The struggle for social and economic equality of Black people in America has
been long and slow. It is sometimes amazing that any progress has been made in
the racial equality arena at all; every tentative step forward seems to be
diluted by losses elsewhere. For every “Stacey Koons” that is
convicted, there seems to be a Texaco executive waiting to send Blacks back to
the past. Throughout the struggle for equal rights, there have been courageous
Black leaders at the forefront of each discrete movement. From early activists
such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois, to 1960s
civil rights leaders and radicals such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the
Black Panthers, the progress that has been made toward full equality has
resulted from the visionary leadership of these brave individuals. This does not
imply, however, that there has ever been widespread agreement within the Black
community on strategy or that the actions of prominent Black leaders have met
with strong support from those who would benefit from these actions. This report
will examine the influence of two “early era” Black activists: Booker
T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Through an analysis of the ideological
differences between these two men, the writer will argue that, although they
disagreed over the direction of the struggle for equality, the differences
between these two men actually enhanced the status of Black Americans in the
struggle for racial equality. We will look specifically at the events leading to
and surrounding the “Atlanta Compromise” in 1895. In order to
understand the differences in the philosophies of Washington and Dubois, it is
useful to know something about their backgrounds. Booker T. Washington, born a
slave in 1856 in Franklin County, Virginia, could be described as a pragmatist.

He was only able to attend school three months out of the year, with the
remaining nine months spent working in coal mines. He developed the idea of
Blacks becoming skilled tradesmen as a useful stepping-stone toward respect by
the white majority and eventual full equality. Washington worked his way through
Hampton Institute and helped found the Tuskeegee Institute, a trade school for
blacks. His essential strategy for the advancement of American Blacks was for
them to achieve enhanced status as skilled tradesmen for the present, then using
this status as a platform from which to reach for full equality later.

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Significantly, he argued for submission to the white majority so as not to
offend the power elite. Though he preached appeasement and a “hands
off” attitude toward politics, Washington has been accused of wielding
imperious power over “his people” and of consorting with the white
elite. William Edward Burghardt DuBois, on the other hand, was more of an
idealist. DuBois was born in Massachusetts in 1868, just after the end of the
Civil War and the official end of slavery. A gifted scholar, formal education
played a much greater role in DuBois’s life than it did in Washington’s. After
becoming a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Fisk and Harvard, he was the first Black
to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895. DuBois wrote over 20 books and more than
100 scholarly articles on the historical and sociological nature of the Black
experience. He argued that an educated Black elite should lead Blacks to
liberation by advancing a philosophical and intellectual offensive against
racial discrimination. DuBois forwarded the argument that “The Negro
problem was not and could not be kept distinct from other reform movements. .

.” DuBois “favored immediate social and political integration and the
higher education of a Talented Tenth of the black population. His main interest
was in the education of the group leader, the man who sets the ideas of the
community where he lives. . .'” To this end, he organized the “Niagara
movement,” a meeting of 29 Black business and professional men, which led
to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP). The crux of the struggle for the ideological center of the
racial equality movement is perhaps best exemplified in Mr. DuBois’s influential
The Souls of Black Folk. In it, he makes an impassioned argument for his vision
of an educated Black elite. DuBois also describes his opposition to Booker T.

Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” as follows: “Mr. Washington
represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and
submission…” According to DuBois, Washington broke the mold set by his
predecessors: “Here, led by Remond, Nell, Wells- Brown, and Douglass, a new
period of self-assertion and self- development dawned…. But Booker T.

