Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

Youth Rally for Race Unity (New York)

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Youth Rally for Race Unity (New York): Locke was a complex man. He was predictable in some ways. In other ways he was not. After effectively having resigned from the Washington Bahá’í community in all but name only, is it surprising to see Locke participating in a Bahá’í event once again? It is surprising if one assumes that Locke was alienated from the Bahá’í Faith in a wholesale way, and his involvement in the youth rally would certainly contradict that thesis. But his estrangement was really directed towards the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community. If possible to draw a distinction between the terms “alienation” and “estrangement” for the purposes of this study, it would be one of degree. “Alienation” is too strong a term, implying repugnance. This was simply not the case at all. “Estrangement” connotes something less—more on the order of a certain strain in a relationship, a lack of harmony for some personal reason or other.

This paradox of activity versus inactivity may partly be resolved by the fact that Locke was more inclined to make appearances in the Bahá’í community of his other home—New York. One can call this a pattern of selective engagement. Locke’s sudden reappearance at a public Bahá’í event would take place during the series of events leading up to Bahá’í Centenary (1944), marking the hundredth anniversary of the inception of Bahá’í history—which traces back to the Declaration of the Báb on 22 May 1844. Locke’s speaking engagement took place on 24 October 1943. Two individuals seem to have been instrumental in persuading Locke to accept this invitation to speak to youth. In a letter dated 11 October 1943 to Locke, Robert Gulick, a Bahá’í academic, wrote: “I understand from Miss Juliet Thompson that you are going to speak at the Bahá’í center on the afternoon of October 24th. You will recall my conversation with you concerning the Youth Rally for Race Unity to precede the other meeting. We have changed the date of the Rally to coincide with the time of your coming. We trust that you will find it possible to appear at the Rally at 2:30 P. M., October 24th.”641

Bahá’ís who knew Locke were quite aware of his busy schedule. On this and on other occasions as well, organizers of Bahá’í events were willing to the change dates of those events if that would ensure Locke’s acceptance of their invitation. This shows how much Locke was valued as a Bahá’í speaker. On 21 Oct 1943, Bahá’í artist Juliet Thompson, whom Gulick mentioned, sent the following telegram:




This is a significant event at this stage in Locke’s Bahá’í career. Just as he enjoyed the company of artists, Locke found immense value in relating to youth and in serving as their mentor. During his tenure on the several national amity committees, Locke stressed the importance of youth in the cause of racial reconciliation. In its wisdom, and true to Bahá’í priorities, the National Spiritual Assembly called for a focus on the theme of race unity during the months of September and October 1943, as part of the Centenary. It was only natural that the Bahá’ís of New York would invite Alain Locke to speak on that topic. Of this event, Louis Gregory, in his annual report, states: “[New York] Guest speakers of different races took part in the Sunday afternoon public meeting during the two-month period, including Dr. Alain Locke of Howard University. […] On October 24 a Youth Rally was held, with talks by Dr. Allan [sic] Locke and Dr. H. A. Overstreet of the College of the City of New York on unity between the white and Negro races […].”643 No other information on the event is available from published Bahá’í sources. But Juliet Thompson registers her personal appreciation of Locke’s visit. In her follow-up letter, dated 26 Oct. 1943, Juliet Thompson had nothing but praise for Locke’s interaction with the Bahá’í youth. She exclaimed:
Dear Dr. Locke

Your note did come Monday morning! The mails are so slow these days.

I am writing now to thank you with all my heart for what you did for us Sunday. The whole day was wonderful for me! The great service you rendered the Cause, your so very fine addresses and our talks at table when, in the midst of a crazy world, I found myself so eased by your clarity, all meant more to me than I can say, and I was so happy that when [?] the night was over I wrote to the Guardian about it. Such things cheer him, laboring as he does, under heavy burdens.

Miss Austin’s address is: 143 W. North St. N. W. Madame Dreyfus–Barney is at the Shoreham. [?]

Hoping to see you soon again in New York, and with best regards from Mrs. [?]

