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After the Civil War, the fight for civil rights spawned a multitude of heroic African-American activists, but it is remembered in large part for the work of a few iconic African-American men of stature. Much like their later counterparts, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the debate between gradual integration through temporary accommodation and overtly insistent activism was led by Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Through the last years of the 19th century, Washington’s gentler approach of enhancing black prospects through vocational education, largely accomplished with white permission and funds, seemed the popular choice. His legacy can be sensed in King’s subsequent willingness to extend an olive branch to white Americans in a sense of unity, although Washington’s propensity for accommodation held no place in King’s ministry.
Ultimately, however, the vision that oversaw the creation of the Tuskegee Institute faded in the early 20th century as black intellectualism and stiffening resolve came to the fore. This side’s greatest proponent, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, still stands among the greatest and most controversial minds of any black leader in his country. The first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University, Du Bois rose to become one of the most important social thinkers of his time in a 70-year career of combined scholarship, teaching, and activism.
The third and most improbable approach toward American civil rights for black citizens blended the beliefs of Washington and Du Bois, and it was spearheaded by global activist Marcus Aurelius Garvey. The Jamaican began his career as an activist with a devotion to Washington’s path, but he subsequently leaned to the alternative, and beyond. Beyond the worldview of both colleagues, Marcus Garvey’s bigger-than-life scheme was to establish a black-owned and managed shipping line to transport much of America’s black population back to Africa. Repatriation of black residents to the African continent had been proposed and debated before, even by Abraham Lincoln, but Garvey’s second and equally prodigious vision proposed that once the African diaspora returned to its homeland, an immense empire would assume rule over the continent, housing black cultures from around the globe. This realization of racial segregation would be a boon to black and white societies, at peace but thriving in distinctly separate cultures and economies from the white world.
No other black leader wielded such an epic influence on African societies as Garvey, the gregarious visionary who would never set foot on the African continent in his lifetime, but despite this, he was one of the few notable names from the West known to Africans. Garvey very nearly accomplished the impossible while fending off the American federal government’s attempts to frame him on any charge that would disarm his vast army of devotees. Booker T. Washington’s legacy is based on the continuing success of Tuskegee, and Du Bois co-founded the NAACP and left volumes of brilliant writing and exhortations to black America, but only Garvey inspired the first important nationalist movement of African-Americans in North America. Central to the many Pan-African Congresses, he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the African Communities League, and the Black Star Shipping Line. Despite being Caribbean-born, Garvey made his headquarters in New York City, and at the peak of his influence was considered the most powerful man in Harlem. In his uplifting speeches on the subject of black pride, his exhortations cast him as the father of the modern “Black is Beautiful” movement. Through his work, Garvey commanded the ear of the masses, millions in number.
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