Washington arose as essentially the leader not of one race but of two–a
compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro.” DuBois reported
that Blacks “resented, at first bitterly, signs of compromise which
surrendered their civil and political rights, even though this was to be
exchanged for larger chances of economic development.” DuBois’s point and,
according to him, the collective opinion of the majority of the Black community,
was that self- respect was more important than any potential future economic
benefits. Before Washington’s conciliatory stance gained a foothold, “the
assertion of the manhood rights of the Negro by himself was the main
reliance.” In other words, DuBois resented what he saw as Washington
“selling” Black pride: “…Mr. Washington’s programme naturally
takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as
apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life.” The
compromise included, in DuBois’s words, “that black people give up, at
least for the present, three things,– “First, political power, Second,
insistence on civil rights, Third, higher education of Negro youth,–and
concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of
wealth, and the conciliation of the South.” The final point comprised the
centerpiece both of Washington’s strategy for the ultimate redemption of Black
Americans and of DuBois’s condemnation of that strategy. Indeed, Washington
backed up his assertions by founding the Tuskeegee Institute as a trade school
for young Black men. DuBois could not abide this type of appeasement. In his
mind, this step was tantamount to the Black community telling the white
community that, henceforth, Blacks would cease pretending to be equal to whites
as human beings; rather, they would accept an overtly inferior social status as
being worthy of maintaining the white majority’s physical world, but unworthy of
true equality, of conducting socio-cultural discourse with the mainstream
society. The paradox must have been maddening for both men, especially Mr.

Washington. He no doubt understood that, as a group, Blacks could never hope to
progress to the point of equality from their position of abject poverty.

Moreover, without skills, their hopes of escaping their economic inferiority
were indeed scant. Washington’s plan for blacks to at least become skilled
artisans and tradesmen must have seemed logical to him from the standpoint of
improving the economic lot of the average Black man. At the same time, he must
have realized that, by accepting inferiority as a de- facto condition for the
entire race, he may have broken the black spirit forever. In considering this
matter, the writer is reminded of more recent events in American history–the
affirmative action flap that occurred after Clarence Thomas’s appointment to the
U.S. Supreme Court, for example. Mr. Thomas, clearly a beneficiary of
affirmative action, announced that he was nonetheless opposed to it. His
argument was that if he had not been eligible for benefits under affirmative
action programs, he would have still achieved his current position in the inner
circle of this society’s white power elite. Similarly, Booker T. Washington
enjoyed access to the power elite of his time, but one must wonder whether
President Roosevelt, for example, in his interactions with Mr. Washington, was
not merely using the situation for public relations value. “Mr.

Washington was intimate’ with Roosevelt from 1901 to 1908. On the day
Roosevelt took office, he invited Washington to the White House to advise him on
political appointments of Negroes in the south.” After all, he did not
become a popular president by being oblivious to such political maneuvering.

Perhaps Mr. DuBois was the more prescient visionary. Perhaps he understood what
Mr. Washington did not, that after the critical historical momentum toward
social acceptance that had been established prior to the late nineteenth
century, if political pressure were not maintained, the cause of true equality
would be lost forever. Moreover, DuBois understood that equality would not be
earned through appeasement. From our perspective of over 100 years, we must
admit that he may have been right. For example, in the aftermath of the
“Atlanta Massacre” of September 22, 1906 and a similar incident in
Springfield, Illinois, “it was clear to almost all the players that the
tide was running strongly in favor of protest and militancy.” “For six
days in August, 1908, a white mob, made up, the press said, of many of the
town’s best citizens,’ surged through the streets of Springfield, Illinois,
killing and wounding scores of Blacks and driving hundreds from the city.”
However, it later turned out that DuBois was considered to be too extreme in the
other direction. For example, as the NAACP became more mainstream, it became
increasingly conservative, and this did not please DuBois, who left the
organization in 1934. He returned later but was eventually shunned by Black
leadership both inside and outside of the NAACP, especially after he voiced
admiration for the USSR. In the political climate of the late 1940s and 1950s,
any hint of a pro-communist attitude–black or white–was unwelcome in any group
with a national political agenda. We can see, then, that neither Washington’s
strategy of appeasement nor DuBois’s plan for an elite Black intelligentsia was
to become wholly successful in elevating American Blacks to a position of
equality. However, perhaps it was more than the leadership of any one Black man
that encouraged African Americans to demand a full measure of social and
economic equality. Perhaps the fact that there was a public dialogue in itself
did more to encourage Black equality than the philosophy of any one prominent
Black man. After all, concepts such as equality are exactly that: concepts. As
such, it up to each of us to decide how we see ourselves in relation to others;
superior or inferior, equal or not equal, the choice is ultimately our own.


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