Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

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National Inter-Racial Amity Committee: The special Committee on Racial Amity that the National Spiritual Assembly had invited to meet in Washington, D.C., on 8 January 1927, to consult and make recommendations, was an ad hoc committee that met for one and only one session. One of its prime recommendations was that the national council appoint a national committee on race relations. The National Spiritual Assembly acted on this advice. On 14 January 1927, the following members were appointed to National Inter-Racial Amity Committee: Agnes Parsons (“Chairman”), Louis Gregory (Executive Secretary), Louise Boyle, Mariam Haney, Coralie Cook, Dr. Zia M. Bagdadi, Dr. Alain Locke.444 Not counting the ad hoc committee, this was Locke’s third appointment. In a letter dated 10 July 1927 to Agnes Parsons, Gregory lists the new Amity Committee members as: Mrs. A. S. Parsons, chairman; Mrs. C. F. Cook, vice chairman; Louis G. Gregory, executive secretary; Dr. Zia M. Bagdadi; Dr. Alain L. Locke; Miss Elizabeth G. Hopper; Miss Isabel Ives. Gregory adds: “Any departure from the above is only a clerical error. Unless some of those appointed have declined to serve, the committee stands as above.”445 Notwithstanding, the judicious appointment of a committee does not assure its proper functioning. The “chemistry” of interactions has to be right. Conflict can be any committee’s undoing, undermining its purpose and paralyzing its work. This year, the committee was faced with internal problems of its own. There was yet a further obstacle to the race amity efforts—its eclipse by the “World Unity” initiative.

The Eclipse of Racial Amity By World Unity: In November 1926, in an effort to stimulate teaching, the National Spiritual Assembly announced its “World Unity” initiative. This program was relatively short-lived and less successful. The focus was somewhat diffuse, and the teaching tended to be more of the “indirect” type. In fact, the conferences did not necessarily connect the concept of world unity with Bahá’í teachings. This, in itself, disturbed a number of Bahá’ís, who favored a direct teaching over the indirect approach. The several events that were staged failed to attract significant numbers of seekers. In fairness, some of the conferences were of a sufficiently high profile to redound to the prestige of the Faith. They created a favorable impression of the Faith in intellectual circles and among liberal-minded people. While well intentioned, this conferences diverted attention away from the race amity work, which stood in danger of being marginalized or even forgotten. Louis Gregory kept the issue alive.446 At last, on 23 October 1927, the National Assembly voted to sever its “official connection” with the world unity conferences.447

The four-day Dayton World Unity Conference was held in 13–16 January 1927. Despite the fact that the Inter-Racial Amity Committee was national in scope, a number of amity events were organized and held by other planning committees. In some cases, an event that did not have race amity as its main focus could still have an amity component. The Dayton conference is a prime instance of this. While not a race amity convention in its own right, Louis Gregory made a compelling case that world unity could not exist without interracial unity. The former depended on the latter. Concerned over the National Spiritual Assembly’s priority on world unity conferences at the expense of race amity, Gregory proposed that race at least be integrated within the program itself: “if there are three sessions to consider world unity,” he advised, devote one to international unity, another to religious unity and the third to inter-racial unity.”448 The National Assembly took Gregory’s recommendation under advisement, and implemented it. Meanwhile, there was trouble within the amity committee itself.

Clash Within the Committee: By personal inclination, Agnes Parsons would never have engaged in race relations work had it not been for her adherence to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s wishes and her faithful execution of them. She exhibited a strange combination of the progressive reformer and the social conservative. Perhaps this is not so strange at all if one considers that she was endeavoring to carry out the wishes of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, but had to deal with her old social habits. Despite the fact that she spearheaded the first Bahá’í race amity efforts, which was a radical move for any wealthy, white socialite by any standard of that day and age, Agnes Parsons remained socially conservative at heart, with a distinct preference for gradualism. This created problems for the committee on which she served as chair. Simply put, “she found herself stunned by the committee’s ambitions.”449 The crux of the problem was this: Agnes Parsons favored an “indirect” strategy over direct teaching, whereas “the amity committee was interested only in a more directly Bahá’í approach.”450 While she held to racial amity in principle, she did not fully make the necessary connection between spiritual equality and social equality.451

