesman of the civil rights movement and continued working with DuBois and other members of the NAACP for black equality. However, in June 1938, the car he was rode in was hit by a train crossing unguarded tracks in a blinding snowstorm and Johnson died soon after.

<>Much of this information comes from the following sources:
Eugene Levy, James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader Black Voice
Sondra Kathryn Wilson's new introduction to Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson
Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age.