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  • Michael Rickard II

"Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. Du Bois"

Booker T. Washington


W.E.B. Du Bois

No, this isn't an "Epic Rap Battle," but a look at the conflicting theories of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, two men who fought for their fellow African-Americans to thrive in society stacked against them. This is an essay I wrote back in 2015 for a final exam.

Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois were two African American men devoted to improving the lives of African Americans in America, but they had two different views on how to achieve this. Although Du Bois initially went along with Washington’s strategy of seeking racial equality by obtaining economic success through industrial education and cooperation with whites, Du Bois later came to believe that equality could only be achieved by obtaining a classical education and fighting for civil rights.

While Du Bois recognized Washington’s accomplishments in helping African Americans through industrial training and the pursuit of economic opportunity, (including his discreet efforts to fight for civil rights and battle lynchings), he criticized Washington’s approach of pursuing industrial education and economic freedom in lieu of classical education and civil rights. Washington believed that:

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all privileges that Du Bois stated 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 (Washington 92).

Du Bois felt that Washington’s appeasement indirectly led to: “1. The disenfranchisement of the Negro. 2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro. 3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro” (Du Bois 31). This is best summarized by Du Bois at the end of chapter three of The Souls of Black Folk where he argues:

So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive with him…But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training, and ambition of our brighter minds, -so far as he, the South, or the Nation, does this, -we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them (35).

Du Bois argues that Washington’s approach reinforces stereotypes about African Americans’ inferiority, denies them the legal protections they need to survive, and is counterproductive to Washington’s goal of training African Americans in labor since industrial schools require teachers with a classical education.

While Du Bois had valid arguments that African Americans should not give up civil rights for economic opportunity, Washington’s approach was the right one for the time. As Washington pointed out, African Americans were outnumbered and faced an uncertain future even with political power (for example, the gains made by African Americans during Reconstruction were quickly removed once Southern whites regained political power). There was also the argument that African Americans needed to concentrate on financial security before embarking into politics. Du Bois’ belief in the “Talented Tenth” had merit but as history shows, even the work of intellectuals such as attorney Charles Hamilton Houston were met with stiff resistance (although they did lay the groundwork for the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education) and segregation was slow in being dismantled. There is also the argument to be made that even Du Bois recognized that economic security had priority over civil rights. After the Great Depression, Du Bois focused more on economic security rather than political reform.

While Washington’s approach was the better one at the time, one cannot discount the suffering that African Americans faced due to segregation, racial bias, and lynching, much of what can be attributed to their lack of political rights. Washington’s speech (which became known as “The Atlanta Compromise”) gave up the pursuit of civil rights in exchange for the opportunity to pursue economic opportunity. African Americans had to deal with racism and the abuses it entailed without the opportunity to resist. African Americans were disenfranchised in the South which meant that they could not serve on juries and were not allowed to own weapons. African Americans faced racism in the North and Midwest as well. They were at the mercy of an unjust legal system and racism that led to lynchings and race riots when they defended themselves.

Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were both concerned with the welfare of African Americans but their strategy for achieving this was very different. Washington’s approach of vocational training and economic opportunity at the cost of foregoing civil rights was the better approach compared to Du Bois’ focus on classical education and fighting for civil rights. The nation was not ready for desegregation and history shows that the efforts of Du Bois and the “Talented Tenth” did not achieve substantial reform at the time (although they laid the groundwork for the civil rights reforms of the 1950’s and 1960’s). Unfortunately, Washington’s focus on financial advancement, rather than civil rights, led to African Americans being vulnerable to the de facto effects of Jim Crow discrimination in the South and the de facto effects of discrimination in the North. Washington’s path was the better path than Du Bois but it was not without its costs in terms of suffering.

Works Cited

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Dover Publications, Inc. 1994.

Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2015.

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