A brief guide to the argument between Booker T. Washington and W.E.DuBois.

An enduring and common perception in western popular culture is that the true resolution of the problems generated by American reconstruction was centred on post-Truman America. When examining the history of race relations within America, the reconstituted civil rights movement headed in a de facto sense by Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy provide us with a sharp and more viable contrast to arguably irreconcilable polemics concerned with the autonomy of the black community in America, such as Malcolm X, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Through strategic and non-violent protest epitomised in events such as the 1960 Greensboro sit-in and the Montgomery bus boycott, dedicated activists are seen to have triumphed against the odds in the face of reactionary and unprecedented violence that retains a capacity to shock, such as the infamous Birmingham, Alabama campaign of bombings and the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers.

This is in many regards a sound interpretation, although perhaps simplistic and questionable when it comes to deterministic attitudes, leadership and the exact extent to which “outsiders” contributed. However, it is an interpretation that sits within a much larger sphere of history concerning American race relations before Woodward’s “Bulldozer Revolution.” We should not underestimate the remarkable scope of the civil rights movement in transforming attitudes to both historical and contemporary racism within the United States. However, it is an extensive disservice to resilience and the erudite nature of agitation as well as the extensive process of reconciliation undertaken arguably from the very start of Johnson’s presidency to characterise Civil Rights as a concept confined to the Atomic age. In particular, the survival of Douglass’s concept of agitation against comparative appeasement is worth observing, both in order to chart modern impact of seemingly intangible historical concepts as well as the shifting nature of discourse of the nature and roles of race within America.

To narrow this down further, the “nadir” (as the historian Logan defined it) of the African-American experience between 1880-1920 is perhaps our most productive area for summary examination, and Booker T. Washington (1859-1915) and W.E.DuBois (1868-1963) the foremost representative intellectuals within that particular narrative. This epoch saw the rise of “Jim Crow” in law from 1896 following Plessy vs. Ferguson as well as violent upsurge in lynching during the 1890’s, with a particularly grisly and fundamentally irrational resumption centred on the “Red Summer” of 1919, all events that can be seen to have contributed to the early twentieth century “great migration” of the persecuted and beleaguered Southern Black populace northward.

It is also this era that saw both the founding of the educational institute of Tuskegee by Washington in 1881 and the N.A.A.C.P by Du Bois in 1909; both organisation intended to advance the standing of minorities within America. However, Washington and DuBois were grounded in vastly different methodologies representative of a dichotomy of reasoning as to how the Black community should respond in a time of endemic discrimination. In order to understand this, we must delve further into the beliefs of the individuals responsible, and in particular into a few central moments of communication between both of them.

Booker T. Washington is representative of an accommodating strand of thought within the movement for African-American improvement. Born c.1858 under slavery, Booker T. Washington rose spectacularly from manual labourer to teacher, and from there to leading advocate of black education. His legacy forms a contentious issue, with debate over Washington’s intentions and achievements still a point of discussion for many historical and social commentators. In many ways, Washington’s achievements have been overshadowed by his tendency to compromise for pragmatic ends. By 1901, Washington had become the “White selected” ideologue of the community, patronised by Rockefeller and Carnegie, and respected on an intellectual and political level by many Northern Whites. Washington also established an influential political network within his own lifetime and was notably invited by Theodore Roosevelt himself to dine at the White House in 1901.

Washington provided desperately needed minority visibility and influence within the landscape of early twentieth century American politics and culture.Despite this apparent active prominence, he faced direct opposition from contemporary Black intellectuals such as Du Bois, and later critics of his alleged “Uncle Tom” role(s). Retroactive criticism frequently centres on his famous 1895 address to the Cotton States Exhibition, contrasting the often unconditional praise given to his autobiography, “Up from slavery” (1901). This short speech constitutes part of his rise to prominence in that it briefly outlined Washington’s core beliefs to the late nineteenth century industrial aristocracy of the south. Washington laid out his support to for an acceptable solution to rich Southern Whites to the supposed “Negro problem” in that he outlined what can be seen as a pragmatic strategy for the Black southerner of 1895.

Through avocation of economic autonomy, practical education and manual labour in his speech, Washington attempted to lay a foundation for Black improvement with a degree of White patronage from capitalist investees. The speech formed an appeal for conditional acceptance of Black participation in American capitalism; a modified “manifest destiny” for the share-cropping community. This was Washington’s avocation of advancement through trained labour applied to a much larger scale; a kind of economic equality would emerge through participation within the foremost laissez-faire society of the new world.

As Du Bois highlighted in “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), Washington’s “compromise” failed to address both the growing racial divide in funding and the aforementioned pejorative “Jim Crow” legislation. In hindsight, his economic strategy seems naïve in the face of violent constraints on black progression (such as the dramatic increase in lynching) and a lack of widespread Southern cultural or infrastructural development. The relative success of later lobbying associations such as N.A.A.C.P in contrast to Washington’s ideology of the “self-made Negro” stand testament to the failure of his publicly expressed principles, and partially explains his conflicted reputation after his death in 1915. Manufacture of capital under certain conditions of bondage such as the exploitative and isolating practice of “sharecropping” proved a dead-end for fuelling inclusiveness.

DuBois can thus be seen as a riposte to accommodation while (perhaps conflicting) the harbinger of the future strategy of movements intended for Black liberation, although with a distinct emphasis on the theoretical in many cases. A Harvard graduate and sociologist, DuBois outlined a framework of participation heavily akin to classical liberal education. Through avocation for self-justifying, equitable education for of the “talented tenth” of the Black population and constant agitation in order to maintain the dialogue on racial segregation and discrimination, DuBois can be seen to have provided a solid foundation to later twentieth century civil rights in helping to foster the creation of both productive working and middle class individuals within the Black community. The N.A.A.C.P provided welcome guardianship and assistance in later, complex cases concerning racial relations, such as Scottsboro in 1931.

DuBois was more abstract in his ideas and his improving methodology deliberately confrontational albeit gradualist. However, his grand ideals can be seen to have helped the steady removal of fundamental assumptions that dominated a significant part of the early twentieth century White American population concerning the inclusiveness of the Black community. Although DuBois can be seen to have “won” the argument by default in this sense, his long-term influence and implications are ultimately still ones of debate today, particularly with his substantial loss of prominence following post-war McCarthy era accusations of Communist affiliation and self-exile to Ghana.

The Washington-DuBois debate ultimately illustrates the diffuse nature of different forms of and attempts at advancement within the grand overarching narrative of American Civil Rights. Although the visibility of King’s movement in popular culture is enhanced by proximity to post-industrial, post-agrarian modernity, we can see that it is but part of a much larger process. From our brief discussion, we can see that the nature of minority advancement within the United States is far more complex and the results of individuals far less determinable than the typical summary presentation of a straightforward liberal battle for acceptance and the practical end of discrimination.

This post contains significant amounts of material reworked and augmented by myself for online consumption from an unpublished piece of work submitted by myself on the American South in 2011.


One thought on “A brief guide to the argument between Booker T. Washington and W.E.DuBois.

  1. Booker T. Washington lived before Ghana became Independent, the first African country to do so in 1957 while DuBois lived and worked within African Independence. Free Africans already lived in the US and White Americans had learnt to respect the African. A wave of interracial marriages produced the Obama type while African embassies dotted the USA. It was easy for Rev. Martin Luther King to defy White America and demand an all inclusive American society. All I am saying is that the analysis on Booker and DuBois fails to capture the social political milieu distance between the two.


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