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 my home town of Chattanooga. 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 that no Southern state of that era ever named anything for Du Bois.

That’s because while Washington espoused a vision with which whites could be comfortable, counseling black acceptance of their second class status in society, Du Bois was a fiercely militant agitator for full and immediate equal rights for African Americans.

Booker T. Washington and the Atlanta Compromise

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington (1895-1915) was born a slave, but through hard work, dedication, and education pulled himself out of poverty to become the founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In 1895 he delivered an address at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in which he offered what came to be known as the “Atlanta Compromise.” Washington suggested that blacks should forgo 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.

W. E. B. Du Bois and the fight for equality

In contrast to Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was born in the fully integrated town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he experienced little in the way of racial prejudice or discrimination. After graduating from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Du Bois went on to become the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard.

W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois

While at Fisk, in the strongly segregated South, Du Bois was exposed to a level of race-based humiliation far beyond anything he had experienced before. Combating that prejudice and discrimination became his life’s work.

Du Bois viewed the Atlanta Compromise as nothing less than craven accommodation with injustice and second class citizenship. In fiercely critical attacks against Washington and everything he stood for, Du Bois advocated for a strategy of political and social activism to secure immediate civil and political rights for African Americans. He went on to become 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 Civil Rights movement.

The insistent demands for full citizenship rights for blacks that Du Bois advocated have certainly borne fruit. In my view, landmarks such as the integration of the US military in 1948, desegregation in schools and public accommodations in the 1950s and 60s, the Voting Rights Act of 1963, and ultimately, the election of Barak Obama as President of the United States, would never have taken place without them.

Booker T. Washington’s comprise: A wise strategy for its time

That’s why many today laud Du Bois as a prophet of racial equality, while considering Washington 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 accommodation to racial injustice was, in reality, a necessary strategy in its time.

When Washington suggested his compromise, 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 wanted 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 could deny the opportunity to make a living to any black of whom it disapproved.

KKK members in 1922

KKK members in 1922

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 legal 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. A Harvard-educated scholar of international reputation, he was far less vulnerable than local blacks to the threat of racial violence.

Du Bois and Washington: two equally necessary links in the chain

Most importantly, I believe it was Washington’s strategy that provided the foundation on which Du Bois was able to build. Du Bois had advocated the nurturing of a “talented tenth” of highly educated black intellectuals who would provide leadership for the race. It was only when 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.


Photo credits: All photos from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia

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