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Booker Washington and Du Bois Approaches Essay

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Updated: May 14th, 2020

Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois had distinctly different approaches to the accomplishment of their shared goal of African American betterment. This was expressed in their policies, programs, goals, and methods. Their debate persisted until DuBois’ death in the mid-1960s. Washington advocated a gradual approach to achieving equality, while Du Bois urged that immediate pursuit of equal civil rights and education. These differences may have reflected vastly different life experiences, with one born a slave, and the other attending Harvard. Neither leader was completely successful in their goals in their lifetime, but they laid the groundwork for many important initiatives that are still operating today in the ongoing effort to make up for centuries of slavery and unequal treatment. It is not easy to dismiss either approach because both have their basis in a conviction of what is right, and of what can be done.

Washington, born into slavery in 1865, and brought up in the Reconstruction-era South, “knew the heart of the South from birth and training,” including the deep-seated feeling of superiority and animosity that southern whites expressed in every aspect of their behavior (Du Bois). It is possible that he simply could not imagine that generation of Southern whites according to African Americans the full rights that they wanted and deserved, at least, not without a powerful appeal to their self-interest.

This, he believed, would arise from African Americans becoming economically important farmers, artisans, and entrepreneurs. He contended that “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree, ostracized.” (Washington) To accomplish this, he worked to establish a network of schools to train African Americans in the crafts and trades, and to encourage them to establish their businesses. This idea of a parallel middle class being built up apart from whites was partly the inspiration for the separatist impulses of, for example, The Nation of Islam (PBS).

DuBois, on the other hand, a great-grandson of a Colonial fighter, grew up in the Berkshires. As an intellectual’s intellectual, he promoted both the education to the maximum for African American students and criticized Washington for,” unnecessarily narrow” educational goals (Du Bois). As the product of a much more integrated community, and the cradle of the American Revolution, DuBois chafed at the delay in full recognition of civil rights and helped to establish the NAACP (PBS). He decried Booker T. Washington’s recommendation to wait patiently for full acceptance as fellow citizens and encouraged his entire race to work for “1. The right to vote. 2. Civic equality. 3. The education of youth according to ability. “(Du Bois). His influence helped to spark the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and that decade’s legislation that was intended to protect the rights of African Americans.

They both were right. Voting rights permitted African Americans to take political power in many communities. However, it has been the slow growth of an African American middle class that has reassured many otherwise racist Southerners/others that they need not fear African Americans. Both leaders wanted the eventual equality of races, but their perspectives reflected their personal experiences.

Progressivism, chiefly characteristic of the period between the 1890s and WWI, evolved out of a sense that the achievements of laissez-faire capitalism had not improved the quality of life, or increased democratic representation for most of the population (George). Industries had drawn many people away from farming and into factories. Cities had grown as a result and created housing and health problems of their own. The influx of immigrants added to the volume of people who were exploited by industrialists, poor, and likely to remain in deplorable conditions chronicled by writers and photographers such as Jacob Riis (Riis). This population was not protected from harmful commercial practices such as those detailed by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. (Sinclair) The political system seemed dominated by ‘machines’ for staying in power The Progressive impulse to amend these problems arose from of a tradition of social reform that dated to before the Civil War, including, for example, abolition, suffrage, and temperance.

The corrupt state of local and national democracy was deplored by reformers such as Henry George. Attempts were made at various levels to improve the responsiveness of government to the voters and thereby to offset the situation characterized by Lincoln Steffens as “politics is business” (Steffens). For example, Wisconsin Governor LaFollette promoted the implementation of direct primary elections, voter initiatives, referenda, and recall of elected officials. Additionally, Progressives accomplished the ratification of the 17th amendment in 1913, permitting the direct election of senators (National Archives).

