The Organizer’s Mind of Martin Delany

In October 1876, Martin Delany, the Black abolitionist later called the father of Black nationalism, endorsed Democratic Party candidate Wade Hampton for Governor from a platform in South Carolina. Black people in the crowd booed him from the stage. Very few would follow Delany’s defection to the Democrats that election. Hundreds would be killed by Democrat mobs as they tried to vote against Hampton, the ex-Confederate General who had been among the nation’s wealthiest slaveholders. Hampton’s victory would usher in a “Redeemer” government to end Reconstruction in the Blackest state in the Union. 

Why did Delany endorse Hampton? It is the great question of his political career, if often overlooked in celebrations of his radicalism. In some accounts, it evidences Delany’s contrarian inconsistency—once to the left of Frederick Douglass, had he shifted to the right? One account implies that Delany owed Hampton a political favor for securing a pardon from conviction for embezzling church funds. Others suggest, incongruously, he was choosing class over race. In some accounts, Delany just got old, developing, as many old radicals do, the “mature intelligence and discretional wisdom,” to temper the ambitions of younger activists. In all histories, the Hampton endorsement was a mistake. Delany saw it that way too. After 1876, he returned to ideas about emigration to Liberia, with little apparent attention to the once all-consuming politics of Reconstruction.

Delany was one of the century’s great theorists of race and his 1870s shift remains an irreconcilable contradiction in that thinking. The shift, however, also evidences a consistent principle in his political thinking: his reflex to see in all events new possibilities for organizing. What makes Delany stand out as a thinker, especially compared to other prominent anti-slavery activists like Douglass, Garrison, and Stowe who believed in moving people by moral argument from one position to another, was his insistence on interest-based coalitions.   He believed that events created new combinations of political power, and, reactive to events, one could force the emergence of new coalitions. This through-line, evident in both his fiction and his political prose, explains not only his late-Reconstruction defection to the Democrats, but also his strategies for revolt and revolution.

Delany began writing Blake, or the Huts of America in 1859 partly as a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe argued for Black liberation from slavery. Her strategy was to convince as many white people as possible that slavery was a moral wrong. Delany had a different plan. His character, Blake, speaks about ending U.S. slavery with the absolute simplicity of the most outspoken participant at the union organizing meeting: “All you have to do, is find one good man or woman—I don’t care which, so that they prove to be the right person—on a single plantation, and . . .  make them the organizers for their own plantation, and they in like manner impart it some other next to them, and so on. In this way it will spread like smallpox among them.” Delany invokes smallpox in reference to Stowe, whose better white people were infected by the contagious immorality of slavery. For Stowe, slavery infected society for its perpetuation; for Delany, slavery created the conditions for coalitions that would undo it.

In Delany’s view, external events, even those as unfavorable as the Dred Scott decision, remade the possibilities for coalitions. The worst possible Supreme Court decision for Black Americans in a constitutional republic—one that stripped all Black people of all the rights of citizenship, even the right to contest such a decision—offered a death-blow to perceived differences in status between enslaved and free Black people. Suddenly, Delany wrote in Blake, the Court had rendered every free Black person “freemen by sufferance or slaves at large,” that is, free until claimed by any white person. The decision collapsed distinctions between freedom and enslavement, forcing, Delany believed, a coalition of interest among all people of color in the U.S.

Delany’s largest and most notable imagined coalition was the community of interest among all people of African descent globally. It is reflected in his antebellum organizing for emigration to Africa and in the shift in the second half of Blake from one-on-one organizing to a Caribbean-based global African Revolution. But this vision, as well as the novel itself, would be jettisoned in 1861 by events that required Delany’s reactive political mind.

Long before Lincoln had the same revelation, Delany saw that Lincoln’s war to preserve the Union would become a war of abolition. By 1863, Delany was organizing for it. As Lincoln soon would, Delany saw that the slaveholder ambition to expand a slave empire created a new coalition between Abolitionists and those who wanted to preserve the Union, as well as an opportunity for the Federal Government to become dependent on Black soldiers. He offered Lincoln’s Secretary of War the network recruitment strategy of Blake for the Union cause. Secretary Edwin Stanton arranged for Delany to meet Lincoln, who found, according to Delany’s telling, the offer to create a self-generating army of the emancipated, “the very thing I have been looking and hoping for.” With Lincoln’s death, Delany foresaw political contests over Lincoln’s status in the national memory and sought to tie that status directly to the cause of Black enfranchisement. He began soliciting money, one cent from every African American, to build a National Monument to Lincoln—designed by a Black sculptor, paid for by Black people, with African imagery. Characteristic of his Black nationalist worldview, the effort also tried to associate Lincoln’s legacy in the minds of white Americans with Black interests. 

