by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier
During the Civil War, the big question was: What will White society do with the Black slaves once they were freed? White Americans feared ex-slaves would not be able to take care of themselves and wondered how they were going to manage “the Negro problem.”
Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass had a simple solution.
Douglass told White America: Don’t meddle, nor trouble yourselves with questions as to what is to be done with the ex-slaves. White meddling has been the Negro’s greatest misfortune. The Negro is not asking for benevolence, pity, or sympathy. Negroes only ask Whites not to build gates against them nor pass laws that degrade them. Outside of that, Negroes want to be left alone, subjected only to the same great laws that apply to all citizens. If Negroes were born in need of crutches, then Negroes would require outside assistance, but this is not the case. The Negro must make his own way in the world. The Negro wants the chance to stand on his own legs. But if the Negro can’t stand alone, then Whites must allow the Negro to fall on his own.
Frederick Douglass wasn’t opposed to government aid or White philanthropy. He was opposed to White paternalism predicated on Black inferiority.
After the Civil War, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to help former slaves with food, clothing, medical supplies, housing, and schooling. Booker T. Washington pointed out in his autobiography, Up from Slavery, that during the reconstruction period, former slaves looked to the federal government for everything, very much like a child looks to its mother, but the mission of the Freedmen’s Bureau wasn’t to provide paternalistic relief, it was to help the ex-slaves become self-sufficient.
Once the Federal reconstruction period ended and the former Confederate states rejoined the Union, White southerners answered the question—What to do with former slaves?—by creating a segregated society.
This was a major setback that produced a mass exodus from the south.
Blacks sought better lives in the north and west but faced discrimination in these areas that was just as sinister. Under these circumstances, resilience and self-sufficiency were the only options, and between 1900 and the Great Depression, Black Americans built thriving communities like the Hayti District in Durham, North Carolina (known as the Black Capitol of the South), Harlem in New York City (known as the Black Mecca), U Street in Washington, DC (known as Black Broadway), the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma (known as Black Wall Street), and Jackson Ward in Richmond, Virginia (known as the Harlem of the South).
Self-sufficiency was the blueprint for Black Americans from emancipation until the Supreme Court struck down segregation in 1954. The Civil Rights Movement made White America see its moral failure by not abiding by the “true nature” of America’s creed, but to make a “more perfect union,” White America once again asked: What will White society do with the Black population?
This time the question was asked with remorse, and White America sought an answer for their own redemption. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Howard University address filled in the blank.
Johnson said, “You do not take a person who has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of the race, and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others’ and still believe that you have been completely fair.”
In other words, White America can redeem itself from its racist past by providing Black people with a “head start.”
Johnson emphasized that other ethnic minorities felt intolerance but made valiant efforts to emerge from poverty and prejudice, but Black Americans have a cultural tradition that has been twisted and battered by endless years of hatred and hopelessness. Johnson said, “Like these other ethnic minorities, Black Americans will have to rely on their own efforts, but Black Americans cannot do it alone.”
Johnson ended his speech by telling the crowd that he planned to call a conference of scholars and experts at the White House. The goal of the conference would be to help Black Americans move from opportunity to achievement.
Johnson believed the United States could end poverty and abolish inequality, but the policies created by Johnson and his successors were counterproductive. Jason Riley explained in his book Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed that the intentions behind these policies were noble, but in practice they slowed the self-development that proved necessary for other groups to advance.
Frederick Douglass wouldn’t have found any nobility behind Johnson’s intentions. Douglass would have accused Johnson of breaking legs in order to hand out crutches.