Most sincerely

Juliet Thompson

48 W. 10 St.

Oct. 26
I was right when you spoke, at the Youth Rally, of the need to realize that this Cause is essentially universal and so—for all.644
What happened here? Why the change of heart? Was Locke simply rising to the occasion? How genuine was his message that “this Cause [the Bahá’í Faith] is essentially universal and so—for all”? It was probably quite heartfelt and genuine. Locke passed the test of authenticity. His work with the youth was a success. The occasion marked the beginning of Locke’s reconciliation with the Bahá’í Faith. In so saying, there is no reconciliation with the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community as such. On this account, the pattern is clear: Once again, Locke would participate in a Bahá’í event in New York, rather than in Washington, D.C.

On the Same Speaker Platform with Bahá’ís: On 28 November 1943, Locke lectured on “The Background of Negro Culture” in the New York Theosophical Society’s “Sunday Public Lectures” series. On the very same printed program, for the Sunday lecture two weeks prior (14 Nov. 1943), Bahá’í diplomat Ali Kuli Khan was scheduled to speak on “The Bahai [sic] Faith and Its Relation to World Culture.” Khan is introduced as “former Persian Envoy to the United States, now President of the [New York] Bahai Council.” This shows that Locke was certainly not averse to publicly appearing in association with the Bahá’ís.

Although Locke always had many speaking engagements, demand for his lectures seems to have increased in the course of this year. As would be expected, he had a crowded schedule. A few examples of his speaking engagements will suffice to illustrate this point. On 19 April 1944, Locke addressed the Rochester Young Women’s Christian Association on “The Negro’s Contribution to American Culture.” On 27–28 May 1944, Locke expatiated on “The Teaching of Dogmatic Religion in a Democratic Society” for the Society for Ethical Culture’s Conference on the Scientific Spirit and Democratic Faith in New York. During June 19–21, Locke presented three lectures at the Institute of International Relations at Mills College in Oakland, California: (1) “Race in the Present World Crisis”; (2) “Race: American Paradox and Dilemma”; and (3) Moral Imperatives for World Order” as well as in Leonard Harris’ excellent anthology, The Philosophy of Alain Locke. This latter talk, which will be discussed below, has now been published on the World Wide Web.645 On 24 June 1944, Locke gave a public lecture on “The Predicament of Minorities” Institute of International Relations, Seattle. On 25 June 1944, Locke gave the sermon for that Sunday at the First Methodist Church, Mount Vernon, Washington. On 26 June 1944, Locke lectured on “A Philosophy of Human Brotherhood,” again at the Institute of International Relations in Seattle. A month later, on 30 July 1944, Locke presented a talk on “Fraternity and Democracy” in the Church of All Nations in Los Angeles.

Promoting a Wider Democracy: During this period, Locke intensified his campaign to link race relations and democracy for the benefit of his country and a wider audience. To a limited extent, he also became a political activist while maintaining his neutrality as an independent. Recalling that, in November 1942, Locke had edited a special issue of the Survey Graphic on Color: Unfinished Business of Democracy, Locke was interviewed about this special issue on the air. In a CBS radio program, “Woman’s Page of the Air,” broadcast from station KMYR in Denver on 6 August 1944 while World War II was in full furor, host Adelaide Hawley asked: “And you called in a staff of specialist consultants to work with you on the special ‘Color’ edition of the Survey Graphic, didn’t you, Professor Locke?” To which Locke replied: Yes, including such writers as Pearl Buck, Herbert Agar and Lin Yutang.” In response to the question as to what was meant by the “unfinished business of democracy,” Locke said: “Just as the foundation of democracy as a national principle made necessary the declaration of the basic equality of persons, so the founding of international democracy must guarantee the basic equality of human groups.”646

In response to the question, “And what do you think is America’s role in the NEW democracy?” Locke said: “Today we are, it would seem, on the swing back to a wider democracy. We have recanted our isolationism of 1919. We have instituted the ‘good neighbor’ policy—we had ‘lend-lease’ before our formal entry into the war. Moreover, the United States with its composite sampling of all human races and peoples, is by way of becoming almost a United Nations by herself.”647 In reciting this sociological fact, Locke noted that democracy itself was “on trial” and that “winning democracy for the Negro means winning the war for democracy.”648 This was a clear adaptation of America’s World War II rhetoric to the race war at home.

