William Pickens


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(1881–1954), orator, journalist, essayist, and autobiographer.

William Pickens, one of the most popular African American speakers of his era, was born in Anderson County, South Carolina, on 15 January 1881, the son of former slaves who worked as tenant farmers. His parents moved their family to Arkansas in 1888 in search of better economic and educational opportunities. From the beginning a zealous student, Pickens's first systematic schooling came in 1890 in Argenta, across the river from Little Rock. With funds earned from a variety of manual labor jobs, Pickens paid his way to attend the Little Rock High School, from which he graduated at the top of his class in 1899. He then obtained admission to Talladega College in Alabama, where he studied for three years before entering Yale University in 1902. At Yale Pickens won the Henry James Ten Eyck prize in oratory for a speech on Haiti and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After completing his bachelor's degree in classics in 1904, Pickens rejected an offer to tour the country as a platform lecturer, choosing instead to return to the South to teach classics, literature, and sociology at Talladega (1904–1914), Wiley University in Texas (1914–1915), and Morgan College in Baltimore (1915–1920), where he served as dean and later vice-president.

Having been active as an organizer and recruiter for the NAACP since its founding in 1910, Pickens readily accepted an offer in 1919 to become assistant to James Weldon Johnson, field secretary of the NAACP. When Johnson was elevated to executive director of the NAACP the following year, Pickens became associate field secretary. In this capacity and later as director of branches, Pickens made a major contribution to the expansion of the NAACP, especially in the South, between 1920 and 1940. As a contributing editor of the Associated Negro Press for twenty-one years, Pickens helped publicize NAACP positions and activities in more than one hundred African American newspapers. After leaving the NAACP in 1942, Pickens went to work for the U.S. Treasury Department. During World War II, his efforts centered on selling war bonds in the African American community. After retirement from his government job in 1950, Pickens and his wife traveled internationally. He died aboard a ship off the coast of Jamaica on 6 April 1954 and was buried at sea.

Pickens first made a name for himself as a writer in 1904, when he began publishing increasingly blunt and controversial articles in the Voice of the Negro. “Choose!” (June 1906) demanded that every African American take an unequivocal stand against the philosophy and tactics of Booker T. Washington and in favor of those of W. E. B. Du Bois. Readers of Pickens's 1911 autobiography, The Heir of Slaves, however, found only hints as to Pickens's public differences with Washington. Patterned after Washington's much celebrated Up from Slavery (1901), The Heir of Slaves emphasizes a young African American's devotion to education and to the dedication of his learning and experience to the uplift of his people in the South. But with the 1916 publication of The New Negro: His Political, Civil and Mental Status, a collection of his essays dedicated to the “essential humanity and justice” of “the white and the black men of tomorrow,” Pickens made plain his uncompromising views on civil rights. The fundamental right Pickens demanded for African Americans in The New Negro was “full citizenship,” by which he meant an end to all forms of segregation and a guarantee of the right to vote. In 1922, Pickens published The Vengeance of the Gods and Three Other Stories of the Real American Color Line, in which he denounces through highly didactic fiction the stereotyping of African American men and the illusory notions of superiority entertained by white Americans. A year later an expanded version of Pickens's autobiography appeared under the title Bursting Bonds. Retaining the nine chapters of The Heir of Slaves, Pickens added five new ones to create Bursting Bonds, the title of which implied its author's determination to speak freely about matters on which he had previously been circumspect. Bursting Bonds exposes the mystique of white power and paternalism at Talladega, details the explosive intricacies of Jim Crow in east Texas, and recalls Pickens's lonely, defiant ride in a forbidden Pullman car through Arkansas. By the end of the book, Pickens exemplifies in himself a model of what the New Negro of the 1920s stood for and wrote about. In its candor about the contemporary color line and sensitivity to its author's transition from conservative to militant, Bursting Bonds marks a turning point in the evolution of African American autobiography away from the deferential posture of Up from Slavery and toward the confrontational rhetoric of Black Boy (1945).


Subjects: Literature.

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