Remembering Elizabeth Wright

By Gail Jarvis
August 15, 2013

Although it seems like a much longer time, it was only two years ago this month that black essayist and social critic Elizabeth Wright died. In 1985 Ms. Wright inaugurated her website Issues & Views to counter the racial proselytizing that was aggravating feelings of victimization and entitlement in the black community. The masthead of her website bore the inscription: “So you still think all blacks think alike?” Elizabeth Wright’s opinions certainly didn’t conform to the way blacks were stereotyped by the establishment media. Like her mentor Booker T. Washington, Wright felt that racial conflicts were best resolved by conciliation rather than militancy. This represented quite a change from the belligerent approach used by the NAACP and other adversarial groups. Ms. Wright believed that the shrill accusations and ultimatums of these contentious groups had become counterproductive. She used her website to encourage a more pragmatic, less bellicose racial dialogue but, as we would expect, Wright’s columns were ignored by the mainstream media.

Wright’s website is now dormant but some of her writings are still accessible and the philosophy she espoused can be found in columns by black journalists like Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell. The Booker T. Washington Society, created in 2005, established a Wright award, presented annually to to the person who best exemplifies the vision, values and virtues that comprise the legacy of Booker T. Washington. The award was named after Elizabeth and she was its first recipient.

One of Elizabeth Wright’s concerns in the 21st century was what concerned Booker T. Washington in the nineteenth century: the mass immigration of cheap labor from foreign countries. Washington knew that blacks desperately needed to acquire work skills in order to compete with the huge influx of cheap labor in the late 1800s. He also knew that a classical education would not prepare them for the types of jobs they would be contending for. Likewise, agitating for social change would not be the best use of their energies at such a crucial time. However, some of his contemporaries, W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass, were urging classical educations as well as inciting agitation for social change. With today’s massive immigration, vastly exceeding the number of immigrants in Booker T. Washington’s time, Ms. Wright realized that her black community will be facing job market competition similar to the 1800s but even more daunting. Wright put the problem in perspective with this comment: “Prior to the immigration deluge, native-born minorities were able to sustain families on the salaries earned from jobs.” While encouraging the need to acquire job skills, Elizabeth Wright tried to dissuade minorities from thinking that they could rely on government munificence indefinitely.

It also disturbed Ms. Wright that a substantial segment of the black community was fixating too much on Dr. Martin Luther King’s assertion that society must improve conditions for blacks while ignoring Booker T. Washington’s advice that blacks should make the most of what they’ve got; – in his words: “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” Dr. King’s analogies of “mountaintop” and “Promised Land” might have been inspiring themes for a sermon, but they were ideals to aspire to, not necessarily attainable in the here and now. Booker T. Washington wanted blacks to realize that complete racial equality was a utopian vision rather than a realistic goal. Consequently, acquiring job skills made more sense than agitating for social change. Furthermore, Washington contended that with job skills blacks could prove to the white majority that they could be self-supporting. This would demonstrate their capabilities and put them in a better position to negotiate for a larger piece of the pie. This strategy follows the old equestrian adage: “Don’t kick until you’re spurred.”

The enactment of a federal holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King prompted this comment from Elizabeth: “The total acceptance of King by whites, confirmed when this preacher was granted a federal holiday, fixed for all time the notion that the path on which he took blacks was the only correct one.” Ms. Wright thought that King’s strategy would not only diminish self-reliance but would also encourage more groups to feel aggrieved and decide for themselves what was just or unjust. Furthermore, these groups would not wait for prerequisite legal processes but would engage in acts of civil disobedience until the perceived injustice was remedied to their satisfaction. Going against what the establishment hoped-for, Elizabeth anticipated that widespread civil unrest would be the legacy of white society’s official sanctioning of Dr. King’s philosophy and methods. We have indeed witnessed decades of protests against what activist groups sensed as social and economic iniquities. Also, we have even observed street demonstrations when verdicts in court cases went against their wishes. These incidents should make us appreciate Elizabeth Wright’s prescience.

Elizabeth Wright recognized that an agenda-driven media and deleterious federal activism was worsening rather than improving our nation’s racial environment. She excoriated black males for behaving as though they were still being restrained by long departed Jim Crow restrictions. However, she came down hardest on white males; those docile participants of society, too craven to publicly rebut hyperbolic racial accusations. Wright would be disappointed that the these unproductive behaviors of black males and white males are largely unchanged.

Although exposing racial demagoguery was one of Elizabeth Wright’s primary concerns, her columns frequently challenged what she considered counterproductive doctrines and organizations. One of the noxious self-serving organizations that incurred her wrath was the Southern Poverty Law Center. Ms. Wright was especially resentful of their “hate group” labels being applied to organizations simply because they held opinions the SPLC disagreed with. She was even more resentful of the mainstream media’s gullible acceptance of the SPLC’s accusations. Ms. Wright lumped the SPLC alongside the NAACP, B’nai B’rith, and the Anti-Defamation League, as undeserving organizations receiving preferential treatment from the media. In her words: “Thanks to the fawning acceptance granted them by the establishment media, these groups, and several more like them, have acquired an almost quasi-governmental status in the public mind. When they spread lies, there are few people who will risk inevitable public denigration and stand up to challenge them.” Here again Elizabeth Wright expresses one of her pet peeves – the public’s reluctance to speak out against establishment hubris.

Ms. Wright herself had no qualms about publicly taking politically incorrect stances; a case in point is her defense of Confederate organizations and symbols. She knew that Southern symbols were not offensive to all blacks but she also knew that the media would only give voice to blacks who found them offensive. A classic example is a CNN Crossfire interview with Cornell West, a black professor that the media had made into a celebrity, knowing that he could be relied upon to express media approved opinions on racial issues. Such was the case with Dr. West’s description of the Confederate flag: “The flag is not just a symbol of white supremacy, not just a symbol of organized hatred, not just a symbol of institutional terrorism, it’s also a symbol of violent insurrection against a U.S. government. It was actually calling for the death of the precious experiment called America in the name of its Southern way of life.” We do not know Elizabeth Wright’s opinion of Cornell West’s strange interpretation of American history but we know that she adamantly defended those who exhibited the Confederate banner. Wright reiterated what everyone should have known, that displaying the flag is protected by the First Amendment and the rights guaranteed by this Amendment should not be disregarded to avoid offending the sensibilities of some blacks. She also noted that non-Southerners have adopted the Confederate flag to symbolize their resistance to the perverting of the Constitution as well as other questionable political maneuvers. Oppressed factions in foreign countries were also displaying the banner as they resisted actions by tyrannical governments. Lending support to Confederate organizations is another indication of Wright’s integrity, which she would not sacrifice in order to curry favor with the establishment.

Although Elizabeth Wright was a very private person, I was fortunate enough to exchange a few emails with her. Being a fan of, Ms. Wright contacted me after reading one of my articles. As I would have expected, her brief emails were as insightful as her columns and my responses to her columns were appreciatively acknowledged with her usual savvy. It would take more than an Internet piece to do justice to the memory of Elizabeth Wright. She was never in awe of the power structure and never reluctant to expose faults wherever she found them. One of her especially chastising columns ended with this line: “Sometimes, it takes a lot of hollering to wake up the clueless.” With the clueless becoming one of the fastest growing segments of America’s population, we could use more voices like Elizabeth Wright’s.

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