In chapter XIII of W.E.B. Du Bois’s book, The Souls of Black Folk, the author introduces a man named John, who could be said to be a representation of all black men in the South at that time. John represents the idea of black men at the precipice, wondering where they should go in order to take advantage of the realities of their new-found freedom. While it might be easy to assume that the post-Civil War era black thought offered one direction for people like John to go, the truth is that there were competing ideas on the best course for black people to take. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others, would go on to offer incredibly different pictures of what black progress could and should look like going forward.
In his speech to the Atlanta Cotton States, Booker T. Washington gained the approval of many white people and drew the ire of some of his black contemporaries. This is because Washington proposed a brand of social progress that was nothing if not palatable. It was a proposal which asserted that black people should have the ability to contribute to the “mutual progress” of the nation, while remaining in the margins in separate society from a social and civil context . This made the attending white people feel good, as they had been worried about some of the implications of racial integration. If Washington were providing advice to John and black people like him, he probably would have advised John to gain technical education. Washington envisioned a scenario where someone like John could gain the practical ability that would make him a “skilled worker” able to contribute to the economy and provide for his family. This was a pragmatist’s approach, to be sure, and Washington would have probably advised John to ignore the pressures on him to try and create a socially equitable society.
Du Bois, on the other hand, envisioned something far different for John. He envisioned full inclusiveness for John and his ilk within society . He believed that John should be able to vote and seek out a real education. Du Bois’s approach had to do with full societal participation. While he certainly recognized that one of the ways to move black people forward was to increase their capacity to participate in the economic situation of the day, he also recognized that full equality would not happen until some of the barriers of Jim Crow and segregation were broken down. Du Bois likely would have encouraged John to take advantage not of a technical education, but of a more classical education. He would have wanted John to learn the skills necessary to be a part of the movement towards equality and civil rights. He likewise would have wanted John to put in the hard work necessary to earn the right to vote and the truth citizenship that had been promised to John and other black people under the constitution.
Ultimately, these two competing visions for the future of black America show a genuine split among men who all believed that they were doing the right thing. On one hand, the approach of Washington was one likely to lead to an immediately better situation, and it came in response to the social disharmony that had taken over the day. Du Bois’s approach, on the other hand, was all about the long game. Washington would have wanted black men to fit into the social structure in a way that would pacify white people and lead to fewer lynchings and other atrocities. Du Bois wanted something more than that, arguing that black people would never be free unless they took it upon themselves to push for full inclusion in society, including the right to vote.
- Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. The souls of black folk. Oxford University Press, 1903.
- Washington, Booker T. Atlanta Exposition Address. Broome Special Phonograph, 1895.