W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington could be considered the “twin towers” when it comes to black history in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although from different generations, their attention focused on the African-American struggle for political, social and economic equality. However, they sharply disagreed on strategies for black social and economic progress; to better understand their opposing philosophies, it is helpful to also consider their radically different backgrounds, which influenced their world-views.
W.E.B. Du Bois was born in Massachusetts, three years after the end of the Civil War. His great-grandfather had fought in the American ...view middle of the document...
He was the first African-American to receive his Ph.D. from Harvard, and did so in 1895. He then moved to Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania had invited him to conduct a sociological study of the city’s black neighbourhoods. This study led to The Philadelphia Negro, which in turn provided a model for work Du Bois produced while teaching history and economics at Atlanta University.
Du Bois was probably the first African-American to express the idea of Pan-Africanism, the belief that all people of African descent have common interests and should work together to improve their situation. He attended the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900, and later organized Pan-African conferences in Europe and the United States.
Du Bois was in many ways at first an idealist, but his outlook was severely shaken as repressive segregation laws, lynchings, and other acts of terrorism were carried out against southern blacks, and he felt that “one could not be a calm, cool and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved…” After a riot in Atlanta in 1906, Du Bois issued his “Litany of Atlanta”, which challenged the black community to rise up against the forces of repression and destruction…”In yonder East trembles a star. Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord! Thy will, O Lord, be done! Kyrie Eleison!”
In 1903 Du Bois published The Soul of Black Folk, his first collection of essays, in which he identified the “colour line” as the paramount social problem of the 20th century. Included was an essay entitled “The Talented Tenth”, in which Du Bois asserted “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, in their own and other races.” He believed that if black people were not given the full range of learning available to them, they could not achieve their full potential. Du Bois strongly disagreed with Booker T. Washington, who counseled acceptance of the existing social order and suggested that blacks not try for anything beyond trade school. Du Bois insisted on a university education for the “best and most capable” black youths. He argued that without black people who had received higher education, the Tuskegee Institute and other schools like it would not have had a faculty.
Shortly afterwards, along with William Trotter, Du Bois formed the Niagara Movement, and later the NAACP, the most influential civil rights organization of the 20th century. Du Bois became the champion of the poor and powerless, and constantly encouraged African-Americans to speak out against discrimination. He felt that the best way to defeat prejudice was for college-educated blacks to lead the fight against it. In 1910, he resigned from Atlanta...