The clash of views was epitomized in the contrast between Agnes Parsons and Louise Boyle, each of whom wrote to National Spiritual Assembly secretary Horace Holley to apprise him of the problem. Morrison discusses both letters: Parsons letter, dated 2 February 1927, to Holley, as well as Louise Boyle’s letter of 1 February to the same.452 For these two letters to have been written at virtually the same time points to a clash of some magnitude. Parsons advocated proceeding with caution, “before we, as Bahais, plunge into experiments.” In contrast, Boyle objected to “Mrs. P’s conservatism in the Race question.” Boyle characterized Parsons’ attitude at “paternalistic.”453 No doubt due to Louis Gregory’s gift as a peacemaker, the committee continued to function. It resolved its internal problems. Measured by its achievements this year, the committee was successful. On balance, history will judge Agnes Parsons as a champion of racial harmony, her gradualism notwithstanding.

Shoghi Effendi’s Praise of Committee’s Message to North American Bahá’ís: Although such a practice is now quite rare, occasionally an open letter on behalf of a national committee would be published to inspire Bahá’ís to lend their support for a particular priority that affected the community at large. Race relations has almost always been at the top of the national Bahá’í agenda. The National Committee on Inter–Racial Unity wrote a circular letter, dated 23 February 1927, to the National Spiritual Assembly and all Local Spiritual Assemblies of the United States and Canada. Louis Gregory, writing on behalf of this committee on which Locke served, stressed the importance of race relations work and warranted its importance in statements made by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi.454 The letter also announced a forthcoming compilation on race relations that its members had assembled under the committee’s auspices as part of its mandate.455

Comparatively speaking, this was a remarkable document. It contained seven specific recommendations: (1) “All the friends who at any time have received Tablets or Instructions from ‘Abdu’l-Baha or letters from Shoghi Effendi regarding race relations in America should send well authenticated copies to the secretary of the Committee”456 [Louis Gregory], to guide the committee in its consultations and to provide material for a Bahá’í compilation on race relations, for use as a resource. (This was one of the committee’s mandates, set by the National Spiritual Assembly.) After the manuscript passed the National Reviewing Committee, the next step would be: (2) “The compilation on race relations, when completed, should be read by all the workers in the Cause and given wide circulation.”457 There was a second part to this recommendation: “The plan, programs and addresses of the five Amity Conventions already held, as far as possible, should be studied as suggestions for new efforts.”458 Does not this recommendation presuppose the existence of transcripts of these talks, including those given by Locke?

The next recommendation concerns youth: (3) Here, Bahá’ís are encouraged to focus on the “youth of America” who are “a fertile field.” “The Baha’i teachings on the harmony of races,” the letter continues to say, “have also been favorably received by many college students. Those studying sociology, with their professors, are most readily approached.”459 This recommendation, in particular, appears to be Locke’s. He was partial to youth, and, as a cultural pluralist, viewed recent developments in the social sciences as the most promising secular resource for furthering ideal race relations. After pointing out that a number of race relations organizations have already been formed outside the Baha’i context, the fourth recommendation goes on to state: (4) […] The Baha’i teachings should be brought to the attention of such [non-Bahá’í] committees and organizations” and that Bahá’ís should foster “[c]onsultation about race adjustments and how to right specific wrongs […]”460 This call for racial justice and specific redress of wrongs is remarkable in itself. No information has come to light as to how this recommendation may have been implemented, if indeed it was.

The final three recommendations were that (5) “Each Assembly should appoint a local inter-racial amity committee […]” that would serve as “an adjunct of the National Committee on Inter-Racial Amity.”461 “In arranging programs,” the letter further advises, “it should invite Baha’is and outside speakers also, provided the latter are friendly to the Cause [Bahá’í Faith] and are willing to speak in accordance with its universal principles.”462 The presiding “Chairman of each session and at least one speaker at each Amity Convention should be trained in the Baha’i Cause.”463 This had consistently been the practice in the past five conventions. Had no Bahá’í Historical Record card been discovered, Locke’s status as a recognized Bahá’í would date at least as far back as 1921, deduced from the fact that he chaired a session during the first amity convention. The next recommendation (6) encourages Bahá’ís to acquaint other race relations organizations with Bahá’í principles, and be ready to give out Bahá’í literature on request. Finally, (7) is a polite disclaimer, stating that these recommendations were simply offered as advice, and that no Bahá’í should interpret these as mandatory.

