Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

A Result of Locke’s Pilgrimage to Haifa?

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A Result of Locke’s Pilgrimage to Haifa?: Obviously the highlight of this year and quite possibly the pinnacle of his entire Bahá’í experience was Locke’s first pilgrimage to Haifa. Following his pilgrimage in late November or early December, Shoghi Effendi wrote a letter dated 24 December 1923 to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Washington, D.C., in which he admonishes the Bahá’ís to banish every trace of prejudice from their midst. As this concerns Locke’s Bahá’í community in particular, it is worthwhile to reproduce the letter in full:
To the beloved of the Lord and the handmaids of the Merciful

in Washington, D. C., U. S. A.

Care of members of the Washington Spiritual Assembly
Beloved Friends!
May I, whilst awaiting with fresh hope the joyful tidings of the progress of your work, assure you, my dear friends, of my feelings of Admiration [sic] for, and unshaken confidence in, the unquenchable spirit of service which animates every one of you in your daily labours for His Cause.

I wish you, my dearly beloved co-workers to remain, however stupendous be the task, staunch and convinced supporters of that true Faith which alone can bring salvation to this sadly-stricken world. Our numbers may be small, our goal yet distant, our voice still to be raised in the councils of men, and the plight of the world wherein we toil and labour enough to blight the highest hopes, yet does not our beloved Master desire us to feel, nay to be truly convinced, that if we but hold fast to our faith, there will soon emerge out of this gloom and turmoil a new world order wherein His chosen ones are destined to play so noble and memorable a part?

I should be most pleased to hear that, with the trace of every difference and ill-feeling banished from your ranks, you have joined hands, combined your efforts, unified your purpose and directed your aim in endeavouring to win, not only the admiration and sympathy of the peoples of eminence and culture in your flourishing City, but also their active and whole-hearted allegiance for the promotion of the Baha’i Cause. May all the energy, time and treasure which you so abundantly and steadfastly expend in His service be directed to those efficient channels which alone can reveal to the general public, as well as to the leaders and rulers of that great Capitol, the true significance of this Divine Revelation.

That the Call which has now been raised in every Continent of the world will some day resound in the heart of Washington, none of us can ever doubt, yet how sooner and fuller that awakening shall be if we, who have already recognized His Voice, bestir ourselves, first to deepen and unite, and then to arise as one triumphant host combating, by the example of our life and the sublimity of the Divine Utterance, those dark forces of evil which but for His redeeming Message are sure to engulf the world.

Every aim, and every purpose, however lofty and desirable for the advancement of the Cause, should, in this day, be subordinated to the vital and pressing need of delivering GOD’s Divine Message to waiting humanity. Not that all other issues should be forgotten and suffer neglect, but rather that this matter of urgent importance be given, by all the friends, the widest publicity and the fullest support, as I feel, it is the most direct, the most feasible, the most effective means for the immediate expansion of the Cause we love so dearly.

May the believers in every land contribute their share in this supreme endeavor!

Your brother and fellow-worker,
(signed) Shoghi.
Haifa, Palestine

December 24th, 1923332

This letter must have been written in response to reports of racial and other tensions within Locke’s local Bahá’í community. While there is no mention of this in his “Impressions of Haifa,” Locke, during his pilgrimage, must surely have discussed with Shoghi Effendi the state of affairs of the Washington Bahá’í community. This was a very real and direct way in which the Guardian would keep abreast of developments within the Bahá’í world. Pilgrims like Locke provided a flow of valuable information that must have, at various times, informed his decisions as leader of the Bahá’í world. Responsibly acting on this information, Shoghi Effendi’s letters to individual communities had particular reasons in mind. Despite the fact that the Washington Bahá’í community was the first to actively reach out to African Americans, it was also subject to the challenges and vicissitudes of racial integration in an era inhospitable to it.