The economic problems of the era, which included the monopolistic power of large corporations, skewing the market for labor and insulating them against consumer complaints, were addressed by at least two efforts. Labor gained organized power through the founding of the inclusive IWW. This gave workers a great deal more leverage in negotiating with employers. Large corporations encountered resistance from the Roosevelt administration in its successful constraint of trade cases against railroad and meat companies. This kept firms small enough to be responsive to labor, consumers, and regulations such as the 1906 Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Social reforms aimed to improve the situation of women, African Americans, immigrants, the poor generally, and children. Reformers such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington appealed for voting rights, education, and access to full economic participation (Du Bois) (PBS) (Washington). The founding of schools and colleges for African American students was one achievement. Margaret Sanger attempted to safeguard women’s health (and that of their children) from the well-documented ills of too many pregnancies (Sanger). To do so, she founded Planned Parenthood. She urged, successfully, that contraceptives be available to women through their physicians.

In all these efforts, the Progressives tried to use government power, applied thoughtfully and scientifically, to the problems that they saw around them. Their work is still visible today, for example, in the achievements of the Civil Rights movement, for African Americans and women.

The impetus of the Progressive era encountered both obstacles and further impetus in World War I. Some reform and improvement efforts that had been ongoing for decades finally came to fruition. However, some problems were made more severe as a result of the war.

World War I absented an enormous number of men from home and their usual jobs. Women often filled these positions in ways previously unimaginable. The country watched women nurse the wounded, drive ambulances, and run radio communications at the front. At home, the nation observed women manage manufacture munitions, deliver mail, load ships, handle the administrative work of many businesses and agencies, and run the railways successfully. It seems more than coincidental that after these novelties, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1919. In this way, the war helped Progressive reformers realize their goal for women’s increased civil rights.

African Americans also helped in the fighting in segregated units. They also worked behind the lines. The wartime absence of white men from their usual roles opened up Northern factory opportunities for African Americans. This prompted mass migration from the rural South to the industrial Northern cities. This created economic betterment for some. However, it also created a poor and of ten ‘stuck’ urban populations, in spite of less historic prejudice than in the South. The African Methodist Episcopal Church established targeted settlement houses to help them. W.E.B. DuBois continued to call for better education and greater civil rights for African Americans, given their wartime service and self-sacrifice. This contributed to subsequent Civil Rights activities, including the eventual integration of the armed forces, arguably a potent factor in the eventual acceptance of integration into the wider society.

The influx of European refugees, largely poor and uneducated, added to the burden of urban problems. However, the Progressive impulse led to the revitalization of the immigrant settlement house movement and helped to integrate these people into the nation’s economic life (Harvard University).

On the negative side, this swelling labor force had the potential to reduce the leverage of the native-born labor movement. Unions were put down, sometimes with extreme force. Additionally, many voices of protest, whether pro-labor, or antiwar voices (such as Eugene V. Debs), were largely silenced as un-American, and “Red” (Debs). This unwillingness to countenance anti-war objections can be seen as a precursor to the outrage over anti-Vietnam protests.

Progressive ideas have continued to be played out, even today. The reformist descendants are seen in the Great Society initiatives of the 1960s, in the Civil Rights and women’s movements, in Medicare/Medicaid. Today, they are reflected in Obamacare.

Works Cited

Debs, Eugene V. 2014. Eugene V. Debs Foundation. Web.

Du Bois, W E B. “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” 2014. University of Virginia. Web.

George, Henry. 2014. Sage American History. Web.

Harvard University. “Settlement House Movement.” 2014. Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. Web.

National Archives. 2014. Our Documents. Web.

PBS. 2014. PBS. Web.

Riis, Jacob. 2014. Sage American History. Web.

Sanger, Margaret. “The Pivot of Civilization.” 2014. Birth Control Review. Web.

Sinclair, Upton. “The Jungle.” 2014. University of Virginia. Web.

Steffens, Lincoln. 2014. Sage American History. Web.

Washington, Booker T. “Address to the Atlanta Exposition.” 2014. University of Virginia. Web.

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