This report struck Shoghi Effendi much and was praised by him in a message that would impact the committee itself:
I have […] received and read with the keenest interest and appreciation a copy of that splendid document formulated by the National Committee on inter-racial amity. […] This moving appeal, so admirable in its conception, so sound and sober in its language, has struck a responsive chord in my heart. Sent forth at a highly opportune moment in the evolution of our sacred Faith, it has served as a potent reminder of these challenging issues which still confront in a peculiar manner the American believers.464
Whenever Shoghi Effendi praised anything, the Bahá’ís took such approval seriously. This ringing endorsement of the National Committee on Inter–Racial Unity by the Guardian was crucial to the committee’s very survival, largely through the public Bahá’í perception of its sustained relevance. Morrison’s assessment puts this clear perspective: “The amity committee’s continued existence was ultimately assured less by its own initial achievements, however, than by Shoghi Effendi’s direct intervention.465 Like race relations work generally, the committee led a sometimes precarious existence. Shoghi Effendi’s message went far towards sustaining support for the committee and its important work.

The New Haven World Unity Conference: At heart, the Bahá’í Faith is a gospel of unity. Its ultimate social mission is to bring about world unity. Since this is such an all-encompassing goal, it would make perfect sense for Bahá’í institutions to look to this single objective as sufficient unto itself. The problem is how to get from here to there. In the Bahá’í vision of social evolution, there is a two-stage process of transformation that the world must undergo: the “Great Peace” and the “Most Great Peace.” Bahá’ís are far more familiar with the “Lesser Peace” as the equivalent of the “Great Peace,” although Bahá’u’lláh uses both. (The “Great Peace” is to be found in the Tablet of Maqßúd, for instance.) The Lesser Peace is on the immediate horizon. Some of its distinctive features are envisioned in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s “Tablet” known as the “Seven Candles of Unity.” The “unity of races” is one of them. Bahá’ís who were committed to the ideal of racial harmony, like Louis Gregory and Alain Locke, also believed in the more distant vision of the Most Great Peace. But the immediate task at hand was to effect the type of unity that America most desperately needed.

Louis Gregory was able to persuade the National Assembly that race amity should be regarded as an essential component of world unity. As mentioned, his paradigm was as simple as it was profound: World unity encompasses three major types of unity: (1) international unity; (2) religious unity; and (3) inter-racial unity.466 Despite the fact that the national agenda had shifted focus to the ideal of “world unity” (effectively marginalizing “race amity”), Alain Locke, in his own way as well, was able to further the cause of race unity even within the context of the world unity initiative. Locke’s strategy was to subsume race relations under the broader rubric of cultural pluralism, which is the secular equivalent, in many ways, to the Bahá’í ideal of world unity.

Part of the credit for keeping the torch of race amity light was the National Assembly itself, assuming that Horace Holley was acting on its behalf. Holley invited Locke to speak at the World Unity Conference, on 27 March 1927, in New Haven, Connecticut.467 In a handwritten letter dated 17 March 1927 on letterhead (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada) and addressed to Locke, Horace Holley wrote:
Dear Alain:
We are most anxious to have you give your talk on Cultural Reciprocity at the World Unity Conference to be held Sunday, March 27, 3:30 P.M., in the Hotel Taft, New Haven. Herbert Adams Gibbons of Princeton is the other speaker, and the program is a brilliant galaxy!

I sent you a night letter last night but the Western Union reported this A.M. that the message was not delivered as you are out of town. Please wire me your acceptance collect. We can offer expenses and $25.