Chapter Seven

Harlem Renaissance and Bahá’í Service
From 5–9 May 1954, Locke attended the International Congress of Philosophy in Naples. Over the course of his academic career, he would attend many such conferences. It would be risking redundancy to say that these conferences were, for the most part, “purely academic” and had little, if any, social impact. In his lifelong quest for improving race relations, Locke probably made the greatest social impact as the strategist and spokesman of the Harlem Renaissance (1919–1934).333 At least this is how history best remembers him. But his greatest personal impact on race relations in America was probably the distinguished record of Bahá’í service he rendered in the path of “race amity,” and, more significantly perhaps, Locke’s role as a cultural pluralist in promoting “racial democracy” as one component of the comprehensive model of “world democracy,” part and parcel of which was what Locke would later refer to as a “new Americanism.”

While Locke was abroad, it goes without saying that he did much more than simply make his Bahá’í pilgrimage, important though that was. There are known events and others that remain a mystery. For instance, in a letter dated 9 Oct. 1924, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote: “My dear Mr. Locke: Claude McKay writes me that you had an interview with Ras Tafari [King of Ethiopia]. Would you not like to write an account of it for the CRISIS. We would be glad to pay a very modest sum. I hope this will welcome you back from your trip.”334 After his trip to Haifa, Azizullah S. Bahadur wrote a letter dated 27 Feb. 1924 in reply to Locke’s letter from Egypt. It reads, in part:

Jinab-i-Fadil has written to Shoghi Effendi and me about you and has given a nice description of the day when he had lectured at your university. —Shoghi Effendi was very glad indeed to hear from you and learn that you have been in good health. He cherishes in his loving heart great hope for your spiritual success. People as you, Mr. Gregory, Dr. Esslemont and some other dear souls are as rare as diamond. You should first be mindful of your physical health and then take steps along the channel of the regeneration of mankind. The world, more than ever, is in need of spiritual nourishment. You are the chosen ones to render this service to the lifeless world in this present stage.335
Here, Shoghi Effendi is reported as saying that the quality of Locke’s mind is, as the archaic jewelers’ expression goes, a gem of the finest water.336 Jinab-i-Fadil traveled throughout the United States as a Bahá’í teacher between 1920 and 1925. It is not clear whether or not Locke and Fadil ever met.

When speaking of Locke’s local Bahá’í community, there were really two. His second home was New York, where he would be instrumental in valorizing the Harlem Renaissance in 1925 and to which he would retire in 1953. This explains Locke’s participation in a number of Bahá’í events in New York, the first being the third race amity convention.

Third Race Amity Convention, New York: The race amity conventions, originally conceived by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and organized at his behest (expressed as a request to Agnes Parsons), were intended from the start to be ongoing. They were intended to be a model that ought to be “exported” and creatively adapted in localities across America. They were instruments for the promotion of interracial harmony. In that sense, they almost took on the role of an institution unto themselves. But, like all institutions, they required popular support to keep functioning. Happily, this would be the case for 1924.

After a hiatus since the Springfield convention, and with perhaps a need for greater time in the planning process, the third amity convention was held in New York on 28–30 March 1924. This event went step further than the previous two amity conventions in Washington and Springfield. The new development, in fact, was a significant one, for the simple reason that, for a race unity movement to spread, it needs to gain support from interested organizations as well as among individuals.

What was this innovation? It was this: The organizers invited representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and the Committee on International Cooperation of the League of Women Voters. This move was of profound importance, for the core of Bahá’í organizers enlisted the support of influential organizations whose humanitarian principles were consonant with Bahá’í ideals. Moreover, the participation of these organizations, especially the NAACP, served as more than a tacit endorsement of the Bahá’í initiative, with an implied-in-fact assent to the objectives of that initiative. The collaboration of these organizations was all the more unusual given that the Bahá’í Faith was a non-mainstream religion, typically regarded with suspicion by the populace at large, and marginal at best in its influence.

