Educator, author, civil rights advocate. Pickens was born in Anderson County on January 15, 1881, to Jacob Pickens and Fannie Porter. The family migrated to Arkansas, where the young boy worked in cotton fields and sawmills. In 1902 he graduated from Talladega College in Alabama. He went on to attend Yale University, which required two additional years of study for graduates of historically black colleges. Among his many academic honors, Pickens was elected Phi Beta Kappa before returning to teach foreign languages at Talladega from 1904 until 1914. Teaching at Talladega and at Morgan College in Baltimore, Pickens grew more radical in his views, speaking against accommodationist stances of Negro leader Booker T. Washington.
In 1910 Pickens began his forty-year affiliation with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving almost twenty of those years as director of branches, in the tradition of fellow intellectuals and activists W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. In New Negro (1916), Pickens stressed belief in the debt the nation owed to African Americans and advocated integration, black economic cooperation, political activism, and nonviolent social protest. As a onetime supporter of the controversial black separatist Marcus Garvey, Pickens defied NAACP leaders and condemned the organization for supporting the Communist Party’s defense of the infamous Scottsboro Boys. Ironically, in his last major controversy, Pickens was accused in 1943 by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of being a Communist Party member. From 1942 to 1950 Pickens served with the U.S. Treasury Department, where he was responsible for the promotion and sale of savings bonds among African Americans. He ended his very public career respected as a loyal American willing to disagree with individuals and groups, of any color, he felt were unmindful of the full burden that race played in the country. As was the case with many civil rights activists of his era, the duality of being both black and an American during war years provoked difficult stances on the issue of patriotism.
Pickens used his intellectual talents as a method of protest, especially during his years as a full-time educator. His best-known work is his autobiography, Bursting Bonds (1923), but several of his lectures carried titles that articulated the expanding consciousness of African Americans: “Frederick Douglas and the Spirit of Freedom” (1912), “The Ultimate Effects of Segregation and Discrimination” (1915), and “American Aesop” (1926).
Pickens married Minnie Cooper McAlpine in 1905. The second of their three children, Harriet Ida Pickens, was a New Deal administrator and the first black woman commissioned as an officer in the WAVES during World War II. While cruising off the coast of South America, Pickens died on April 6, 1954, just one month before the Supreme Court handed down its famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which would begin to dismantle the discriminatory practices he had fought against throughout his life.
Avery, Sheldon. Up from Washington: William Pickens and the Negro Struggle for Equality, 1900–1954. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.