Park - An Activist

Park soon gave up his previous ambition to teach because he felt "sick andtired of the academic world, and wanted to go back into the world of men."He wrote much later that he could "trace [his] interest in sociology to thereading of Goethe's Faust." "You remember," he explained, "that Faust wastired of books and wanted to see the world."

William James once read to his class his essay "On a Certain Blindness inHuman Beings." This essay greatly impressed Park. "The 'blindness' of whichJames spoke," writes Park, "is the blindness each of us is likely to have for themeaning of other people's lives. . . .What sociologists most need to know iswhat goes on behind the faces of men, what it is that makes life for each ofus either dull or thrilling." James spoke of the "personal secret" that makeslife boring to one person and full of zest to another. Park seems to have con-cluded after listening to James that his own "secret" consisted in his desireto alternate between active involvement in social affairs and detached analysisand social description. Having spent six years in the academy, Park resolvedto return to the give-and-take of the social world which had fascinated himduring his newspaper career.

The social problems of the Negro seemed to Park at the time to be themost acute in America. His interest in racial issues, which continued to be aprime focus of his concerns throughout his later career, was spurred by havingmet Booker T. Washington, the President of Tuskegee Institute. Park soonjoined forces with Washington and became his informal secretary, accompany-ing him on his travels. He went along on the research trip to Europe, whichresulted in Washington's book, The Man Farthest Down; experts agree thatthis account of the miseries of Europe's underclass was mostly written byPark. Park worked with Washington for nine years and had great respect forhim. He once remarked to Ernest Burgess that he learned more from Washing-ton than from any of his teachers. Park seems to have been especially im-pressed by Washington's consummate skills in the strategy and tactics of socialaction.

Park met Washington when he was invited to become secretary and pressagent of the Congo Reform Association, a group of reformers who wanted todraw public attention to the oppression, corruption, and depravity of the Bel-gian colonial regime in the Congo. He was about to go to Africa to study thesituation at first hand, when Washington invited him to Tuskegee and con-vinced him that he might best start his studies of Africa in the South. As aresult, Park spent seven winters, partly at Tuskegee and partly roaming aboutthe South, "getting acquainted with the life, the customs, and the condition ofthe Negro people." During those years he also wrote a series of muckrakingexposes of the Belgian colonial atrocities in the Congo for Everybody's Maga-zine.

From Coser, 1977:368-369.

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