William Pickens was born in 1881, the year Tuskegee Institute was founded. By the time of Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915, Pickens at age 35 had already become a major spokesperson on the direction of black education in the United States. Born in South Carolina but educated in Arkansas, Pickens received a B.A. from Talladega College in Alabama in 1902 and a B.A. from Yale University two years later in classics. He then became a professor of foreign languages at Talladega until 1914 and by 1916 was Dean at Morgan State University. Despite his academic appointments, Pickens was involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since its inception. By 1918 he was director of branches for the NAACP. The speech below, delivered on different occasions, during and after World War I, reflected his challenging the United States to envision a democracy inclusive of African Americans even as it promoted the concept around the world.
Democracy is the most used term in the world today. But some of its uses are abuses. Everybody says “Democracy”! But everybody has his own definition. By the extraordinary weight of the presidency of the United States many undemocratic people have had this word forced upon their lips but have not yet had the right ideal forced upon their hearts. I have heard of one woman who wondered with alarm whether “democracy” would mean that colored women would have the right to take any vacant seat or space on a street car, even if they had paid for it. That such a question should be asked, shows how many different meanings men may attach to the one word DEMOCRACY. This woman doubtless believes in a democracy of me-and-my-kind, which is no democracy. The most autocratic and the worst caste systems could call themselves democratic by that definition. Even the Prussian junker believes in that type of democracy; he has no doubt that he and the other junkers should be free and equal in rights and privileges. Many have accepted the word DEMOCRACY merely as the current