W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington

Nkrumah History

Fact #23 of 28

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W.E.B. Du Bois

A An elderly black man took off his hat, bowed, and, with tears running down his cheeks, said, “May de good Lord bless you, President Linkum!” Lincoln replied by removing his own hat and silently returning the bow. That gesture, a northern reporter noted, “upset the forms, laws, customs, and ceremonies of centuries.” It represented, he continued, “a death-shock to chivalry and a mortal wound to caste.”

The two most influential voices answering the question of “where do we go from here” were the voices of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

One of the consequences of abolishing slavery was that, for the first time in centuries, Blacks in the South knew whom and where their families were. For the first time, marriages between black men and women were legally recognized. They had surnames now. They weren’t just “Big Frank” or “Tessy”. And they could pass these surnames on to their children. Emancipation allowed Blacks to begin to build stronger family ties and through the family, to organize for the first time. This was laying the foundation that would eventually allow Blacks to organize to fight for equal rights in the decades to come.

W. E. B. Du Bois was not born a slave. His parents were not slaves. His mother came from a family that had long owned their own property and the house where she was raised. So Du Bois did not inherit a slave identity. His maternal grandfather was a slave who fought in the Revolutionary war, and because of his service was granted his freedom. His paternal grandfather was a free mulatto. Du Bois grew up in a relatively tolerant and racially integrated community in Massachusetts. He graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1890 and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895. Du Bois spent his life advocating for Black Americans to fight for the rights that were guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

Contrast that with Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave, raised in the South and who knew firsthand what challenges Blacks had to contend with after the Reconstruction Era ended, and Blacks were at the mercy of Southern Whites eager to implement a new and improved Black code 2.0 now called Jim Crow.

Booker T. Washington knew former slaves’ demanding their rights, without Northern soldiers to protect them was a sure way as any of being wiped off the face of the Earth. Instead Booker T. Washington struck a verbal agreement with Southern White leaders who had regained control after the Northerners left, known as the Atlanta Compromise. The Atlanta Compromise essentially said that Blacks would acquiesce to being discriminated against, being segregated, having their voting rights taken away as well as a slew of other BS, if, in exchange, Southern Whites would allow blacks to gain a basic education, own their own businesses, and ensure due process within the legal system.

Du Bois thought Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise was absolutely, unequivocally, the craziest sh!t he had ever heard in his life!

Booker T. Washington had hoped that by conceding the right to vote, Blacks would be putting themselves in such a powerless position that Whites would allow Blacks to get an education, maintain their own economy, by owning their own businesses and live by themselves in peace. However, as Du Bois pointed out, by giving up things like the right to vote, Blacks would be placing themselves wholly at the political mercy of Whites making it impossible to secure whatever gains they might achieve by the arrangement.

But like I said before, we have always misunderstood the root cause of our problem with race relations in this country. The Master Identity prevents individuals from assessing their own self-worth independently of the Slave. It needs to consider Blacks inferior to themselves in every way. Whites with this Master identity wouldn’t be able to sit there and watch Blacks thrive and prosper, even in an entirely segregated capacity. Black prosperity would always be seen as a threat because the Master identity necessitates that they always remain in a markedly better position relative to Blacks.

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Booker T. Washington

In all fairness to Washington, it was just as unlikely that simply demanding equal rights from people who had the Master identity was going to get you anywhere either.

Du Bois had trouble relating to Blacks who were willing to concede their civil rights for the potential to make gains elsewhere. It was how enslaved Africans survived for centuries. In fact, many had gotten so adept at playing this position that many Slave-owners had come to see Blacks as being as mild and docile as household pets.

In his writings, Du Bois often referred to Blacks who were unwilling to stand up for their civil rights in disparaging terms and, as a result, was viewed by many Southern Blacks as being largely unsympathetic towards them and their circumstance. In reality, this wasn’t the case, nor was it true that Booker T. Washington was a straight up Uncle Tom, although both men made it extremely easy for their critics to make that case.

Both men were correct. If Blacks were now American citizens then they shouldn’t have to sacrifice any of their constitutionally protected civil rights. At the same time, people only change for one reason, because they choose to. And changes in our identity always take time, as we have to get comfortable with our new way of defining ourselves or else we will easily slip back into our old way of thinking because the former is always more familiar to us than the new. The only way to improve race relations was the same then as it is today, we need to realize how we define ourselves, recognize the inherent flaws within the Master and Slave identities, and then abandon them.

In retrospect, someone should’ve written the Civil Rights Act of 1965 in 1875.