At the Fourth Summer School Convocation of the Hampton Institute, Locke gave the plenary “Address” on 18 August 1944. On 11 Sept. 1943, in the Fourth Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life (Columbia University), Locke presented a paper in the session, “Philosophical Ideas and Enduring Peace.” In a letter dated 15 November 1944, John H. Sengstacke, chairman of the National Non-Partisan League thanked Locke for “your service as a member of our National Board.”649 On 17 December 1944, Locke spoke on “Democracy and Christianity” at the Community Church of Summit, New Jersey (Unitarian). It seemed that Locke could relate democracy (and race relations) to just about everything that was happening in America. Whoever the audience and whatever the venue, Locke could adapt his lectures to fit particular occasions and to address vested interests. As a champion of a wider concept of democracy, Locke was truly a man for all occasions. The sheer sweep of his audiences and events is impressive. Not only was he a man for all occasions for all seasons, Locke took every opportunity to reeducate his audiences in familiar—yet foreign—principles of democracy.

Tracking themes in Locke’s talks can give insight into the deeper structure of his thought. If one were to ask: What was Locke focusing on during this time of his life? What were his priorities? What did he want his audiences to think about? Is it productive to compare the topics of his professional lectures with his talks in Bahá’í-sponsored events? These would not be moot questions in the least, for the simple reason that, from time to time, Locke would continue to speak at certain Bahá’í functions. For it may be safe to say that Locke’s philosophy of cultural pluralism was sacralized by Bahá’í universalism, and his Bahá’í universalism was doubtless influenced by his philosophy. Thematically, the topics on which he spoke in Bahá’í-sponsored events compare quite favorably to the subjects of his other numerous lectures and articles. A synopsis of all these topics shows the threads that run throughout his lectures: linkages between democracy, race and religion.

Symmetry Between Professional and Bahá’í Discourses: Locke continued to be in great demand as a public speaker. His schedule appeared to be fully booked. True to form, his themes are familiar now, but must have been fairly new for audiences previously unacquainted with him. In the aristocratic ambience of hotel ballrooms and suites, Locke never relented in his mission to speak to the conscience of people of capacity as well as to Americans across the nation. One event this year seems to have stood out. For some reason, Locke kept three copies of the program announcing his 31 July 1944 luncheon lecture, “Race in the Present World Crisis,” held in the Music Room of the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel. The event was hosted by a citizen-based, non-political, non-profit organization called Town Hall, that held forums on issues affecting public policy. The 24 July 1944 newsletter, Town Hall, introduced Locke’s forthcoming lecture as follows:
While the preparatory phases of the present war [World War II] were featured by the preachers of false racist theories, the reconstruction period following the war will present very real racial problems. When the Nazi “Aryan supermen” and the Japanese jingoists have been utterly defeated, the world will be faced with the many questions surrounding the relations between White nations and non-White colonial peoples, between White majorities and non-White minorities within the same national boundaries.650
The copy for this advance notice appears to have been written by Locke himself. It illustrates the analogous connections he was able to make between foreign and domestic racist ideologies. In a similar vein, on 25 Nov. 1925, Locke presided as chairman in the seventh general session during the twenty-fourth annual meeting of the National Council for the Social Sciences. The theme was the “Broader Realization of Democratic Values.” This is hardly surprising. Locke was pro-democracy to an almost religious degree. But democracy in America had serious flaws. In was circumscribed. It needed to be more inclusive. Democracy had its victims. Issues of race, class and gender still needed to be worked out in America. At this and in practically every one of his lectures to predominantly white or mixed as well as black audiences, Locke focused on the relationship between democracy and race.