Locke did accept. He must have done so almost immediately. Holley acknowledged Locke’s acceptance in a letter dated March 20th: “Your wire of acceptance from Philadelphia is most pleasing. We included your name on the New Haven program, as you see, even before I heard from you, because we were so anxious to have you speak.”469 The only record of his speech is a one-page manuscript, which appears to be a compressed version of the speech itself. The style is denser than usual for Locke, suggestive of a prepared text on which Locke would extemporaneously elaborate. While there is no way to know for certain if this was really the text of his speech, there is a strong likelihood that it was, for there is no other lecture or publication of Locke’s that corresponds to this title. “Cultural Reciprocity” reads as follows:
Our practical problem of achieving world unity is not one of welding nationalities and races into some great confederation but one of discovering a spiritual unity for broader human understanding. The World War multiplied the family of nations and confronts us the [sic; read with] the problem of how the big nations can learn to respect the rights of little nations and how domineering majorities can reconcile themselves with insurgent minorities. We have in this situation either the seeds of the downfall of the civilization or the roots of an entirely new world order. The brotherhood of man which is an ideal the ethical religions have asserted for ages past must be worked out in a real fraternity of spirit among the various races, nations and classes of our discordant world. We must somehow find a common denominator for humanity.

Cultural reciprocity which at bottom is a renunciation of our Western bigotry of civilization must be developed and put into practise. Our understanding with an insurgent East and a sullen Africa, a revolutionary proletariat all depend on a change of spiritual values in a world view in which this bigotry is renounced. The Black, Yellow and Red perils are all products of our own bad social conscience, nightmares of imperialistic exploitation, oppression, and arrogance. To abandon the implied insult to our narrow views of civilization will do more for the future peace of the world than any indemnity for our past injuries of commercial and political exploitation. This only a few enlightened minds and souls realize with conviction. They are, however, the prophets of the new society. Upon the success of their vision rests the future of Western and especially Anglo-Saxon civilization. In terms of this and this only can the apparent irreconcilables, the East and the West, the Black Man, the White Man and the Yellow Man be led to mutual self-respect and understanding. Without a universal scale of values no universality is possible. Without a reciprocity of culture no unity for humanity.

In no other text by a Bahá’í, except for the authoritative writings of Shoghi Effendi and, to a lesser extent, those of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Bahá’u’lláh, can such a forthright critique of the West be found. Locke’s message, that the consequences of imperialism and colonialism have come back to haunt and threaten the West, brings the audience face to face with a real and present danger. Perhaps a Marxist could have said the same thing. But Locke’s message goes well beyond critique. After framing the problem, he focuses on the solution: “a universal scale of values.” As a value theorist, of course, Locke might be expected to discourse on values. Observe how adroitly he connects values with social issues. Note also how Locke’s perspective on race relations is internationalized. With synthetic power and crystal clarity, Locke has synergized faith and philosophy to generate a message that universalizes the Bahá’í perspective.

Holley thanked Locke in a follow-up letter dated March 30th: “I regret having missed your talk, which the others enjoyed tremendously.”470 There is a reference further in the letter to “the young Baha’is of Portland, Oregon.” But it is not clear from the context as to whether Locke had visited that Bahá’í community or not. Holley wanted to publish Locke’s speech in a new, Bahá’í-sponsored magazine, World Unity, of which he was the editor-in-chief. In a letter dated 20 April 1927, on World Unity magazine letterhead, Holley wrote: “I hope that you will find it possible to work up into a magazine article your splendid talk on cultural reciprocity and send this to me before July first.”471 Judging from the fact that this solicited article was never published, it is safe to conclude that Locke never submitted his manuscript. Generally speaking, editors frequently solicited manuscripts from Locke, and he usually accommodated their requests. Why Locke did not do so in this case is not known. In support of the new publishing venture, however, Locke did lend his name as contributing editor, World Unity: A Monthly Magazine Interpreting the Spirit of the New Age (New York), the first issue of which was slated for October 1927.472

First 1927 Race Amity Convention in Washington, D.C.: Strange to say, but it would be nearly six and a half years before Washington, D.C. would host another Bahá’í race amity conference. Such an event was long overdue. And it would be the first since 1924 (Philadelphia). In 1927, Washington would hold two such conventions—one in April and the other in November. The April convention was the new amity committee’s first scheduled event. As a member of the committee, Locke would have been part of the planning process. The conference was so successful that it was decided another ought to be held later in the year.

