From the Archives

This article is no longer being updated. It was published alongside the film "The Two Nations of Black America," which originally aired on February 10, 1998.

The Debate Between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington


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 of society.

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 economic advancement.

Links/Readings for Du Bois & Washington

A Last Interview with W.E.B. Du Bois

This interesting 1965 article by writer Ralph McGill in The Atlantic combines an interview with Du Bois shortly before his death with McGill’s analysis of his life. In the interview, Du Bois discusses Booker T., looks back on his controversial break with him and explains how their backgrounds accounted for their opposing views on strategies for black social progress

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E. B. Du Bois

Here is the full text of this classic in the literature of civil rights. It is a prophetic work anticipating and inspiring much of the black consciousness and activism of the 1960s. In it Du Bois describes the magnitude of American racism and demands that it end. He draws on his own life for illustration- from his early experrience teaching in the hills of Tennessee to the death of his infant son and his historic break with the ‘accomodationist’ position of Booker T. Washington..

Black History, American History

This archival section of The Atlantic magazine online offers several essays by Du Bois (as well as Booker T. Washington). In particular, in “The Training of Black Men” he continues his debate with Washington.

W.E.B.Du Bois

This site on Du Bois offers a lengthy biographical summary and a bilbiography of his writings and books.

Booker T. Washington

A summary of Booker T.’s life, philosophy and achievements, with a link to the famous September 1895 speech, “the Atlanta Compromise,” which propelled him onto the national scene as a leader and spokesman for African Americans. In the speech he advocated black Americans accept for awhile the political and social status quo of segregation and discriminaton and concentrate instead on self-help and building economic and material success within the black community.

Up From Slavery

Here is the full text of Booker T. Washington’s fine autobiography, published in 1900.

Two Essays by Booker T.

“Signs of Progress Among the Negroes,” “Awakening of the Negro” written around the turn of the century can be accessed from this web page; scroll down to ‘Washington.’

Booker T. Washington Ambassador and Spokesman

Washington was the first black to be invited to the White House for dinner with a President. The invitation came from Theodore Roosevelt and this article, written at the time by a Howard University professor, deals with this event and conveys the very powerful image of Washington in the eyes of ten million black Americans during the turn of the century.

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