At the height of his professional career as a public intellectual, it is not surprising that Locke’s contribution to his religion would be registered in print rather than in person. If our sources of information on Locke’s Bahá’í activities were restricted to Washington, D.C., we would find only the record of Locke’s name as it appears on its Bahá’í membership list for 1944.651 Relative to that community, he was an inactive Bahá’í—an “isolated believer” as he characterized himself. Happily, this was a year in which Locke would make a significant contribution as a Bahá’í writer. The reader will also be interested to know that often there was a close thematic correlation between Locke’s speeches and essays as a Bahá’í and the far more numerous lectures and articles he published as a philosopher.

Woodrow Wilson Memorial: In one Bahá’í-related context that year, Locke was asked to send a message on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the passing of Woodrow Wilson (New York). In a letter dated 28 January 1944, Robert Gulick made this request:
Dear Alain Locke:
February 3rd, 1944 will mark the 20th anniversary of the passing of Woodrow Wilson. As you will note from the enclosure, the NY Bahá’ís are commemorating the event. Shoghi Effendi sent a special cablegram stating, “Greatly pleased associate myself […]”

Pres. Seymour of Yale, Jan Masaryk, Sir Norman Angell & others have sent special tributes. We should be grateful if you would send a brief message to be read on the occasion, mentioning Wilson’s pioneer efforts for international organization to abolish war and commending the NY Bahá’ís for remembering his services. Apparently, this will be the only commemoration in New York! Please send your message to Hon. William Copeland Dodge, Chairman, 9 East 40th St., New York 18, N.Y.

Warm personal wishes and the hope that you may again visit New York in the near future.
Robert Gulick652
From Gulick’s next letter, we know that Locke did write and send the message as requested: “My dear Dr. Locke: I was in Washington last night and I am attempting to write this note on the return train. I tried a number of times to reach you by telephone. It was good of you to send the message for the Wilson meeting which, by the way, was a great success.”653

The Threat of Covenant-Breakers: Gulick’s letter to Locke ended on a sombre note: “The New History outfit is planning a centennial pageant. By hook or crook they have got together a more or less imposing advisory committee, a number of whose members know nothing of Ahmad’s [Mirza Sohrab Ahmad] seamy past or unscrupulous methods. I note the name of William Pickens of the NAACP on the list. Do you know him and could you disillusion him about Ahmad Sohrab?”654 Without getting sidetracked on the issue of Covenant-Breakers, suffice it to say that Locke was apprised of the problem. There is no evidence that he himself was approached or swayed by these renegade Bahá’ís.

Invitation from Shoghi Effendi: Meanwhile, the Guardian had not forgotten about Locke, either. On 17 January 1944, he sent this Western Union cablegram to Locke: “WOULD GREATLY APPRECIATE ARTICLE FROM YOUR PEN ON ANY ASPECT FAITH FOR CENTENARY ISSUE BAHÁ’Í WORLD VOLUME NINE LOVING GREETINGS SHOGHI RABBANI.”655 The fact that Shoghi Effendi personally solicited this essay from Locke attests to the high regard the Guardian continued to have for Locke.

Locke received a follow-up letter, dated 1 Feb. 1944, from the National Spiritual Assembly. Writing on its behalf, National Spiritual Assembly secretary Horace Holley wrote: “We are delighted to learn that the Guardian has cabled you asking for an article to use in Volume 9 of THE BAHÁ’Í WORLD.” After clarifying which committee would be handling the editorial work, Holley concludes his letter so: “The Guardian is being notified of your acceptance.”656 Shortly after, on Feb. 3rd, Mabel Paine, secretary on behalf of The Bahá’í World Editorial Committee, stated: “Through Mr. Holley, we have learned of the Guardian’s cable to you […] and of your wishing to know when the article must be received.” The letter ends with the answer that “We […] would be glad to have your article sent to us within two weeks, but if this would prove difficult for you we can set March 1 as a dead line [sic]”.657 From a handwritten note dated 4 March 1944, we know that Locke did meet the deadline. But, in his haste to submit his manuscript on time, he had neglected to give it a title: “Dear Dr. Locke: Could you send us a title for your article? I’m sure your title would be better than one we might invent.”658 In what appears to be Locke’s own writing on Paine’s note, a provisional title is written: “The Lessons of World Crisis.” This title later was revised as “Lessons in World Crisis.”