National Inter-Racial Amity Committee Reappointment: For the 1927–1928 Bahá’í Year, Locke was again named to the National Inter-Racial Amity Committee. This was his fourth national committee appointment. Members included: Agnes S. Parsons, Chairperson; Mrs. Coralie F. Cook, Vice Chairperson; Louis G. Gregory, Executive Secretary; Dr. Zia M. Bagdadi, Dr. Alain L. Locke, Miss Elizabeth G. Hopper, Miss Isabel Rives (later spelled Rieves).473 Louis Gregory himself confirms this list is confirmed in a personal letter.474 No mention is made of Miss Hopper in the Nov. 27th issue of Bahá’í News Letter. According to Morrison, “Possibly she declined the appointment.”475 In December 1927, the membership consisted of Agnes Parsons, Louis Gregory, Dr. Zia M. Bagdadi, Dr. Alain Locke, and Mrs. Pauline Hannen,476 replacing Miss Rieves, who was traveling abroad.

Annual Souvenir: Much of the documentary information we have on Locke is fragmentary. They create an imperfect picture, with many of the pieces missing. The historian is constantly faced with interpretive dilemmas. A case in point is an instance in which Locke was invited to speak, but information is lacking as to whether he did or did not. In a letter dated 14 June 1927, on behalf of the West Englewood Bahá’í Assembly, Roy Wilhelm asked Locke to speak at an upcoming event less than two weeks away:
Dear Doctor Locke:
I wrote you ten days ago care of Mrs. Haney, expressing the hope that you might be in New York or vicinity or possibly traveling this way so that you could give a short address upon the occasion of the Commemoration of the Annual Souvenir, June 25th. Very probably this letter is still traveling around trying to locate you. This morning I have been so fortunate as to learn from Louis Gregory your former New York address and I am sending this letter trusting it may reach you.477
After mentioning who the other invited speakers were, Wilhelm states that “we are particularly anxious to hear […] Dr. Alain Locke”—stating his name and title, probably to emphasize how much they were counting on his presence at this event. Was Locke able to make this commitment on such short notice? Wilhelm closes with this open invitation: “At any later time you may be in this vicinity I wish you could give us an evening as we have a number of friends whom we want to hear your presentation of this Cause.”478 At this point in his Bahá’í career, his reputation preceded him, and there appears to have been a perception among Bahá’í organizers that the effort they expended in trying to get Locke as a speaker, despite his busy schedule, was well worth the time and trouble. The reader should also bear in mind that Locke’s crowded schedule as a public speaker was largely due to the fact that his speaking engagements were an added source of income for him, a species of “moonlighting,” as it were.

Bahá’í Reception of the The New Negro: Proportionally, how much of Locke’s time and energy was devoted to Bahá’í interests is difficult to assess. This probably fluctuated greatly, depending on a number of factors. These included his professional obligations, his many commitments to other organizations and their causes, his changing temperaments with regard to the Bahá’í Faith itself, and his personal social life. The historian must always keep this in perspective. Locke was not a full-time worker for the Faith, as was Louis Gregory, who for many years was an itinerant Bahá’í teacher and erstwhile administrator.

Locke’s greatest claim to fame was his involvement in the Harlem Renaissance. How would Bahá’ís react to it? Would they interpret Locke’s advocacy of “cultural racialism” in a positive light, as consonant with Bahá’í ideal of racial unity? It was probably necessary for Bahá’ís who appreciated what Locke was doing to put the Harlem Renaissance in its proper context. Gregory thought highly of Locke’s leadership role in the Harlem Renaissance, and doubtless communicated this to other Bahá’ís. In a typed letter dated 7 Sept. 1927 to Agnes Parsons, Gregory writes:

The book edited by Prof. Lock[e], “The New Negro”, is one that seems worthy of every library in the land, almost a revelation to those who have never considered the subject. Even as England for centuries made little progress in governing Ireland, until at last it began to consider “Irish ideas”, so I think that the American people on the whole will find much interest and not a little entertainment in studying the increasing literary output of the intelligentsia of the colored race. An understanding of the various viewpoints of our American life is much conducive to harmonious citizenship. The bearing of this upon worldpeace [sic] becomes increasingly clear. The increasing interest in race relations in all parts of the country is a very hopeful sign.479
This appreciation of the “New Negro” movement was expressed in an official Bahá’í publication as well. As mentioned above, the release of Locke’s anthology, The New Negro, was announced in the Bahá’í News.480
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