W. E. B. Du Bois Was Wrong About Booker T. Washington
When I was growing up in Tennessee in the 1950s, my family and I often visited the Booker T. Washington state park just north of Chattanooga. But we never went to the W. E. B. Du Bois state park, or the W. E. B. Du Bois anything else. I’m pretty sure no Southern state of that era ever named anything for Du Bois.
That’s because Washington espoused a vision of race relations with which whites could be comfortable, counseling blacks to accept, for a time at least, their second class status in society. Du Bois, on the other hand, was a fiercely militant agitator for full and immediate equal rights for African Americans.
Because of that contrast in approach, many today laud Du Bois as a prophet of racial equality, while dismissing Washington as something of an “Uncle Tom.” To my mind, however, such critics do Washington a grave injustice. They, like Du Bois, fail to understand that what seemed to be Washington's craven capitulation to racial injustice was, in reality, a necessary strategy in its time.
Booker T. Washington Becomes an Acclaimed Spokesman for Black America
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was born into slavery in Virginia. But through hard work, dedication, and education he pulled himself out of poverty to become the most widely admired black American of his time.
As he recounts in his autobiography, Up From Slavery, Washington grew up in circumstances where, both before and after Emancipation, there was not a single black person around him who knew how to read or write. But from his earliest days he displayed an intense desire for education. That desire led him as a child to take night classes after getting up at 4 in the morning to work long hours in a salt furnace, and later, a coal mine. Eventually he would work his way through Hampton Institute. As both a student and then an instructor at Hampton, Washington so impressed the school’s founder, former Civil War General Samuel C. Armstrong, that when the Alabama legislature appropriated $2,000 for a "colored" school and asked Armstrong to suggest a white educator to run it, he recommended Washington instead.
Starting essentially from scratch, Washington built the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) into one of the premier institutions of higher education in the nation.
So impressive were Washington’s accomplishments as an educator that in 1895 he was invited to speak at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia to an audience that included some of the most influential members of the South’s white power structure. That speech gained for Booker T. Washington national, and indeed international, recognition as the acknowledged spokesman for the black race in America.
The Atlanta Compromise
In his speech Washington offered what came to be known as the “Atlanta Compromise.” He suggested that blacks should forego immediate agitation for political and social equality with whites, and work first to lay a firm foundation of vocational education and economic strength within the black community. In return for that self-imposed restraint, whites would support blacks in their efforts to lift themselves up.
VIDEO: Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Compromise Speech
Washington explained his approach to race relations and black advancement this way:
“The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.”
With this declaration Washington was urging African Americans to accept, for now, their second class status in society, and the strict racial segregation that came with it. It was more important, he said, for blacks to focus first on becoming so skilled in the industrial and agricultural arts that they would eventually be indispensable to the economic well-being of the South. Then, as the black community proved its value to whites, and earned their respect by advancing toward parity with them in terms of practical skills and accumulated wealth, the shackles of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation would fall away naturally over time.
To achieve those goals, said Washington, black education should be oriented around industrial and agricultural training rather than the liberal arts.
Washington’s Speech is Acclaimed by Blacks and Whites Alike
When Washington finished speaking, the audience erupted into a standing ovation. To whites who heard the speech, or read about it in the newspaper accounts that were immediately published throughout the nation, Washington’s approach to race relations was everything they could wish for. What they heard him say was that there would be no push for social, economic, and political equality from African Americans. Blacks would willingly “stay in their place” for the foreseeable future.
The speech was, at first, enthusiastically embraced by most African Americans, especially those of the middle and working classes. But soon some black intellectuals began to see it in a different and far more negative light. The most prominent and outspoken of these was W. E. B. Du Bois.
W. E. B. Du Bois Becomes a Crusader For Racial Justice
In contrast to Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was born into relatively comfortable circumstances in the fully integrated town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. While growing up he experienced little in the way of racial prejudice or discrimination. Du Bois was the valedictorian of his high school class, and when it came time for him to go to college, the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington donated the funds needed for him to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. After graduating from Fisk, Du Bois went on to become the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard. [For more about Du Bois’s background and life, see “Who Was W.E.B. Du Bois?”].
While at Fisk, in a South where oppression and discrimination were facts of everyday life for African Americans, Du Bois was exposed to a level of race-based humiliation far beyond anything he had experienced growing up in Massachusetts. Combating such prejudice and discrimination became the focus of his life. He later became one of the founders of the NAACP, and his written and spoken protests against injustice and oppression helped create the intellectual and moral climate that eventually led to the successes of the Civil Rights movement.
Du Bois’s Critique of Washington
Although he had initially approved of the Atlanta Compromise, Du Bois soon came to view it as nothing less than gutless accommodation with racial injustice and second class citizenship. In harshly critical public attacks against Washington and everything he stood for, Du Bois advocated for a strategy of political and social activism to immediately secure full civil and political rights for African Americans. He asserted that in his Atlanta Exposition speech, Washington had “implicitly abandoned all political and social rights.” He went on to declare, “Washington bartered away much that was not his to barter.”
Rejecting what he considered to be Washington’s acceptance of the racial status quo, Du Bois insisted:
“that the way for a people to gain their reasonable rights is not by voluntarily throwing them away and insisting that they do not want them; that the way for a people to gain respect is not by continually belittling and ridiculing themselves; that, on the contrary, Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.”
