"Two Voices- One Goal":
Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois
by Sandra Hawkins
The United States societal system during the 19th century was saturated with a legacy of discrimination based upon race. Cultivating a humanitarian approach, progressive intellectuals ushered in an era of societal reconstruction with the intention to establish primary equalities on the pervasive argument of human race. The experiment poised the United States for rebellion and lasting ramifications. The instantaneous repercussions for both races evolving from the emancipation of African-Americans were plainly stated by the daughter of a Georgia planter in the summer of 1865: "There are sad changes in store for both races" (Nash 469). The long-term ramifications are still in progress. The combination and division of commerce and virtue, north and south, white and black, violence and empathy, and personal and political agendas, created the birth and death of the era of Reconstruction that began during the Civil War and ended in 1877. However, the period of Reconstruction provided the entry for two African-American men, Booker T Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, to rise to leadership positions while propelling radically opposing ideologies. The two differing ideologies served as anchors in a society adrift. Both races, being tossed about by the storm Reconstruction had unleashed upon society, were compelled to reach-out for the anchors that symbolized the prospect of stability. Washington and DuBois anchors were thrust in different bodies of water, but both men's proclamations existed in currents that surged toward a collective body of water. Washington and DuBois's positions on the collaboration amongst the races had extreme variations due to their own personal backgrounds, but both men sought economical, political, and social equality for African-Americans.
The Reconstruction of the United States was an experiment in interracial democracy. The Civil War victory by the North brought to a close the establishment of slavery but, in turn, opened Pandora's box. The questions and answers pertaining to economical, political, and social equality for freedmen had yet to be addressed on a practical level. The Southern states, still bitter from defeat and economic stresses, strongly rejected the societal transformations thrust upon them. The Northern states' focal point remained on the necessary political powers by which to enact constitutional amendments, therefore empowering the federal government with the capabilities to enforce the principles of equal rights. On paper, slavery was abolished, but in reality, African-Americans were once again enslaved on a ship without the security or knowledge of what the next port held for them. The Civil War had not truly ended. It was still active under the guise of Reconstruction, but now coats and flags of many colors existed, and battles were merely fought on alternate battlefields. A war of ideas lacking in substantial practicality resulted in repetitious battles being won and loss. The motivating forces that set Reconstruction into motion were for the most part the North's quest for unification among states', and the emancipation of slaves. However, the primary objective of Reconstruction was to grant political, economical, and social opportunities for the freedmen. The resolutions of Reconstruction quickly dissolved due to lack of practicality, along with political, and economical disparities in the North and South, bringing to a close the era of Reconstruction. Separately, Washington and DuBois began renovating the remnants of the ideals that had been set in motion.
Washington (1856-1915) was the best-known black leader in America. Born a slave, he rose to leadership position through hard work. His influence over the course of race relations during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the beginning of World War I were unparalleled. A civil rights advocate working within the system, Washington became
…the founder (in 1881) and principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which he made the nation's largest and best-known industrial training school. At Tuskegee, young blacks received a highly disciplined education in scientific agriculture and skilled trades. Washington believed that economic self-help and the familiar Puritan virtues of hard work, frugality, cleanliness, and moderation would help African Americans succeed despite racism. (Nash 517)
With a capitalist view, he quickly gained support for his platform regarding "self-help" of African Americans, and the Tuskegee Institute from the American entrepreneurial elite. His views on African-Americans' roles and gradual equality in the United States were the focus of his most famous speech delivered at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. A man of his time and former slave, Washington stated, "It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top" (517). This statement gained a great deal of support from whites but infuriated a sect of blacks that was demanding instant equality on social, economical, and political levels. Washington believed that political and social equality would follow naturally in the footsteps of economic equality. The black race would eventually have equal footing with the whites in all realms through the great human law, which he saw as universal and eternal, that merit, regardless of the color of skin, eventually is recognized and rewarded. Forced social and political equality was not a realistic option. As a former slave, he acquired first hand knowledge of the mentality of Southern whites and blacks, and experienced the benefits and failures of the North's idealistic approach during Reconstruction. Washington recognized the need to work within the present system of power to facilitate the advancement of African-Americans. The intermingling of races in a societal system long based on separation would require gradual concessions from both sides.
DuBois (1868-1963) was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The first black to receive a Ph. D. from Harvard, he became "a spokesman for the Negro's rights at a time when few were listening: he was highly intelligent, but toward the end of his career, he became embittered, a Communist, and finally left the United States and took refuge in Ghana" (Nina Baym 877). A great African-American historian and leading black intellectual of the twentieth century
…[He was a] fiercely independent, sensitive, intellectual, [who] had been for more than fifty years a passionate fighter for full civil rights and equality of citizenship for the Negro. … He had helped found the NAACP but had broken with it in 1948 because of its "timidity" and his own growing obsession with Communist causes and ideology. (877)
DuBois advocated "winning" justices and equal rights in the United States. At the first Pan-American Conference in London, he stated, "blacks must lead the struggle for liberation both in Africa and in the United States"( Nash 517). His most profound statement, "the problem of the Twentieth Century would be the problem of the color line," still reverberates today (517). Considered by DuBois as inheritably just and demandable he petitioned for instantaneous political, economic, and social equality for blacks. His militant stance first erupted when as an adolescent he became aware of the disparities in school due to his color. DuBois related to a class of African-Americans who had previously experienced a taste of freedom in a social setting with liberal thinkers and "color line" discretion. Racial diplomacy in the South consisted of an obscure world he could not comprehend. With blatant discrimination and violence in the South, DuBois's infuriation with the slow progression of equal opportunity was reasonable, but his philosophy on rectifying the situation was unrealistic. DuBois's statement regarding governmental agencies strides towards equality, and summarizing the evolving state of human nature, "In a time of perfect calm, amid willing neighbors and streaming wealth, it would have been a Herculean task … in the midst of hunger, sorrow, spite, suspicion, hate, and cruelty, the work of any instrument of social regeneration was…foredoomed to failure"(Nash 481-82). In a final interview before his death, he stated, "[I have] ceased to believe that any other system, would produce the sort of world [I] wanted" (Baym 876). His views validated his frustration and division from the system of power that propelled him to leave the United States.
While DuBois's ideology consisted of fundamental virtues of justice, he eventually conceded that the doctrine of human nature cannot be dissolved but only restructured through time. Washington epitomized the universal factor that is needed to process the restructuring of a society when he stated, "Cast down your bucket where you are-cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded." (Nina Baym 761). Although the anchors offered by Washington and DuBois were dropped in different bodies of water, the two men's concepts continue today to flow and intertwine into one body of water. The historical era of Reconstruction had a beginning and end, but it did open the floodgate to prosperity for the United States by unleashing the enormous voice and wisdom of two extraordinary men; voices that forever changed our society's way of life.
- Washington, Booker T. "Up From Slavery." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Nina Baym, General Editor. 6th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 761.
- W.E.B. DuBois. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Nina Baym, General Editor. 6th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 876-877
- W.E.B. DuBois. The American People Creating a Nation and a Society. Gary B. Nash And Julie Roy Jeffrey. 4th ed. Brief. New York: Longman, 2003. 469,481-82,517.
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