Another significant development was the universalizing of race relations. The scope of the program broadened to embrace other races and ethnic minorities as well. This advanced the agenda beyond a primary focus on black-white relations. If a race relations initiative is too narrowly focused on the black-white encounter, it misses other populations. Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans, for example, are left out of the picture. Now that Hispanic Americans have caught up with African Americans in population, and are projected to numerically surpass blacks in the near future, the farsightedness of the third amity convention becomes all the more historic.

As with any successful event, big name speakers draw crowds. Considerable advance planning, negotiations, and logistics are required to arrange for such speakers. After all, an event without audience or publicity is a failed event, and the organizers, which now included civic groups as well as Bahá’ís, were intent on making this event a resounding success. Much to the organizers’ credit, some impressive speakers were lined up for the event. These included Alain Locke himself, along with James Weldon Johnson, secretary of the NAACP; Franz Boas, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University; Jane Addams; John Herman Randall of the Community Church; Rabbi Stephen S. Wise; and Mountfort Mills, officially representing the Bahá’ís.337 The success of the New York convention surpassed that of its two predecessors. According to Gayle Morrison, it “put the New York Bahá’í community, which had already been actively teaching in Harlem, into the forefront of Bahá’í racial amity activities for many years to come.”338 Unfortunately, the author has been unable to locate any record of Alain Locke’s speech. Even the title of it might have led to an identification of his talk, which he usually prepared in advance, whether by typescript or by hand.

What about the other speakers? What did they say? We can pretty well guess what they said. But the lecture by Franz Boas was a high point of the convention. It added a new dimension to the previous race amity conventions. For the first time in these events, a scientific argument was presented. Boas (d. 1942) is the acknowledged father of American anthropology. He had significant contacts with Bahá’ís. How this came about is not clear. It is safe to say that Locke idolized Boas, and publicly praised Boas as a “major prophet of democracy.”339 He was widely regarded by intellectual historians as one who “did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.”340 Why was this? How did historians reach this conclusion?

The answer is simple. Singlehandedly, Boas exploded the myth of “scientific racism.” He radically deconstructed it, exposing the racist assumptions that underlay this pseudo-science and the widespread acceptance it commanded. Boas showed that race has no real basis in scientific fact. Any scientific notion of race was biological nonsense. In 1915, Locke had begun his lectures by asserting Boas’s distinction between racial difference and racial inequality. Racial difference is biological; racial inequality is social.341 The conference organizers could not have found a more significant speaker. “Indeed, no one was better qualified,” as Morrison rightly observes, “to challenge the myth of white superiority.”342

This signal event still serves as a worthy model, but one that is not easy to replicate.

Appointment by National Spiritual Assembly to Interracial Amity Committee: As impressive as Boas was, the presence of Alain Locke himself lent considerable prestige to the event. He was a media star in his own right, owing to the overnight renown he achieved when he became America’s first black Rhodes Scholar in 1907. Locke’s presence, in concert with the overall success of the event, led to a kind of institutionalization of it. According to Morrison, this event “seems to have spurred the appointment of an Amity Convention Committee by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada.”343 The evidence certainly points in that direction. In what was marked “Assembly Letter No. 1,” the “National Bahá’í Assembly” sent out a letter dated 19 May 1924, addressed “To the Assemblies of the United States and Canada,” which announced appointments to eight national committees (Teaching; Bahá’í Temple Unity; Reviewing, Amity Convention, Publishing, The Bahá’í Magazine / Star of the West; Bahá’í Archives; Library).

The National Bahá’í Assembly appointed Locke to the National Amity Convention Committee for the 1924–25 Bahá’í year. Members included Agnes Parsons, Elizabeth Greenleaf, Mariam Haney, Alain Locke, Mabel Ives, Louise Waite, Louise Boyle, Roy Williams (a black Bahá’í), Philip R. Seville, and Mrs. Atwater.344 Locke’s response to his appointment was enthusiastic, for he saw considerable value in these race amity conferences. In a letter dated 22 May 1924, Locke wrote:

May 22, 1924
Dear Mrs. Parsons,
I received word today of the appointment on the Inter-Amity [sic] Committee, and am especially anxious to contribute my share to its conferences and findings. Especially because I have had such ill-luck with regard to the Washington meetings this year, when it seems that on quite every occasion I have either had some official University business or had some out of town obligation.

