This chapter begins with a poem fragment by Lord Byron that includes the phrase: “Know ye not / who would be free themselves must strike the blow?”. Du Bois then opens by claiming that the rise of Booker T. Washington is “the most striking thing” in African-American history since 1876. Du Bois argues that Washington’s approach to social change—defined by industrial education, compromise with the South, and “silence” on the issue of civil rights—was similar to the approach of free black men from 1830 until the Civil War. However, Washington’s “enthusiasm,” hard work, and “perfect faith” were unprecedented.
It can be difficult to understand Du Bois’ exact position on Washington, given that he speaks of him with both strong criticism and praise. Overall, Du Bois implies that he admires Washington as a person and is impressed by his accomplishments, but that he rejects his leadership of the African-American community. Indeed, Du Bois even suggests that Washington caused a regression—as opposed to progression—of black people’s rights and experience.
Washington was greatly admired by whites in both the North and South; black people, meanwhile, were “silenced” in their criticism of him.His willingness to work with conservatives, and in particular his crafting of the Atlanta Compromise, ensured his fame and success even while it also seemed an abandonment of any hope of striving for political rights. In the North, meanwhile, Washington understood and assimilated to a culture fixated on material prosperity. Overall, Washington’s “singleness of vision and oneness with his age” made him highly successful, and Du Bois describes his widespread fame as akin to a “cult.”
Du Bois’ description of Washington’s leadership often takes the form of a backhanded compliment. Saying that Washington was a perfect fit for his age is actually something of an insult considering Du Bois’ denunciation of the society in which Washington lives. To Du Bois, Washington’s focus on entrepreneurship and conciliation with racist whites are exactly what makes him a bad leader for black people.
Du Bois admits that it is tempting not to criticize Washington, both because he achieved so much having come from so little, and also so as to avoid being accused of jealousy. However, even while white people have praised Washington, black people have bitterly criticized him, and Du Bois says the silencing of this criticism is dangerous and undemocratic.
Note that at the time Du Bois was writing, there were almost no African-American leaders with any influence beyond local communities such as universities and churches. Choosing to criticize Washington was thus a risky move.
Du Bois examines the history of African-American leadership, beginning with those who led slave uprisings and revolts before 1750, “while the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves.” As time went on and relations between black and white people (marginally) improved, leaders became less focused on “revolt and revenge”; during this period, African-American leaders began to gain intellectual achievements and make political demands. Meanwhile, the Haitian revolution inspired slave uprisings in the South, whereas in the North black people forced out of white churches founded “a peculiar socio-religious institution”: the African Church.
Although he does not say so specifically, Du Bois impliesthat losing the fiery spirit of “revolt and revenge” was a setback to black leadership and progress. Du Bois recognizes that pushing for education and civil rights is valuable and compromise necessary, but also suggests that those born into a world that has seen centuries of slavery and racism can accept injustice too easily.
Some black people in the North came to focus less on the dissolution of slavery and more on securing rights for themselves as a different class of people from the enslaved. Others became active in the abolition movement. After the 1876 revolution and the “oppression of the Negro votes,” a new leader arose: Booker T. Washington. Washington continued previous policies of “adjustment and submission,” but was unique in doing so in a completely new political climate, in which the economy was booming and interactions between people of different races was at an all-time high.
Here Du Bois shows that just because a black person occupies a position of influence, doesn’t mean they will necessarily work to benefit the black community as a whole. Although very different examples, the freedmen who fought for their own rights as distinct from slaves and Booker T. Washington both demonstrate the kind of leadership that was harmful to black people in the long run.
Du Bois criticizes Washington for withdrawing pressure for African-American civil rights at exactly the point when this pressure was most necessary. As a result, black men were disenfranchised, black people were legally defined as second-class citizens, and money was withdrawn from black institutions of higher education. Although these things can’t be blamed directly on Washington, the movement he created was undoubtedly partially responsible. Du Bois identifies several paradoxes in Washington’s arguments, all of which relate to the fact that while Washington advocated dignity and self-reliance, the policies that he endorsed made dignity and self-reliance impossible.
Here Du Bois shows that bad leadership does more than slow the progress of racial justice—it can actually impede or even reverse it. Washington’s argument that black people must be self-reliant was dangerous because it cohered with the views of white people who did not want to assume responsibility for the legacy of slavery. As Du Bois points out, this created a situation in which even black people who were determined to improve their own lives were prevented from doing so by the lingering problems of racism and inequality.
Washington’s views are criticized by two distinct groups of black people: those who reject white society entirely and advocate emigration out of the US, and those active in politics who object to the disintegration of the political, civic, and educational rights of African Americans. This latter group may agree with some of Washington’s points, but hold that black people will never be able to fulfill their potential if they are forced to live as second-class citizens and do not receive opportunities such as higher education.
It is important to bear in mind that people like Du Bois did not criticize Washington because they wanted black people to be dependent on government aid and other forms of assistance—rather, they acknowledged that the legacy of slavery as well as lingering psychological and material racism meant that black people did not have a fair chance of success and prosperity without the help of government.
Du Bois criticizes this group of highly-educated black people for not vocalizing their oppositiontoWashington. He argues that “it is the duty of black men to judge the South discriminatingly,” which means making well-informed assessments that take into account the complexity and variability of white Southern attitudes toward black people. At the same time, this also means reckoning with the danger of seeing black people in the South be reduced to a state of “semi-slavery.” Du Bois praises Washington’s vocal criticism of lynching and other “sinister schemes,” but argues that Washington’s “propaganda” implies that overall the South’s unjust treatment of black people is reasonable.
This passage reveals the type of leadership Du Bois endorses; namely, one based on historical and sociological knowledge. Du Bois argues that it is important for people to recognize and understand the nuances of the way the South—including institutionalized Southern racism—operates. He implies that if people have access to knowledge and education, this will bring about better leadership and ultimately create a more equitable country.
Du Bois presents his own modifications of Washington’s arguments. He claims that “slavery and race-prejudice are potent if not sufficient causes of the Negro’s position” and that striving is important, but must be supplemented by policies and institutions that support people’s ability to strive. The South needs to be pushed to remedy its wrongs, and black people must resist Washington’s belittling and dismissal of Southern racism and injustice. Du Bois concludes with the words of the Founding Fathers, reminding the reader that America was founded on the principle that “all men were created equal.”
Here Du Bois emphasizes that his own views are not wildly different from Washington’s, but that the subtle distinctions between their arguments are crucial in leading the African-American community to a better situation. Note that Du Bois’ vision of justice emphasizes the responsibility of Southern racism for creating the bleak conditions in which black people now find themselves, and stresses that Southern whites must be held accountable.