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Monday, February 26, 2024

Clarifying W.E.B. Du Bois opposition to Booker T. Washington’ program

CSMS Magazine Staff WritersWhen we published the article on W.E.B. Dubois last month, we received a lot of e-mails from readers wanting to know more about a specific reference we made in regard to Du Bois’ opposition to Booker T. Washington’s industrial education program. Many readers did not seem to understand the downside of Booker T. Washington’s undertaking; nor did many of our readers question why mainstream America was so quick to embrace Washington’s idea and gleefully signed in 1881 the so-called “Atlanta Compromise.”            Our article last month, however, did not cover at length the fundamental or the underlining factors that triggered an uproar not only among most Black intellectuals at that time but also among many Whites former abolitionists as well. So, we take this moment to make some clarifications.The agreement signed in Atlanta in1881gained fame in the South for it is implicitly legalized the notion of separate but “equal” or the vexing issue of taxation without representation. The “compromise” fore-grounded in this notoriously famous line: “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, and yet one as the hand of all things essential to mutual progress.” The segregated South seized on this specific provision to hastily interpret it as the Negro’s total capitulation to his own demand for civil and political equality.            So while economic opportunities may be available to the newly freed slaves, by accepting or even tolerating his current position in society, he would knowingly enshrine or inflict upon himself a system of caste, which would not only hinder his progress towards a fair social justice, but also would exacerbate the plights of 10 million former slaves longing for social and political integration. To many Black intellectuals, many of them educated in the North, Booker T. Washington’s program was nothing but one of a “singleness of vision and thorough oneness” bent on serving the government in Washington at a time the country was heavily concentrated in industrial development and at a critical moment when many in the US elite as well as a lot politicians in the nation’s capital were a bit embarrassed after “having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes.”            Du Bois acknowledged Booker T. Washington’s unquestionable popularity among both Withes and Blacks for different reasons; and since Jefferson Davis—the confederate president from 1861 to 1865—Booker T. rose to become the indisputable spokesperson for “ten million Blacks, and one of the most notable figures in a nation of seventy millions.”The sentiment in the South at that time was echoed in this clotted understanding or misunderstanding, if you will, that Du Bois notes in The Souls: “If that is all you and your race ask, take it.” This narrow interpretation and the subsequent application as such that followed prompted many Black intellectuals to take an open stand against the “Atlanta Compromise”—something they considered as illusory at best and shameful at worse.For all practical purposes, despite war and compromises, the latter part of the 19th century did not offer true social, economic and political freedom for the newly freed men and women. Until the 1940s, almost 90 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the reality of life for millions of Blacks in the South—especially in the backwoods of the Gulf States—was one that could easily be described as slavery without its legal name. They must not leave the plantation of their birth, where black farmers were forced into a system of peonage “bound by law and custom to an economic slavery, from which the only escape was death or the penitentiary.”Du Bois’ repudiation of Booker T.’s program focuses on the fact that it would implicitly legalize the disfranchisement of millions of Blacks as well as giving them a distinct status of inferiority. But most importantly, the program would be used as an excuse to withdraw much needed federal assistance as well as aid from institutions of higher learning and training for Blacks. And Du Bois centers his opposition to the program in what he calls “the triple paradox.”

  1. The program was dedicated to making Negro artisans businessmen and property-owners only, which was grossly unachievable under current conditions of modern competitive methods. The mechanisms for exercising rights of suffrage did not exist.
  2. Booker T. insisted on building self-respect while, at the same time, he was actively preaching a silent submission to civic inferiority.
  3. Booker T. claimed to be in favor of industrial training, but at the same time he was actively discouraging those who inspired to attend institutions of higher learning—something that Black schools and Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. himself could not live without, if they wanted to remain open.

            Du Bois summarizes his intellectual rejection to Booker T. Washington program in three things that it seriously failed to advocate:

  1. The right to vote.
  2. Civic equality
  3. The education of youth according to ability.

            It is fair to say that most of the grievances put forward by an active advocacy from Black political activists and intellectuals were answered during the latter part of the 20th century. Needless to say there are still a lot of work to be done in the struggle to bridge to socio-economic gap between Blacks and Whites in this country. Race is still very much a factor in electoral politics, despite the fact an African American is now poised to become the first such person of color to occupy the highest office of the land.            Overall, The Souls is worth revisiting. So we are encouraging readers who have not read it to do so and even those who already have to read it again. It is very informative and educational. It is a great exercise for the brain.   Also see  The 1956 Paris CongressA Chinese Princess like no other (Part I) The last time I saw ElodieCoping with holiday stress Best tips for emerging writersCommercial success or literary lust: the dilemma facing many of our promising authorsPaul Laraque, internationally renowned Haitian poet and militant, has died

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