Again this week-end I must go to New York, but will get in touch with you Monday to ascertain your early convenience with respect to a personal conference and the work of the committee.

With best Bahai greetings,

Sincerely yours,

Alain Locke345

Locke’s work with this committee resulted in another successful amity convention. This time, it would be held in Philadelphia, Locke’s home town.

Fourth Racial Amity Convention, Philadelphia: Continuing his active involvement, both as planner and participant, Locke was one of the featured speakers at the “Convention for Amity Between the White and Colored Races in America[,] Auspices of the Bahá’í Movement.” Organized under Bahá’í auspices, this event was held 22–23 October 1924 in the Witherspoon Building at Juniper and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. In addition to the assistance provided by Agnes Parsons, Louis Gregory and Roy Williams, other individuals made significant contributions as well. Louise Boyle worked on publicity. Charles Mason Remey, a noted Bahá’í of Washington, D.C., made signs and distributed programs.346 The printed program stated:
This is the fourth in a series of Inter-racial Congresses arranged under the auspices of the Bahá’í Movement. The first was held in 1921 at Washington, D.C., the second at Springfield, Mass, and the third at New York City, the purpose being to awaken the people of America to the need of a clearer understanding of inter-racial problems, and a deeper realization of their spiritual solution as set forth in the teachings of the world’s greatest prophets and leaders.347
The program was sent out in advance. It featured six passages from the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and a quotation from Jesus (“These things I command you, that ye love one another.”) Clergymen throughout Philadelphia received copies of the program, with a cover letter from Jessie Revell, secretary of the Philadelphia Spiritual Assembly. Several ministers were reported to have distributed the program to their congregations on the Sunday preceding the event. The convention was well publicized, both before and after, by the Philadelphia Tribune, a local African American newspaper. As a result, around six hundred people attended the first session, which was chaired by Horace Holley of New York. (As with previous conventions, the chairpersons were Bahá’ís.) Lectures were presented by Quaker speaker Agnes L. Tierney, and by Leslie Pinckney Hill, black principal of the Cheyney Training School for Teachers, in Cheyney, Pennsylvania and a Bahá’í as well. This session received excellent press coverage. Particularly noteworthy was a lengthy article, published in the local Jewish World, urging people to attend. All this had a definite impact. During the second session, nine hundred people attended.348

The second session, held on Thursday evening, Oct. 23rd, was presided over by Dr. Zia M. Bagdadi. Instead of a Bahá’í prayer, the session commenced with an invocation by the Rev. John M. Henderson, pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Morton, PA. Locke gave a presentation on “Negro Art and Culture.”349 Later that evening, Louis Gregory spoke on “Inter-racial Amity.”350 The two other speakers included Judge John M. Patterson of Philadelphia and Hooper Harris, a Bahá’í from New York.351

Here, an interesting pattern can be observed. As with the previous two race amity conventions, evidently Locke was neither introduced as a Bahá’í speaker, not did he identify himself as such. This practice of not identifying himself openly or “fully” with the Bahá’í Faith became an issue with Louis Gregory who, probably more than anyone else (apart from Locke’s mother), encouraged Locke to remain not only an enrolled Bahá’í but a professed Bahá’í as well. However, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

