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Booker T Washington vs W.E.B Du Bois: The Great Debate

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booker t washington, w.e.b du bois

Booker T Washington vs W.E.B Du Bois took place before Martin vs Malcom.

But what was the great debate that shaped the course of the civil rights movement? And was this a real rivalry or more of a disagreement on how to fight racism in America?

Both Booker T Washington and W.E.B Du Bois are extraordinary figures in American history. Each men had profound influence in the early 1900s in the struggle for Black equality, an influence that left an impact that can still be seen and felt.

The great Booker T Washington vs W.E.B Du Bois debate was over which road would lead to equality: economic independence or fighting for civil rights. Washington believed Blacks having economic independence and creating wealth for themselves would lead to equality while Du Bois argued that fighting for civil rights was the right course to take.

Born a Slave, Washington Becomes Black Elite

Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856 into slavery in Virginia. After his mother, Jane (an African American woman), was emancipated, she moved the family to West Virginia. Washington’s father was white, and he never knew the identity of his father. Young Washington went on to attend Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) and Wayland Seminary (now Virginia Union University).

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In 1881, Booker T. Washington became the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a new organization founded for the higher education of Blacks. He expanded the school by having the students work at the college constructing buildings and maintaining a large farm.

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Washington became a popular figure in the Black community and with liberal Whites across the country.

Even though he was criticized for not supporting civil right causes and having a softer tone when it comes to dealing with racism, Washington secretly funded litigation for civil rights cases, challenging laws that hurt Blacks across the South.

Booker T. Washington also used his connections with rich white philanthropists to fund other schools he was developing besides Tuskegee. The likes of J.P. Morgan, Collis P. Huntington, and John D. Rockefeller contributed to Washington’s cause. He encouraged Black youths to learn skills that would make them great participants in the industrial revolution, and hence making them valuable members of society.

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him and his family at the White House. This was the first time a Black leader was officially invited to the white house and garnered high publicity as a social occasion.

By the time of his death in 1915, Washington had written 14 books, including his popular autobiography, Up from Slavery.

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 W.E.B. Du Bois Had A Different Perspective

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Du Bois’ parents, mother Mary Silvina Du Bois and father Alfred Du Bois, separated when he was only two and Du Bois was raised with his mother’s family.

Living in a majority white neighborhood and attending a white school, Du Bois encountered racism. However, his brilliant mind was recognized and encouraged as a child. After high school, when DuBois decided to go to college, the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington raised the money for his tuition.

booker t washington, w.e.b du bois

Du Bois attended Fisk University (a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee) and Harvard College. He went to Germany to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work. Du Bois returned home to attend Harvard University and became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from there.

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In 1900, Du Bois attended the First Pan-African Conference held in London.

He drafted a letter titled “Address to the Nations of the World”, a letter that called for world leaders to fight racism, grant colonies in Africa and the West Indies their independence, and demand political rights for African Americans.

In 1903, Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of 14 essays the depicted Black life at the turn of the century. The book is believed to be one of the most influential social books of the century.

After the creation of the NAACP in 1910, Du Bois was given the position of Director of Publicity and Research. His main job was editing the NAACP’s monthly magazine, which he named The Crisis. The magazine was a major success and the circulation reached 100,000 in 1920.

When the Harlem Renaissance took place in the mid-1920s, Du Bois promoted African American artistic creativity in his writings, such as his article “A Negro Art Renaissance.”  Dr. Du Bois was also an outspoken Socialist and ran for the U.S. Senate on the American Labor Party in 1950, at the age of 82.

Among other things, Du Bois was a sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, and writer. He died in Accra, Ghana in 1963, one year before The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the act that embodied many of the reforms Du Bois fight for all his life.

Booker T Washington vs W.E.B Du Bois

Both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois had the goal of liberating the Black race from inequality and hardship. How can this be achieved best? Is it through Blacks concentrating their efforts on work, building businesses, and creating wealth for themselves and their communities or through putting their efforts to fight the system for equal citizen rights?

In the decades since his passing, Booker T. Washington has been greatly criticized for his “accommodating” approach when it comes to fighting racism. He believed if a race war was to break out, Blacks, who were severely outnumbered, would be demolished. So, in order to avoid a harsh conflict that could destroy communities, he believed Blacks should have a cautious approach when fighting for civil rights.

Washington believed the first step towards complete equality for blacks was a step towards financial independence.

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In 1895, Booker T. Washington gave a speech at a Cotton State and international Exposition in Atlanta. In the speech, Washington emphasized that Blacks should set aside their demands for civil rights for now and instead concentrate on building strong communities through commerce.

Washington said: “Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom; that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill; that the political conversation or stump speaking had more attractions than starting a dairy farm or truck garden.”

Washington basically wanted blacks to be left alone in their communities, even if segregated, to farm their lands, own their lands, and build their own communities. He told whites, it’s ok, we won’t bother you about civil rights, and you don’t bother us.

The speech was generally accepted well at the time by Blacks in the South.  They viewed it as a practical way for Blacks and Whites to co-exist.

W.E.B. Du Bois first supported Washington’s speech but later became one of his harshest critics.

In one of his essays, titled “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”, Du Bois had this to say: “Mr. Washington came, with a single definite programme, at the psychological moment when the nation was a little ashamed of having bestowed so much sentiment of Negroes, and was concentrating its energies on Dollars. His programme of industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights, was not wholly original…But Mr. Washington first dissolubly linked these things; he put enthusiasm, unlimited energy, and perfect faith into this programme, and changed it from a by-path into a veritable Way of Life. And the tale of the methods by  which he did this is a fascinating study of human life.”

After Washington’s passing, Du Bois became the leading black intellectual and brought his ideas to the forefront of the civil rights movement. He believed putting all efforts into building wealth without having civil rights guaranteed to Blacks was a dangerous approach.

Du Bois was not alone in believing this. Booker T. Washington was viewed as a sell out for decades until a re-examination of his life and teachings lead many to believe that he had a reasonable approach for the way things were at the time.

Washington’s push for putting almost all efforts into building strong Black communities away from white communities is an idea a lot of Black leaders view as smart now. His push for Black ownership is the basis for many successful black businesses that kept many communities afloat in the South.

Of course, it is easy to see where Du Bois’ influence has lead. The Civil Rights Movement was built on the back of teachings and ideas spread by the likes of W.E.B Du Bois.

What is your opinion on the matter? Let us know below in the comments.