The Many Faces of Conservatism

Published April 24, 2003

Speech delivered at the 26th Annual Black Studies Conference
Olive-Harvey College
Chicago, Illinois
April 24, 2003

Good afternoon. Thank you Professor Allen for that kind introduction.

I am delighted to join Olive-Harvey College at its 26th Annual Black Studies Conference. I am particularly grateful for being asked to add my thoughts to the discussion, “The Many Faces of Conservatism.” I am also delighted that Olive-Harvey College is acknowledging, by this panel discussion, that black Americans continue to have different perspectives and visions, in spite of media stereotype.

History of Black Conservatism

I have been thinking about and researching the term “conservative” for the past twenty years. Much has transpired, needless to say, in that time. However, I do honestly question the panel’s theme: “Conservatism, driving discontinuity of African American progress: The deepening challenge of the social/political spectrum.” Don’t give a movement more power than it has!

I would agree the panel’s theme is challenging some prevailing views within the black community, and that challenge is long overdue. The black community must become more of a community of self-reliance, or rise up from dependency as it did after the Depression of the 1930s, and as it did during the successful Montgomery bus boycott.

Being born in the deep conservative South (Troy and Montgomery, Alabama), being raised primarily by my grandmother, and attending church regularly, all played a major role in developing my conservative leanings. My attitude was further developed with an undergraduate degree in economics and business, which led to a career in corporate America. That career exposed me to public policy issues in the marketplace and the government.

Thus, my interest in the term “conservative” was at first a predominantly philosophical and literary undertaking. My interest led me to attend a two-day Black Alternatives Conference in 1980 in San Francisco. The conference would be later described by the media as a conference of “black conservatives.” While all in attendance were not conservatives, the dominant focus was on economically and socially conservative themes and programs. The participants, mostly blacks, were business people, academics, professionals (lawyers, doctors, journalists), and community activists.

The central figures organizing the conference and selecting the 23 speakers were Dr. Thomas Sowell, an economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University; and Dr. Henry Lucas, Jr., DDS, director of the Institute for Contemporary Studies.

Sowell, who identified himself as neither a Republican nor a Democrat, opened the conference as follows:

“This is a historic opportunity. The economic and social advancement of blacks in this country is still a great-unfinished task. The methods and approaches currently used for dealing with this task have become familiar over the past few years and they demand reexamination.”

That statement is just as true today as it was two decades ago.

This conference led me to further research and a wider reading of the Booker T. Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, as well as a visit to the Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia not too far from Jamestown. Booker T. Washington became a greater interest to me because of his insightful emphasis almost one hundred years earlier on education and economic development, rather than political power, as the first priority for black Americans coming out of a failed Reconstruction period. Most of black America was still on the bottom rung of the ladder in a system based on capitalism, which is why Washington focused on education and economics rather than politics.

Rayford W. Logan, professor emeritus of history at Howard University, wrote a book about that era, titled The Betrayal of the Negro. He explained how not making politics a priority would become the center of the controversial Washington-DuBois debate, which continues into the 21st century.

In Williamsburg, I found information on the first 20 black indentured servants who arrived in 1619, and perhaps the first recorded history of a conservative black–that is, a black with something to conserve. Anthony Johnson, among the early indentured servants by 1623, had become one of the best known free blacks in Virginia, who had gained his freedom within a few years. He married, acquired property, and imported other servants of his own, resulting in the first small black community in America.

Writing in 1908, critiquing black leadership at the beginning of the 20th century, the distinguished black American sociologist and dean at Howard University, Keller Miller, published an essay, “Radicals and Conservatives.” Miller described followers of Booker T. Washington as being conservatives, and those led by W.E.B. DuBois as radicals.

By the turn of the century, Washington had by far the larger group of followers, which included the business class, educators, and the masses. Washington was the most powerful black American of his time, and perhaps of all times, according to Louis Harlan. DuBois, however, was just as mighty with his words and pen, which was obvious from his critique of Washington in the Souls of Black Folks.

At that point, it was obvious to me that some scholars would have us believe conservative views played no positive role in the historical black struggle for freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conservative ideas have been a part of black religious, business, and social thought since the 18th century, and any comprehensive history of black thought in America that ignores or isolates the conservative view will be lopsided.