The Talented Tenth
In contrast to Washington’s belief that the predominant focus of black education should on be on practical vocational training, Du Bois advocated the nurturing of a “talented tenth” of highly educated black intellectuals who would provide leadership for the race. In an article he published in The Atlantic in 1902, Du Bois explained his complaint against Washington’s approach:
“[W]e daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than bread-winning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black.”
Then in an essay published in 1903, Du Bois laid out his own prescription for the uplift of the black race:
“The Negro Race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education then, among Negroes, must first of all deal with the ‘Talented Tenth.’ It is the problem of developing the best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races."
In essence, while Washington believed that the advancement of the black race must be from the bottom up, Du Bois was adamant that it could only be accomplished from the top down.
Who was more right, W. E. B. Du Bois or Booker T. Washington?
Du Bois and Washington Differed on Strategy and Timing, not Ultimate Goals
Washington and Du Bois were both fully committed to the ultimate aim of gaining full political, social, and economic equality for African Americans. Their differences related more to the when and how than to the what.
For example, in an 1899 article in The Atlantic Washington wrote:
“I would not have the Negro deprived of any privilege guaranteed to him by the Constitution of the United States. It is not best for the Negro that he relinquish any of his constitutional rights.”
Washington also responded to Du Bois’s critique of the idea that black education should, for the time at least, emphasize practical training:
“I may be asked, Would you confine the Negro to agriculture, mechanics, the domestic arts. etc.? Not at all; but just now and for a number of years the stress should be laid along the lines that I have mentioned. We shall need and must have many teachers and ministers, some doctors and lawyers and statesmen, but these professional men will have a constituency or a foundation from which to draw support just in proportion as the race prospers along the economic lines that I have pointed out."
Even as he publicly accepted segregation, and counseled blacks toward working cooperatively with whites while being patient with regard to their civil rights, Washington was quietly aiding efforts to push back against racial oppression. In 1900 he founded the National Negro Business League to help the black community develop its own independent financial resources. He privately contributed large amounts to fund legal challenges to segregation and, as even Du Bois acknowledged, spoke out forcefully against injustices such as lynching.
Yet Washington differed sharply with Du Bois on both the immediacy and the forcefulness with which blacks should press their demands for equality.
Washington Understood the Danger of Blacks Pushing Too Hard, Too Soon
While Washington believed that achieving full equality would take time, and should not be agitated for until blacks had become economically and educationally self sufficient, Du Bois was not willing to wait. He believed that justice required that blacks demand their rights forcefully and without delay. In his seminal 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk he wrote:
“The South ought to be led, by candid and honest criticism, to assert her better self and do her full duty to the race she has cruelly wronged and is still wronging. The North—her co-partner in guilt—cannot salve her conscience by plastering it with gold. We cannot settle this problem by diplomacy and suaveness, by ‘policy’ alone.”
Washington, on the other hand, was very aware of what a backlash from whites would mean to blacks in the South:
“There is danger that a certain class of impatient extremists among the Negroes in the North, who have little knowledge of the actual conditions in the South, may do the entire race injury by attempting to advise their brethren in the South to resort to armed resistance or the use of the torch, in order to secure justice.”
When Washington suggested his Atlanta Compromise in 1895, 90 percent of African Americans were concentrated in the South -- a South that was adamantly opposed to any kind of equality between blacks and whites. Blacks, lacking the economic power and financial institutions Washington thought it essential for them to build, were dependent on the goodwill of the whites among whom they lived. Loss of that goodwill could result in economic devastation, since the white power structure had the ability to deny to any black of whom it disapproved the opportunity to make a living.
More importantly, whenever whites felt threatened by black demands for greater equality, they could with impunity unloose a vicious reign of violence upon the black community. Terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan could, and did, burn out or lynch any blacks they thought were getting out of line, with no fear of judicial consequences.
These were realities with which intellectuals like Du Bois did not have to live. Although he taught for many years at historically black Atlanta University, Du Bois was never economically dependent on whites in the way a tenant farmer or domestic servant was. And as a Harvard-educated scholar of international renown, he was far less vulnerable than local blacks to the threat of racial violence.
The Atlanta Compromise Was a Wise Strategy for Its Time
Booker T. Washington, having lived in the South all his life, understood that full-on agitation for equal rights at that time would doom many thousands of black men, women, and children to economic ruin or violent death. For that reason, his Atlanta Compromise was the wisest course available to African Americans at the turn of the 20th century in their efforts to make progress out of the dire circumstances the white South had imposed upon them.
Du Bois and Washington: Two Equally Necessary Links in the Civil Rights Chain
The insistent demand for full equality that Du Bois advocated would, in time, take its rightful place at the forefront of African Americans’ fight for civil rights. The result would be landmark accomplishments, such as the integration of the U. S. military in 1948, desegregation in schools and public accommodations in the 50s and 60s, the Voting Rights Act of 1963, and ultimately, the election of Barack Obama as a two-term President of the United States. These advancements almost certainly would not have taken place without the aggressive assertion of rights and refusal to accept the status quo that Du Bois had insisted on decades before.
But it was Washington’s strategy that provided the foundation on which Du Bois's successes were built. Du Bois had advocated the nurturing of a “talented tenth” of highly educated black intellectuals who would provide leadership for the race. Influential leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King proved the wisdom of that approach. But it was only after African Americans began to amass a measure of wealth and to develop their own independent institutions, as Washington had urged, that such a leadership elite could be supported.
The degree of racial equality that exists today required the efforts of Booker T. Washington and of W. E. B. Du Bois, each in his turn. The nation owes a debt of gratitude to them both.
© 2018 Ronald E Franklin