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. 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: