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African American Leadership: Two Voices, One Vision

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Booker T. Washington and W. E.

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B. Du Bois, two distinct figures, whom both found the latter part of the 1800’s, in need of leadership from within a segmented group of American Society were placed in odds over a single issue…successful racial “up lift” for the African American population. As in any case when the attention of the masses is at stake, the titanic collision of honed minds was inevitable.

The two men, sought to position their respective plans as the predominate solution to solve racial inequality and achieve racial uplift for population of former slaves and born free citizens in the United States.

Booker T. Washington, born into slavery, 1856, for the first nine years of his life, held that the black community must exercise patience. Any abrupt aggressive action by African Americans would be interpreted as threatening by the Caucasian majority therefore inviting justifiable increased discrimination against blacks. Washington’s philosophy put forth the notion that blacks should be willing to sacrifice social and political equality, in exchange for economic liberty.

The path to “up lifting” would be achieved through fidelity, being trusty worthy and industrial. Born free in 1868, W. E. B. Du Bois was the product of a respectable family that held position in the community of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Du Bois believed the top ten percent or as he dubbed it “the talented tenth” of the African American population should focus all their energy on higher education. The African American intellectuals would then lead the masses to a higher social rung.

Protest, challenge, provocation were the watch words for Du Bois’ method. He clearly felt immediate political, social and racial equality was warranted. As stated by Jacqueline M. Moore, author and educator, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift, “the debate recognized that there were more than two methods of racial uplift” (Moore, p. 89) Washington’s views, was somewhat misconstrued to believe he was “selling out” to the majority of American Society.

While he felt that African Americans should not push themselves into unwelcome arenas, he knew that political accomplishments were short lived and whimsical. His confidence was in the economical and financial gains that were long term and wielded tangible influence. Washington was clever enough to quietly lobby majority law makers and civic organizations in behind scene efforts to garner support for African American enfranchisement. Even more astute by Washington was his ability to fund his educational agenda from wealthy financial supporters.

Du Bois took the position that Caucasian America should be held at an arms distance, neither rejecting nor embracing. He felt the way to eliminate tension between the races was to create a synergy between being African Americans and the rest of America by utilizing the talents of the so called “Talented Tenth” to spearhead the struggle for national racial equality. Thru Du bois’ multiple initiatives to further promote his cause, “encouraging action and open protest to challenge racism and discrimination” (Moore, p. 78) were standard in his approach.

Washington was convinced through hard work and the financial success of entrepreneurial enterprises, respect and equality would be gained for African Americans and “up lifting” of the race would be a natural evolutionary process. Clearly because of his experiences as a former slave, Washington’s philosophy was shaped by determination and work ethic. Educated at Hampton Institute, a vocational institution, described as “progressive, training people for skilled work. ” (Moore, 21), was the capstone of Washington’s desire to continue educating African Americans in skilled trades.

In direct opposition to Washington’s vision of an industrial educated populace that would improve thru commerce, Du Bois’ selected “Talented Tenth” would “help others to fight for the rights for the race”(Moore, 62) with their knowledge of modern society. This type of comparison epitomizes the differences of the two visionaries, however Washington’s approach is accurate as well as brilliant, “Under the guise of maintaining the social hierarchy, [he] was able to create a strong, independent, black-run institution” (Moore, 28).

While outwardly going along with the status quo, Washington tacitly used his economic prowess to build a tangible independent entity capable of choosing its own destiny and purpose. All the while Du Bois relied solely on rhetoric and the intellectual elite to build his constituency to improve the status of African Americans. Judging from racial attitudes in seemly integrated Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois was denied community sponsored scholarship to Harvard University. Further acknowledgement of the less than ideal racial setting, Du Bois attended integrated schools, “adult blacks and whites did not mingle socially,”(Moore, 39).

Historically African American college Fisk University did offer him a scholarship. Author Jacqueline M. Moore was injudicious in her conclusion, “he (Washington) was the only one capable of negotiating with both the white North and the white South and that outspoken protest would simply make matters worse” (Moore, 68). Mistaking his silence for weakness overlooks effective lobbying in politics and underlying influence in advancing the African American race. Du Bois’ stance towards racial equality is the central criticism of Washington.

Du Bois felt that Washington was allowing Caucasian America “off the hook” of responsibility. While they both agreed institutional segregation had to end, Du bois felt strongly that African Americans were owed assistance from the general society. “Solving the race problem required everyone’s involvement (Moore, 72). ” Washington chose self “up lift” from the collective boot straps. Clearly Washington’s experience as an ex-slave impacted his work ethic and decision making process and shaped his views of how African Americans should advance the struggle for equality.

Comparatively Du Bois argued that Washington was subservient toward the majority rule and racial discrimination. Racial discrimination and violence was at an all time high, however Du Bois’ model for protest, higher education, and a demand for immediate social and political equality was hollow without effective means. The establishment of several civic and social organizations by Du Bois could only voice outrage and indignation. There was no real force behind the effort to motivate people to change on both sides of the racial divide.

Washington was widely accused of pandering and compromising by contemporaries as well as scholars of today. What is clearly overlooked is Washington uncanny foresight of recognizing the importance of financial and economic gains over social gains, “Blacks would agree not to push for social and political equality if whites would agree not to exclude them from economic progress” (Moore, 33). This statement alone underscores his ability to correctly comprehend what drives a capitalistic society, even in the early 1900’s, and to predict the necessary tool for the future is clearly defined as economic progress.

Another popular misconception was that Washington focused on presenting African Americans as well dressed, polite educated puppets that could “discuss” the plight of their people with out offending the listening audience. The message would be a softer, more acceptable presentation for the gentile surrounding. While that may have been an actual tactic used by Washington, it was only a well thought maneuver to fund his educational institution, Tuskegee Institute, by well heeled benefactors. He now favored influence as well as philanthropic support that would educate the next generation of resourceful, independent entrepreneurs.

If his vision had been realized, financially successful enterprises started in 1900’s possibly could have survived today or subsidiaries that would be in existence to hire the today’s African American professionals at all levels. Once could only imagine the business knowledge gained and economic success of competitive entities started during the industrial age. Washington may have sacrificed some short lived dignity, but he realized that un-restrain economic growth is tangible and sustains while intellectual accomplishments does not protect or shelter.

In the final analysis, the examination of how Du Bois and Washington sought out a collective political, social and economical agenda in the midst of national racial turmoil during the turn of the century is an interesting analogy of today’s civil rights leadership agenda. Washington’s method was clearly the most beneficial for the improvement of African Americans for then as well as today. Promoting economic success was the most fundamental element in the struggle for racial uplift.

Understanding and able to recognize the changing economic conditions would allow the national objective of racial equality to be the sole issue versus both combined as they are today. As an active participant in the industrial revolution, Washington recognized success as access to business opportunities with a foundation in industrial education. Compared to modern day choices, ground floor Internet opportunity or NAACP internship? Washington’s was option was clearly the proper path, noted by the number of successful African American business that flourished during segregation, i.

e. Johnson Publishing, A. G. Gaston Insurance, Motown, etc compared full to racial integration era business successes they remain in African American control. Even though African Americans had limited political power and remained segregated socially, pure economic growth would have accelerated true racial uplift and the issue of economical inequality would have been an issue of the past. Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift, Jacqueline M. Moore “Wilmington , Delaware : Scholarly Resources, 2003.

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