Two great leaders of the black community in the late 19th
and 20th century were W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. However, they
sharply disagreed on strategies for black social and economic progress. Their
opposing philosophies can be found in much of today's discussions over how to
end class and racial injustice, what is the role of black leadership, and
what do the 'haves' owe the 'have-nots' in the black community.
Booker T. Washington, educator, reformer and the most influentional
black leader of his time (1856-1915) preached a philosophy of self-help, racial
solidarity and accomodation. He urged blacks to accept discrimination for the
time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and
material prosperity. He believed in education in the crafts, industrial and
farming skills and the cultivation of the virtues of patience, enterprise and
thrift. This, he said, would win the respect of whites and lead to African
Americans being fully accepted as citizens and integrated into all strata
W.E.B. Du Bois, a towering black intellectual, scholar and political
thinker (1868-1963) said no--Washington's strategy would serve only to
perpetuate white oppression. Du Bois advocated political action and a civil
rights agenda (he helped found the NAACP). In addition, he argued that
social change could be accomplished by developing the small group of
college-educated blacks he called "the Talented Tenth:"
"The Negro Race, like all races, is going to be saved by its
exceptional men. The problem of education then,
among Negroes, must first of all deal with the "Talented Tenth."
It is the problem of developing the best of this race that they may guide
the Mass away from the contamination and death of the worst."
At the time, the Washington/Du Bois dispute polarized African
American leaders into two wings--the 'conservative' supporters of Washington
and his 'radical' critics. The Du Bois philosophy of agitation and
protest for civil rights flowed directly into the Civil Rights movement
which began to develop in the 1950's and exploded in the 1960's. Booker T.
today is associated, perhaps unfairly, with the
self-help/colorblind/Republican/Clarence Thomas/Thomas Sowell wing of the black
community and its leaders. The Nation of Islam and Maulana Karenga's
Afrocentrism derive too from this strand out of Booker T.'s philosophy.
However, the latter advocated withdrawal from the mainstream in the name of