Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois

Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois

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Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois were both early leaders in the struggle for black equality. Washington was probably the preeminent black spokesman at the turn of the century. DuBois was one of the founders of the NAACP. Both agreed that the goal was full participation by blacks in American society, economically and politically. The differences in their backgrounds caused both men to come to different conclusions on how that goal could be reached.

Booker T. Washington was born a slave. Growing up in the South, working to help pay his way through college, teaching black schoolchildren in the South, he was painfully aware of the inequalities that Southern blacks faced on a day-to-day basis. Washington knew that the time for confrontation had not arrived, but also that change was inevitable, that "progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be as the result of severe and constant struggle rather than an artificial forcing" (Washington 5).

The reality of the South, Washington knew, was a system of white-dominated governments, courts, and businesses that kept blacks in economic slavery. A system that used intimidation, beatings, and the hangman's noose, to ensure that blacks remained second class citizens in their own communities; a system that ensured an economic stranglehold on the development of black businesses. Education, Washington believed, was the key to breaking that stranglehold; but not just the education of blacks, but the education of whites as well.

Blacks needed to remember that most of them were going to have to earn a living "by the production of our hands." That there was "as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem." and that no where except in the South is "the Negro given a man's chance in the commercial world" (4 and 5). Because of the size of the black population in the South, whites would eventually have to recognize blacks as their equals.

Whites had to realize that efforts to "curtail the fullest growth of the Negro" would only result in harm. Negroes would be "one third and more of the ignorance and crime… or one third of its intelligence and progress," he cautioned in a speech at the Atlanta Exposition (4). Both races needed to pursue policies that would result in "a blotting out of sectional differences and racial animosities and suspicions, in a determination to administer absolute justice in a willing obedience among all classes to the mandates of the law" (4 and 5).

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Failure to do so could "prove a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing retarding every effort to advance the body politic" (4).

"There is no defense," Washington said, "or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all" (4). He believed that as blacks became educated and started businesses, whites would come to realize that blacks could contribute to society and treat them as equals. Since blacks made up one-third of the population of the South, once whites realized that blacks had money, they would allow blacks to participate because no race of people "that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized" (5).

While W.E. B. Dubois agreed with Washington that education was important, he disagreed with Washington's conclusion that equality was inevitable. Born in Massachusetts after the abolition of slavery, raised in the North, and educated at Harvard, DuBois advocated a policy of confrontation to secure the legal rights of blacks.

DuBois' education and upbringing had instilled in him a belief in morals and morality based decisions. Since blacks were citizens of the United States and entitled to equal treatment under the law, DuBois felt that they should be demanding it. Securing those rights, said Dubois, "is worth more than lands and houses," that a people who "cease striving for it, are nor worth civilizing" (DuBois 6).

If the founders of our country truly believed that "all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," then blacks had a moral obligation to use "every civilized and peaceful method" available to secure those rights (7). That the country had an obligation "by candid and honest criticism" to correct the wrongs that had been inflicted on blacks by local and sate governments in the South (7). That the "black men of America" had a duty, "a duty stern and delicate," to object to any delay in that process - even if it meant criticizing other prominent black leaders (7).

Whites living in the North needed to accept the results of their failure to fully enforce the laws of the country after Reconstruction. This failure had allowed individual states to disenfranchise blacks, and for the "legal creation of a distant status of civil inferiority for the Negro" (6). The North should not think that she could "salve her conscience by plastering it with gold," or that she was not responsible for her past inaction (7).

While I think that DuBois' ideas were the correct ones, I think his timing was wrong. Attempts by blacks to exercise their rights at the turn of the century would have resulted in reports of "rioting" or "local unrest" by "outside agitators" that had been put down by the "heroic efforts" of local officials. Lacking a method to get around the reporting of local news by local papers would have meant a fragmented and bloody struggle in most Southern communities. Protests would have been reported inaccurately, if at all, and totally one-sided on the side of the white community. DuBois may have had the benefit of an intellectual's knowledge of moral ascendancy, but as a friend of mine commented while we were watching a jousting tournament at a Renaissance Fair, "You know, it's hard to finesse 300 pounds of armored illiteracy."

Perhaps Washington was right that the time for "demanding" equality had not yet come. Perhaps fifty additional years of learning that blacks weren't really any different meant a more educated white populace. Perhaps fifty additional years taught blacks that there were whites that supported their efforts to achieve equality. Perhaps blacks and whites really did learn a little about each other. And when dogs and fire hoses were turned upon blacks in the spotlight of national television coverage, circumventing the control of local authorities, perhaps those additional fifty years of learning helped the majority of Americans realize that there was just something inherently wrong about denying any citizen their legal rights.
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