We should not lose sight of the fact that Locke was not acting alone. He worked in concert with the conference organizers. Indeed, he was one of them. Of course, he could have simply expressed his preference not to be publicly identified as a Bahá’í, and his fellow Bahá’ís would have respected his wish. Had the event been too dominated by Bahá’í speakers, the balance of Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í speakers would have been upset, possibly to the detriment of the program itself, particularly the public’s perception of it. The balance was this: Dr. Bagdadi’s presence was balanced by the Rev. John M. Henderson. The presence of the two public Bahá’ís, Louis Gregory and Hooper Harris, was balanced by the ostensibly secular speakers, John M. Patterson and Alain Locke. During the first session, it may have been that Leslie Pinckney Hill was also not identified as a Bahá’í. Another possible wisdom in this is that the church was the backbone of the black community. Too strong of a Bahá’í presence could not only have easily upset the delicate balance the organizers strove to achieve, but could have alarmed the more conservative and evangelical Christian elements as well. The last thing the Bahá’ís wanted was to have their work undone by igniting a religious controversy. There is a psychology of unity that attaches to the effective prosecution of it. No matter how noble the principles, the principals (in this case, the speakers and others on the program) were equally important. Whatever the case, the impact of the event and its place in history are difficult to assess. As Morrison observes:

The Philadelphia amity convention, like those that preceded it, cannot be evaluated simply in terms of measurable results. Unlike anything like an antilynching crusade, or some other campaign directed toward a specific problem or grievance, the amity convention attempted to promote fundamental attitudinal change about human rights and the universality of human dignity. Progress in such an endeavor can scarcely be perceived, let alone evaluated. Indeed, even the most concrete forces shaping the movement for black equality in the twentieth century […] are difficult to assess[.]352
Were there other events in which Locke participated as a planner or presenter during this year? We do not know. What does not get reported vanishes, as if it never happened. History is written on the basis of extant primary sources. These records are the sine qua non of reconstructing Locke’s life, for the purpose of writing a “zonal biography.” The next year would prove even more significant.

On his return from Egypt, Locke found Howard in upheaval, due to a student strike. On 15 June 1925, Locke was fired from Howard University by its white president, James Stanley Durkee, for Locke’s support of an equitable faculty pay scale and for student demands to end mandatory chapel and ROTC.353 At this time, Locke had given thirteen years of service at Howard, five of which were as full professor and head of the Department of Philosophy. Locke’s own summary of what had happened is, in part, as follows: “By action of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees of Howard University, Washington D.C., four teachers were summarily dismissed on June 15th (notification the following day), to take effect as of June 30th, without previous intimation of likely dismissal or definite official notice of charges of inefficiency or misconduct […].”354 Locke clearly blamed President Durkee, whose wishes in this matter the Board supported—a body that Locke characterized as “collectively as stupid and arbitrary as he is individually.”355

In protest against the firing of Locke and three other dissident faculty members, students staged an eight-day strike. In an undated letter to W. E. B. Du Bois written in 1925, Locke mentions the student strike: “So the students struck, placarded the campus with slogans directed both against the President personally and the faculty, maintained a cordon around the building[,] gave out press notices of their side of the issue, and for four days we were in anarchic upheaval.”356 The Board of Trustees voted to give Locke a leave of absence with full pay, beginning 1 July 1925, for one year. But, on 30 June 1926, the Board stipulated that “all connection of these persons with the University shall cease.”357 He did not return to Howard University until its new black president, Mordecai Johnson (elected by the Howard Board of Regents in June 1926), reinstated him.

Following his dismissal, since he was no longer gainfully employed and his income would run out within a year, Locke needed to find a patron for support of his intellectual work. He found his patron in Charlotte Mason, a wealthy white woman, with whom Locke faithfully corresponded until her death in 1940. It is quite possible that Agnes Parsons introduced her to Locke. In a letter dated 21 Oct. 1922 to Parsons, Locke wrote: “Thank you indeed for telling us of Mrs. Osgood and the work she is doing.”358 One source states that “Locke’s annual trips to Europe were financed for thirteen years and he may have received other funds.”359 To a great extent, because he was beholden to her for financial support, Locke was under her influence in spiritual matters as well as in artistic concerns. However, he seemed to be able to separate Mason’s peculiar views from his Bahá’í commitments. Without getting sidetracked into a discussion of his relationship with Mason, suffice it to say that Locke was multifaceted and was, in a sense, all things to all people while still maintaining his personal integrity and deeply-held convictions.

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