In the period of Reconstruction after the American Civil War, the nation faced a serious debate about the best way to achieve black equality. Of course, many white politicians argued about the best course of action. However, blacks also held the same debate and their views were not necessarily the same, as one can imagine. The range of differences of opinion in this debate can best be summarized by the writings of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois. While Washington and Dubois clearly agree that the black man should advance through a persistent effort, they conflict over the attitude which the black man must maintain as well as through their preached views of the white section of the population.
Though they clearly have slightly different views on the process, both men agree that the black needs to advance as a condition of life. Booker T. Washington clearly states this opinion when he says, “No enterprise seeking the material, civil, or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest success” (Washington). This assertion refers to the South as the element in the process of improvement. By recognizing this vital element, Washington not only notes the potential growth of the Negro but also the necessity of this in the survival of the South. W. E. B. Dubois agrees with the core of this sentiment, directly referencing Washington as he states, “So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive with him” (Dubois). While this quote does qualify the extent of the common belief, it does at its core promote Washington’s plans. Additionally, it advocates the belief in working together to gain a common goal.
However, the two men then conflict over the attitude and pace by which this advancement must occur. For Washington, the path to improvement lay in humility, saying, “We shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour” (Washington). By saying this, the advocate means that equality will only come through hard work and through valuing that hard work. Demanding equal rights and respect immediately will only make the gains undeserved. However, to Dubois, these “counsels of submission overlooked certain elements of true manhood” (Dubois). In other words, by wholly submitting to the oppressor, the Negro man denies himself for the chance at economic improvement, which in effect means that he sells his pride. By alluding to this heinous act, the activist urges the black man to maintain his pride in the fight for equality in order to maintain his person and dignity.
Dependent on these positions are the writers’ views of the white man. In this Washington takes a narrow view, acknowledging the white population as supporters in the path to equality as well as fellow citizens. This view represents a widely optimistic approach to the fight for equality. In essence, all people are equal in this new period of rebuilding. However, Dubois recognizes the white man’s conflicting views of the black man by saying, “the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same” (Dubois). In this statement, Dubois recognizes the variety of views towards the black man in the South and the need to work for change through the consideration of this diversity. Otherwise, no blanket statement or movement for equality will be completely effective.
In their interpretations of the movement for black equality, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois curiously take entirely different psychological views. For Washington, the path was one of honest intention and hope, which required humility and mutual respect of the white man to traverse. However, this wholly optimistic view ignored the realities of Dubois observations about the varying opinions that the black man faced in his road to improvement. Ultimately, no matter how much they disagreed, both men ardently fought for an improvement that would take decades to win.
Dubois, W. E. B. “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nd ed. Henry Louis Gate, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, Eds. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 699-705. Print.
Washington, Booker T. “The Atlanta Exposition Address.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nd ed. Henry Louis Gate, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, Eds. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 594-602. Print.