W.E.B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia

By Gerald Horne; Mary Young | Go to book overview
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W.E.B. Du Bois was well known for his advocacy of struggle against race prejudice in dramatic contrast with Booker T. Washington's policy of accommodation to the structures of segregation. The two great leaders have become icons of radical versus conservative approaches to social change in twentiethcentury African American culture. In his own time, Du Bois was at first cautious in raising his disagreements, because he recognized Washington's leadership skills at Tuskegee Institute and his remarkable ability to communicate publicly with black and white alike. While Washington's achievements were impressive, especially in light of rigid and worsening racism, the younger Du Bois could not long maintain his quiet deference.

After earning his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895, Du Bois honed his sociological understanding of African American culture and his philosophical outrage with white racism during an early career of writing and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and Atlanta University. By 1903, with publication of The Souls of Black Folk, his clarion call to African American pride and activism, Du Bois blasted Washington for acquiescing to white racism. Du Bois astutely sensed that whatever progress the accommodationist program could produce would be stymied by the rise of avowedly white supremacist politics in the years around 1900.

Much of their different stances on the race question grew from their differing backgrounds. The Southerner Washington was born a slave and had learned to get along with the dominant race as a survival technique. Du Bois was born in Massachusetts, a descendant of a long line of free blacks, and he greeted his first recognition of prejudice as a rude shock to his assumptions of human equality and his lofty ambitions as a bright young man in a mostly white community. Washington was willing to accept separate and inferior treatment


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