The controversy between the mindsets of Washington and DuBois has been considered the classic controversy and debate in the history of blacks in America. The irony is that Washington and DuBois were really in the same camp. They differed only in the means they chose to reach to the same end goal: first-class citizenship for black folks in America.

From my research, I concluded the Washington/DuBois debate was the second time in American history where there was a clash between conservatives and radicals on the means although they were in the same camp when it came to the goals. The first time in history this took place was the meetings of the First and Second Continental Congress in 1774 and 1775 in Philadelphia. There were hostilities between the radicals and conservatives, but in the end a new congress and new constitution were developed, and the 13 states from Georgia to New England were pleased.

Interestingly, the Mason-Dixon Line played a major role in the conservative-radical clashes of both eras. DuBois was born and raised in the North after slavery. Washington was born a slave and raised in the South. There was a major difference between Southern conservatives and Northern conservatives.

Manning Marble, history professor at Columbia University, New York, wrote that, “the social forces that produced a Booker T. Washington and an entire generation of conservative educators stemmed from the Civil War and the collapse of Reconstruction.” The legacy of conservative thinking in the black community has long roots, across all classes and walks of life. Conservatism in black America is not as unusual a phenomenon as most critics, including academics, want us to believe.

Black History Gap

Conservatism is not unusual in black America. But, like most writings on American history, there is a gap with respect to the achievements and records of black Americans. Dr. Christopher R. Reed, professor of history at Roosevelt University, in a soon-to-be-published book, Black Chicago’s 1st Century, 1833-1900, vol. 1, has a chapter that discusses “Militants, Conservatives and Pragmatists.” Reed is one of few scholars acknowledging the various perspectives that can be found in black America as we enter the 21st century, as did Keller Miller as we entered the 20th century. My major point here is that history shows conservative and radical views resulted in improved, practical, and lasting ideas.

Many colleges around the country this month are celebrating the 100th anniversary of W.E.B. DuBois’ 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folks. The book includes an essay on Booker T. Washington. Some folks argue DuBois is remembered more for what he said about Booker T., than for the other 13 chapters in the book. That is, DuBois is remembered more for challenging Booker T. than for his own great intellect.

One hundred years later, John Sibley Butler, professor of sociology and professor of entrepreneurship and small business management at the University of Texas, published an essay titled, “Why Booker T. Washington was right, a reconsideration of the economics of race.” As we enter the 21st century, there is no longer debate on whether America is becoming increasingly conservative. Recent attitudes, elections and surveys support that fact. Yet there are almost as many definitions for the term “conservative” as there are scholars and individuals representing conservative thought in the marketplace of ideas.

The term is confusing because labels such as “liberalism” and “conservatism” no longer mean what they once meant. Some scholars would argue today’s conservatism is a return to the liberalism of the 1800s, what is now called “classical liberalism.” The term has varied with time, place, and circumstance.

Black Conservatism Today

These matters were given specific focus at the two-day conference held in 1980. Today, I run the organization that resulted from that meeting, The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change at The Heartland Institute in Chicago.

For most writers, instead of attempting to define “conservatism” there has been and still is a tendency to try to describe it, or to define the people who say they are conservatives. It reminds me of the saying, “we don’t know what it is, but we know it when we see it.” In this case, many people say “I can’t define ‘conservatism,’ but I know I’m against it.” That’s a viewpoint I don’t understand.

There is, in fact, much in the conservative tradition that black Americans should embrace and advocate.

Blacks have much to conserve, beginning with traditional family values, the institution of the church, a legacy of strong faith in the value of an education, self-reliance and an improved financial outlook. I am reminded of my growing up in Alabama, when parents and other adults said to young folks and girls in particular, no sex or babies before marriage, don’t come home from school with bad grades, and don’t be late for Sunday school. If I or my sister brought friends home with us, my grandmother wanted to know who their parents were.

The black church took a leading role in cultivating and maintaining such attitudes. It was conservative philosophy that black Americans utilized to build churches, insurance companies, and colleges, and to develop practical skills. They did not rely upon welfare programs. American history verifies the progress of black Americans before the 1930s.

Conservatism in America can still provide the opportunity, belief, and attitude that all Americans should have the opportunity to achieve at least a comfortable middle-class lifestyle by being self-reliant, getting an education, and holding dear the importance of family values. If you think about it, the idea of conservatism is nothing short of the “American Dream” or things your grand or great-grandmother or father taught you.