When it became clear during Reconstruction that the Freedmen’s Bureau would be the best vehicle for Black advancement, Delany accepted a position in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Immediately, he began looking for the most effective combinations for empowering Black citizens. His proposed “Triple Alliance” of Northern capital, (white) Southern land, and Black labor, failed to foresee the extent to which landowners, with Northern capital allied and the government indifferent, would subvert the new status of Black laborers for profit. Learning a quick lesson, by 1871, Delany maneuvered to replace Southern landowners with Northern philanthropists who would buy land on behalf of Black laborers. He tried the U.S. Senate and Freedman’s Savings Bank, and then printed his letters as the Homes for Freedmen series, in unsuccessful efforts to generate support.

Despite these failures, Delany had not been dissuaded from the idea that an effective cross-racial majority, in which Black voters constituted a crucial constituency, was the best mechanism for Black advancement. This had been the promise of Grant’s victorious 1868 Republican Party. By 1872, those party members more conservative on Reconstruction and concerned about Grant Administration corruption formed the Liberal Republican Party to oppose Grant’s re-election. Democrats, a party in postbellum disarray, saw an opportunity to oust Grant by combining with the Liberals. That alliance unified Grant’s base, with Black voters carrying him to a landslide victory. But Grant’s second term ushered in a new wave of self-enrichment scandals among his secretaries, and an economic depression made the country ripe for anti-Republican backlash in the 1874 midterm elections. Stories of Grant Administration self-dealing had been mirrored in South Carolina by the Republican governor’s large personal expenditures of public money, and the anti-Grant coalition mirrored by the new Independent Republicans. Delany, like many white Republicans and some Black, saw in that party an alternative coalition for state governance – one that would depend on Black voters – instead of Black voters depending on the national Republican Party. He ran as the Independents’ candidate for Lieutenant Governor. He lost, along with all but one Congressional candidate in South Carolina, but the Independents’ campaigns foretold Republican weakness in the state. Along with the national Democratic landslide—the product of Black disenfranchisement as much as anti-Reconstruction sentiment— that result gave much hope for the Democrats’ 1876 electoral chances.

The 1870s Democratic Party had two primary messages: anti-corruption and anti-Black. These were often united, as Democratic messaging positioned Black political participation as inherently corrupting. (James Shepard Pike’s The Prostrate State, the 1874 best-seller about South Carolina’s Reconstruction government offers a salient example). After 1874, the Democratic Party was poised to ride this message to “a solid South.” Delany predicted that a Democratic solid South would either accommodate a Black constituency or relegate Black voters to “political nonentity and race extinction.” He believed that a sufficient number of Black Democratic voters could shape the party towards a more anti-corruption than anti-Black position, and cause the Democratic state government to see itself, as Republicans had in 1868, as dependent on a Black constituency.

Delany underestimated just how much anti-Black sentiment held together the Democratic coalition. Delany was not wrong, however, about the speed with which Republicans abandoned Southern Black voters in the final quarter of the century. With Hampton’s victory, he could count this effort a political success but it certainly failed to advance Black interests. Nonetheless, Delany’s Democratic gamble follows his consistent work of organizing toward new coalitions to advance Black interests amid even the most anti-Black scenarios.

Delany’s political writing is assembled in Martin R. Delany: A Documentary Reader, edited by Robert S. Levine (2003). In 1868, Frances A. Rollin (as Frank A. Rollin) published a biography of Delany based on interviews and materials Delany provided. For accounts of Delany’s endorsement of Hampton, see Dorothy Sterling, The Making of an Afro-American: Martin Robison Delany (1971); Victor Ullman, Martin R. Delany: the Beginnings of Black Nationalism (1971); Nell Irvin Painter, “Martin R. Delany: Elitism and Black Nationalism” in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, ed. Leon F. Litwak and August Meier (1988); Robert S. Levine, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity (1997); Levine, “Delany for Hampton,” in Documentary Reader (2003), 452; Mark Roth. “Martin Delany, ‘Father of Black Nationalism,’” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (6 Feb. 2011).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *