Toward the end of the 19th and early 20th century, two of the most important black political figures in American history emerged: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. While initially appearing irreconcilable, their respective philosophies had a profound impact on the trajectory of African American civil rights. Engaged in a protracted and bitter debate spanning two decades, Washington and Du Bois diverged fundamentally on the best direction for African Americans. Washington advocated an accommodationist approach, arguing for self-improvement through education, skill acquisition, and economic contribution as the means for social mobility and equality. Du Bois, however, advocated a more confrontational approach, urging direct protests against racism and fervently campaigning for civil rights. Despite the apparent schism in their ideologies, both Washington and Du Bois shared a common overarching objective: the uplift of the black community in post-slavery America.
To comprehend the profound impact of Washington and Du Bois, one must contextualise their narratives within the broader social upheaval engulfing America during this era. The late 19th century witnessed a nation rife with divisions, where African Americans experienced a dual reality. On one hand, the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877) granted a number of civil and political rights, including citizenship and voting rights for men under the 14th and 15th Amendments, respectively. Social mobility increased, with 700 African American men serving in public office, with 2 Senators, and 14 in the House of Representatives. However, this progress was marred by the pernicious rise of white supremacists in the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, disenfranchisement, and the imposition of segregationist Jim Crow laws. American society at this time was one of contradiction; in the North, some progress was being made towards greater equality for African Americans, yet in the New South, despite the end of slavery, African Americans continued to remain second-class citizens. It is upon this backdrop that Washington and Du Bois arrived.
Born into slavery in 1856, Booker T. Washington’s humble origins and dire poverty precluded him from attending school. To achieve an education, Washington worked as both a janitor and a teacher but taught children and adults day and night to pay for his schooling. By the time of his death on 27 August 1965, he had become the national spokesperson for African Americans, visited the White House in 1901, and had received honorary degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard. Washington’s journey, chronicled in his seminal work Up from Slavery (1901), underscored how education transformed his life, garnering success and respect from the white community. This influenced his philosophy, advocating for the abandonment of direct civil rights in pursuit of cultivating skills for economic security. Washington outlined his pragmatic approach on September 18th, 1895, at the Atlanta Exposition:
“In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
On the backdrop of continued lynchings in the South and the protracted era of segregation, an ideological schism unfolded between the two eminent African American leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Du Bois, unlike Washington, was born a free man in 1868, and thus, did not have the same direct experience with slavery that Washington had, which could explain their differing visions for black upward mobility. In his most famous work, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois dissected Washington’s philosophy, contending that rather than emancipating the black community from oppression, it continued it. Du Bois introduced the concept of “double consciousness”, the struggle he perceived between the integration of the black community in American society and the erosion of their own culture. For Du Bois, the pervasive issues of lynching, Jim Crow laws, racial riots, and disenfranchisement demanded not accommodation, but political protest and agitation.
Washington’s vision of a black meritocracy through accommodation, wherein short-term discrimination was tolerated for the promise of long-term integration, stood in stark contrast to Du Bois’s fundamental belief in Pan-Africanism. Du Bois championed the embrace and defence of African culture, dismissing Washington’s conciliatory approach with palpable vehemence. In a poignant rebuke of Washington’s ‘go along to get along’ policy, Du Bois articulated a fervent call for unyielding agitation:
“We must complain. Yes, plain, blunt, ceaseless agitation, unfailing exposure of dishonesty and wrong – this is the ancient, unerring way to liberty, and we must follow it.”
The story of Washington and Du Bois might, at first, seem one inherently at odds. One was born a slave, the other a free man, one wanted accommodation, the other wanted disruption. However, this would be an oversimplification; the pair are not completely irreconcilable in ideology. In fact, Du Bois initially lauded Washington’s speech at Atlanta, revealing an early alignment in their perspectives. Washington, in articulating, “I do not favour the Negro giving up anything which is fundamental”, nuanced his position, clarifying that he did not endorse the perpetuation of second-class citizenship for African Americans. Rather, he posited that civil rights, for the time being, should assume a secondary priority. Thus, characterising Washington solely as an accommodationist oversimplifies his stance, just as branding Du Bois as entirely disruptive would be inaccurate.
Indeed, Du Bois commended Washington’s aspirations, acknowledging his noble endeavour to transform black artisans into businessmen and property owners. Although both leaders envisioned black upward mobility through education, Du Bois focused specifically on the “talented tenth”—an elite cadre whose intellectual achievements, he believed, would spearhead the quest for greater equality. Though their methods may have differed, their goal was the same. Beneath seemingly contradictory philosophies lay a shared commitment to advancing the civil and social rights of the black community, shielding it from the scourges of lynching, Jim Crow laws, and disenfranchisement. A retrospective examination suggests a more productive perspective—one that emphasises the commonalities rather than differences. Picking sides becomes unnecessary; both Washington and Du Bois emerge as equally consequential architects.
Even the two men themselves accepted and promoted each other on important issues, despite their later differences. Du Bois, though more contentious in his time, alienated the southern white community and expressed dissatisfaction with the perceived lack of civil rights progress under Washington’s guidance. Washington, perceived as a more palatable face for the white community, advocated for incremental yet meaningful progress, eschewing agitative change that might set back the movement even further. In any case, their respective philosophies cast a long shadow over the 20th-century civil rights movement, in the similar discourse between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and was only the beginning of the struggle between more moderate civil rights leaders, and those at the more extreme end of the spectrum prepared to use force if necessary. Perhaps true progress requires both.
Aiello, T. (2014). The First Fissure: The Du Bois-Washington Relationship from 1898-1899. Phylon (1960-), [online] 51(1), pp.76–87.
Kenyon.edu. (2019). Black Education – Washington and DuBois. [online]