Moral Imperatives for World Order: As mentioned above, on Wednesday evening, June 21st, Locke spoke on “The Moral Imperatives for World Order”659 at the Institute of International Relations in Mills College, Oakland. Based on rough notes published as an informative abstract, Locke began by saying that realism and idealism should be combined in trying to achieve a world order. While existing loyalties were necessary and served to unite groups of people, such loyalties were limited in scope and “hopelessly inadequate as a foundation for a larger society.” Traditionally, these foundational loyalties concerned nation, race and religion. These larger loyalties, however, became seeds of conflict and division, even though such loyalties were originally meant to bring people together. The present world crisis (during World War II), Locke argued, demands a more comprehensive framework.

But how can people expect to give them up? One way of giving up something that is vital is to “find a way to transform or enlarge it.” National sovereignty, for instance, is purely arbitrary, even though historically grounded. If we are to resolve conflicts that flare up when nationalisms collide, “we must work for enlargement of all our loyalties.” This is all part and parcel of an ongoing process of social evolution by progressive enlargement of values that advances in stages throughout human history. Racial solidarity must not assert itself over others as superior, but as part of a confraternity, where parity of races and cultures becomes the new ideal. As a methodology for understanding and resolving conflicting religious truth-claims, Locke applies the critical relativism he had proposed in his philosophical essays as a viable strategy:

We must in the third place consider religion as having many ways leading to salvation. The idea that there is only one true way of salvation with all other ways leading to damnation is a tragic limitation to Christianity, which professes the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. How foolish in the eyes of foreigners are our competitive blind, sectarian missionaries! If the Confucian expression of a Commandment means the same as the Christian expression, then it is the truth also and should so be recognized. It is in this way alone that Christianity or any other enlightened religion can vindicate its claims to Universality; and so bring about moral and spiritual brotherhood. (PAL 152).

Locke concluded his talk by recapitulating his thesis: “The moral imperatives of a new world order are an internationally limited idea of national sovereignty, a non-monopolistic and culturally tolerant concept of race and religious loyalties freed of sectarian bigotry” (PAL 152).


In 1945, Locke was elected president of the American Association for Adult Education, as the first black president of a predominantly white institution. Had he no other credit to his name or claim to fame for this year, this singular achievement would alone suffice. Since more and more of his time would be taken as a national educational leader, Locke could hardly have been expected to devote much time to other commitments, including Bahá’í activities. As before, Locke’s name appears on the annual Washington, D.C. Bahá’í membership list (for 1945).660 His relative unavailability notwithstanding, Locke still found time to contribute something significant to further the interests of the Bahá’í Faith. His primary Bahá’í contribution this year would be at the international level.

Lessons in World Crisis”: In faithful response to Shoghi Effendi’s request, Locke wrote his final Bahá’í essay, “Lessons in World Crisis” published in The Bahá’í World for 1940–1944.661 This essay is discussed at some length in the chapter on Locke’s Bahá’í essays.

University of Wisconsin: During the 1945–1946 academic year, Locke was a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin. One of Locke’s former students at Wisconsin, Beth Singer, described her professor as follows: “Locke was a quiet, extremely scholarly, and well organized lecturer; I do not recall his speaking from notes.”662 After mentioning the fact that Locke was a Bahá’í, Singer recalls that “Dr. Locke seemed somehow aloof, and my friends and I were pretty much in awe of him.”663 Of his experience there, Locke, in a letter dated 8 March 1946 to his long-time friend Horace Kallen, wrote: “And I am delighted to tell you that things continue to go well out here at Madison. […] The contrast both in student reaction, colleague’s [sic] friendliness, and of course, administrative attitude[,] has been damning in Howard’s disfavor.”664 As to his teaching responsibilities, Locke states: “Ironically I am having the best philosophical time of my life, and it may rejuvenate my mind; here’s hoping.”665

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