Which Black Leader was the GOAT?
Updated: Oct 12, 2019
There are only four black leaders who could be nominated for the greatest of all time, ‘the GOAT’.
They are Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Barack Obama. These are the only four individuals who have had more or less universal moral authority throughout black America at one time or another. Who were in some sense the ‘national black spokesman’.
One must eliminate Douglass and Obama, since they were largely symbolic leaders. This does not in any way diminish their respective achievements and advocacy for black progress. So we are left with Booker T. and MLK. Who is the GOAT?
This is a hard question to answer. While I personally lean towards Booker, it is a judgement call. It some ways, it’s a matter of taste. Some people like MLK better. Some like Booker. Some love Barack Obama the most or even Michelle. And some dig Frederick Douglass. Just like people enjoy different flavors of Ice Cream.
Still, there is a more systematic way to approach this slippery question of Booker vs. MLK. It will not provide a definitive answer, but will illuminate some of the pertinent issues involved.
The Perfect Prince
Niccolo Machiavelli was looking for the ‘perfect Prince’ to unite Italy and liberate her from the ‘barbarians’.
In his studies, he tries to determine what makes a Prince effective and ineffective. Who really were the good and bad Princes? Who were the best? And why? What should be imitated in their conduct by future Princes? What should be eschewed? He looks at examples as far back as Ancient Egypt, and as recent as his Renaissance contemporaries.
There was also the important question of how much credit or blame should a Prince receive for those things that occur under his or her reign. We have the same predicament today. If the economy is good, does the current administration deserve credit, or should we give credit to prior administrations for laying the foundations of our current prosperity. Same for a bad economy. Was the Great Depression really President Herbert Hoover’s fault? These are politically charged questions.
Machiavelli used a simple model to look at these issues. He distinguished between virtu (virtue or manliness) and fortuna (fortune or luck). A portion of a person’s success comes from his own virtue or ‘effective efforts’, while a portion comes from luck or chance. In addition, a person’s virtue can overcome bad luck, if he or she is virtuous enough. ‘Manly virtue’ must win the ‘favors’ of ‘lady luck’ is the concept here.
A ‘perfect Prince’ in Machiavelli’s sense of the term, must be both a great ‘wartime’ and great ‘peacetime’ leader. Machiavelli’s model of the ‘perfect Prince’ appears to be the Hebrew Prophet Moses, and likely the Islamic Prophet Mohammed.
Booker T. Washington: Negro Leader as Christian Despot
In 1852, Martin Delany coined the term ‘nation within a nation’ to refer to black Americans, but Booker T. Washington popularized it. And in Booker’s time, when 90% of the black population resided in the South, and had such a common historical experience, the black South was truly a ‘nation within a nation’.
Booker viewed himself as the absolute dictator of this ‘nation within a nation’. I would go further and describe his reign in the South (1895-1915) as an enlightened and benevolent despotism, since the Southern black bourgeoisie feared even entertaining the thought of crossing him. Booker was truly a Negro Christian Despot, like a great Medieval Pope, who revolutionizes The Church. Its institutions. Its philosophy. Its mission. And then carries out this new program effectively in practice.
To maximize his credibility and influence with the Robber Barons, politicians, and Presidents he commonly associated and did business with, Booker had to maintain the appearance, if not the reality, of absolute control over the black nation. The tighter Booker’s grip, the more powerful he himself became. Like his Robber Baron buddies, Booker firmly believed in the efficiency of monopoly power. These were more than just business relationships, these men genuinely exchanged ideas.
For Booker, the most efficient means of uplifting the black nation was to be led by an enlightened and benevolent black dictator, assuming monopoly power over the ‘nation within a nation’. A Negro philosopher-king.
Absolute power is very dangerous in the hands of any person, but Booker was able to mitigate this danger in two ways. First, he maintained an iron moral discipline in order to remain personally incorruptible. Second, he operated strictly under the constraints of the Christian doctrine of non-violence. Booker accumulated power by increasingly gaining control over the ‘life chances’ of most of the black American population. He dictated which black people and institutions would receive financing from the capitalists, and who would get appointed to positions by the politicians. He had his people in all the key positions, including the black churches.
Booker had a sophisticated intelligence network. He used spies around the country. If a black preacher spoke against him in a Sunday sermon, it would likely get back to him. Even if only ‘through the grapevine’. Booker took the grapevine seriously. He also had spies among ‘important’ white folks, who found black servants fashionable, and generally spoke in front of them, as if they were not there. Their gossip would filter back to Booker. He controlled much of the Negro press, and had an elaborate propaganda machine.