My colleague ‘Jay’ Parker of the Lincoln Institute in Washington, DC says, “The very idea of black conservatism seems unreal to some observers, both black and white. This reveals an almost total lack of awareness and understanding of black history and of the black intellectual tradition in the United States.”

I think this panel discussion on conservatism is a challenge to all academics and writers with an interest in black studies. It provides an opportunity to examine fully the history of conservative thought among black Americans. This relates to the challenge Carter G. Woodson saw in 1915, which led him to develop the first black history organization here in Chicago, aimed at putting into history what others were omitting regarding achievement by black Americans. Woodson developed Negro History Week in 1926; we now call it “Black History Month.”

Since the introduction of “Black Studies” as an accredited college curriculum more than three decades ago, there has been an increase in the number of noted scholars interested in the subject of blacks in American history. Thus, there is a closing of some of the gaps in race history analysis. Examples that come to mind include several books and a television story on Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Louis R. Harlan, professor of history at the University of Maryland, was awarded the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for his two-volume biography of Booker T. Washington. This ended up being a 25-year project for Harlan, making Washington the first black American to receive such recognition.

Then, in 1987, David J. Garrow, associate professor of political science at the City College of New York, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. David Levering Lewis, history professor at Rutgers University, was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer for the first volume of his biography of W.E.B. DuBois. Lewis is the only black among the three professors I mentioned.

Even with this new attention to blacks in American history, we continue to be in need of scholarly attention and analysis. For example, neither the 1993 African American Encyclopedia nor the 1997 African American Almanac included the terms “conservative” or “conservatism.” Yet the label accurately describes such prominent blacks in history as Mary McLeod Bethune, George S. Schuyler, Ralph Ellison, Roy Wilkins, Rev. Joseph Jackson, and others.

What Do I Mean by “Conservative”?

There are several definitions of conservatism that are more popular than others, and scholars are still looking for that “right definition.”

Based on my experience and reading, the word “conservative” is best used as an adjective until it grows from an intellectual to a political movement. Thus, it seems to me that conservatism is best understood as a state of mind and a type of character, a way of looking at the social order. It’s a set of traditional principles and a philosophy. While conservatives want to preserve the best of the past and make improvements, conservatism is not about radical change unless the times demand it. The first institution of conservative thinking was the black church. It has been the traditional institution, inspirational force, and foundation for black leadership.

The World Book Encyclopedia, in the 2000 edition, defines conservative as “an attitude or philosophy that places great emphasis on tradition. Conservatives want to conserve traditional institutions, values, and ideas, and rely on them as a guide to wisdom and goodness. Therefore, seeking progress in line with proven values of the past.”

Dr. Edwin J. Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation, the largest conservative think tank in the country, describes conservatism as an intellectual movement which, over a 30-plus-year period, has blossomed into a political movement.

Yet in America, unlike the British and French model, being a conservative is irrespective of political party. This is a much over-looked fact among most black scholars. One can be a conservative Democrat, Republican, Independent, Nationalist, or Libertarian. One can be conservative on some issues and not conservative on others.

In 1966, George S. Schuyler, former journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote a popular autobiography titled, Black and Conservative. Schuyler described the American black as the “outstanding example of American conservatism: adjustable, resourceful, adaptable, patient, and restrained.” He further said that “is why the Negro will always be [in America].”

While Booker T. Washington was not the father of black conservatism, he did describe it. “The Negro should acquire property, own his own land, drive his own mule hitched to his own wagon, milk his own cow, raise his own crop, and keep out of debt, and when he acquired a home he became fit for a conservative citizen.” Basically, Washington was describing a middle-class family lifestyle of self-reliance.


History never truly repeats itself, though its themes do recur in different variations, as is taking place now with renewed interest in conservatism. Blacks cannot afford to be silent in national debates about how the country will be governed as times and conditions change. There are several voices within the conservative black community. They are not all an “echo,” but individuals with an identity and a message in the spirit of Booker T. Washington, Frederic Douglass, and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Lee H. Walker is director of The New Coalition at The Heartland Institute and a member of Heartland’s Board of Directors. These remarks were delivered on April 24, 2003 at Olive-Harvey College.


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