The Debate Between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington Essay Example



Booker T. Washington was born as a slave and became one of the most influential African American leaders during the late 19th century and early 20th century, taking on a big responsibility and even being an adviser to multiple presidents. But were his views on black advancement really the best way to help the black community? W.E.B. DuBois challenges Washington’s ideas and intentions and voices his own thoughts on the subject. DuBois was a civil-rights activist working towards the same thing: black advancement. He was a very influential writer and used his work to change the way people viewed black people. One of his most famous pieces is The Souls of Black Folk where he talked about race and oppression, as well as criticized Washington and his work. While many people think that his criticism was too harsh because of what he has done like create the Tuskegee Institute, the solid evidence presented against him makes it hard to believe that Washington’s actions were the best way to accomplish his goal and that his intentions were in the best interest of the people. DuBois’ writing/speeches and criticism allows for other people to see different and more effective ways to achieve the same goal in comparison to Washington’s ways. 

Some opponents argue that W.E.B. DuBois’ criticism towards Booker T. Washington was too harsh and unjustified. On the surface level, Washington has made some good achievements such as how he “has spoken against lynching” and in 1881 “Tuskegee was founded” by him, a learning institute for African Americans mentioned in The Souls of Black Folk (DuBois). Booker T. Washington thought that Black people should become properly educated about manual trades, agricultural skills, and the ability to become self-reliant economically, which is why he founded Tuskegee Institute. Because of this, it is understandable why opponents believe Washington was a good man and did not deserve criticism from people like DuBois. However, the evidence proving that Washington’s criticism was deserved for his beliefs about black advancement is more substantial than the evidence claiming otherwise. Mr. Washington’s work resulted in “The disfranchisement of the Negro” because he was “essentially the leader not of one race but of two,--a compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro” (DuBois). “When militant African-Americans demanded boycotts and protests against white violence and unequal facilities, Washington treated them as enemies, editorializing (anonymously) against them, planting spies in their ranks, and steering white donors elsewhere” (Bauerlein). He was saying that he did not want Black people to stand up for themselves against discriminizing white people. Using great commercialism and telling his followers to be submissive, he was able to make every race happy through the Atlanta Compromise in 1895. This stated, “ in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defence of yours” (Washington). He was telling his followers to stop fighting for their rights and become economically secure first, meaning he wanted them to accept discrimination and keep obeying white people. DuBois writes, “The South interpreted it in different ways: the radicals received it as a complete surrender of the demand for civil and political equality; the conservatives, as a generously conceived working basis for mutual understanding.” No one was in unity, everybody was just satisfied and pleased that things were going their own way, which made little progress for black advancement. Booker T. Washington’s approach was not the most effective and is deserving of criticism from DuBois and others. 

Washington clearly has his own personal agenda in mind, which needs to be explored. In The Tactical Life of Booker T. Washington, Bauerlein writes, “He manipulated people, played with high ideals, and hedged on our country's most fraught social issue...a man politically compromised and morally mixed. In his contradictions, duplicities, stratagems, and prestige we may grasp more about race relations then and now.” An example of the contradictions mentioned above include how he claimed to disapprove of any Black force, but in 1905 he decided that the Secretary of War William Howard Taft should do something about the Southern states disbanding the colored militia. Not to mention how he believed “Protests and boycotts, he argued, only made things worse. But when W.E.B. Du Bois filed a lawsuit against the Southern Railway for denying him a sleeping-car berth, Washington acted as a silent partner” and “when Southern politicians denounced the black vote as a corrupt bloc on sale to the highest bidder, Washington advised his brethren that it was better not to vote than to antagonize white neighbors” (Bauerlein). Washington let this discrimination happen and did not say anything about it. He seemed to let a lot of things like this slide, even though he claimed to be against it. Booker T. Washington was not the same person privately that he was publicly. 

One of the main things that differentiated Washington from DuBois was their view on education. Washington believed that “vocational education was the only means by which Blacks would become successful in America” (Johnson, Watson) and DuBois believed in academic education. Booker T. Washington pushes hard for industrial education, thus his very own Tuskegee Institute. But he is asking African Americans to continue doing what they have already been doing: hard manual labor. He wants people of color to stay in the inferior position they have been in. How does going to school for work they have already been doing allow for any intellectual growth? Unfortunately, white people liked industrial education for the wrong reasons. “For Southerners, it would keep Blacks subservient and exploitable. For Northerners, it would serve as a way of calming racial tensions and providing a well-trained laboring underclass that could be used in the effort to industrialize the South” (Johnson, Watson). The majority saw it as a way of profit, as well as a way to keep African Americans an inferior population. This vocational way of training did not result in a lot of progress for the Black community. “It not only failed to prepare Blacks to move up in society, but it also guaranteed that they would move down” (Johnson, Watson). DuBois says, “I believed in the higher education of a Talented Tenth who through their knowledge of modern culture could guide the American Negro into a higher civilization” (Johnson, Watson). He thought that if there were higher educated African Americans, they could lead their fellow people to also become educated in various fields and make something of themselves other than laborers. If the Black community was properly educated, they could also become informed on the current social status and ways to help overcome the terrible circumstances they had to live in. As an active participant in black advancement, DuBois did not agree and rightly criticized Washington’s view of education and his ways he thought were right to help African Americans progress in America, which did not help in the end.  

After reviewing Booker T. Washington’s contradictory claims and not so educational views, it is clear that his actions were deserving of W.E.B. DuBois’ criticism. While the controversy about black advancement between Washington and DuBois happened post Civil War, racial issues still exist today in the 21st century and leading politicians/leaders are acting on their own beliefs to help solve this problem, or to do the opposite unfortunately. Today’s society can learn from the mistakes of past leaders like Booker T. Washington and many others to further improve the quality of life.