Is Booker the ‘perfect Negro Prince’? The short answer is no. For the simple reason that he didn’t lead the black Revolution. But here Booker is also the victim of circumstance, of bad luck. The political window for such a revolution opened much wider after World War II, when decolonization from European Imperialism spread across the ‘colored nations’ of the earth. Consequently, Booker never had the same opportunity to be ‘battle-tested’ as a ‘war leader’ as did MLK. So we will never know for certain his capacity in this regard. Still, there will always be the question:
“Isn’t there something more Booker could have done to free black people?”
Let me suggest why Booker may have been successful had he the same favorable conditions as MLK. He had extraordinary skills: political, oratorical, and managerial. He had the well-oiled Tuskegee machine. He had absolute power in the South. Look at the post-War conditions: the support of the Eastern Establishment. The support of the national media, especially television. The support of President Johnson, perhaps the most effective legislator to ever sit in the White House. None of this support existed for such a Revolutionary movement in Booker’s time. Mohandes Ghandi’s historical example did not exist. The Tuskegee machine could have been retooled to lead the non-violent black Revolution in the South, given Mohandes Ghandi’s successful example, doctrine, and methods. Just as a car factory is retooled to produce toaster ovens or vacuum cleaners.
Of course, this is just speculation.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Negro Leader as Christian Populist
MLK actually united the black South and successfully led the black Revolution to overthrow the Jim Crow regime. Is MLK the ‘perfect Negro Prince’? The short answer is no. Like Winston Churchill, MLK was a great ‘wartime leader’, but a flawed ‘peacetime Prince’. Like Booker, he operates strictly under the constraints of Christian non-violence to achieve his ends, but lacks Booker’s political genius and ruthlessness. Booker uses both love and fear to acquire and maintain power as needed, with great alacrity, and relies on the respect he has earned from his good works. MLK uses only love, and also relies on the respect he has earned from his good works.
Consequently, after the Civil Rights Revolution, MLK is unable, unwilling, or simply uninterested in consolidating power, in order to maintain unity of purpose throughout the black ‘nation within a nation’, in the manner that Booker did. MLK can only maintain unity during wartime conditions. Once the war is won, the Movement splinters. There is no program. There is no well-defined purpose. This is the greatness of Booker’s achievement: that during ‘peacetime’, without a well-defined ‘political war’ like the Civil Rights
Movement, he was able to unite much of black America under a single purpose, vision, and program for decades. Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. Elites and masses.
That is unprecedented.
Why was Booker successful? Besides everything we have discussed, Booker de-emphasized ‘radical politics’. He made the right set of political alliances. The ‘radical King’ and the Black Panthers were under the illusion that they could advance their agenda successfully, while at the same time making radical attacks on the ‘Eastern Establishment’, the American President, the American capitalist system, American Foreign Policy, etal. They allied themselves with white radicals for this purpose. They were not only deeply mistaken, but in words of Sun Tzu: ‘lost the battle before it was even fought’.
Booker had a better estimate of the limits of black political power, divorced from ‘powerful friends’. Did the great success of the Civil Rights Movement color MLK’s vision, and make him overestimate his power to make progress with his agenda without his ‘powerful friends’? Who knows? Did he really believe he would be capable of achieving anything meaningful after coming out against the Vietnam War, a move that LBJ viewed as abject betrayal? King was finished and he didn’t even know it.
Who’s the GOAT?
Looking at the evidence, it would appear that while MLK is the great wartime leader, Booker is undoubtedly the superior peacetime Prince. Black America has never had a ‘perfect Prince’ in Machiavelli’s sense of the term, a great ‘wartime’ and great ‘peacetime’ leader.
There does tend to be a bias in favor of great wartime leaders over great peacetime leaders, if the adoring public must choose between them. This has been true since the days of The Iliad and beyond. The people tend to retain an enduring love for great wartime leaders in a way that they don’t for leaders who did not lead them to victory in a great war. Even if their peacetime achievements were extraordinary. Look at Winston Churchill, who was a deeply flawed peacetime leader, but is today popularly considered the greatest Englishman of all time, because he led the UK to victory in their last great war.
And of course, MLK died for the cause. He was assassinated. Consequently, MLK will likely always be more celebrated than Booker.
He’s a war hero and a black Saint.