Over 100 years ago in 1903, the famous African-American novelist and co-founder of the NAACP W.E.B. DuBois wrote a criticism of Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise.”
It’s important to first explain Washington’s points in his Atlanta speech in 1895. His main concern was to soothe his listeners’ apprehension regarding Southern blacks. He argued that blacks should accept their place as manual laborers. He also claimed that former slaves would do better by starting at the bottom of society than by being raised to a higher stratum artificially.
In his critique of Washington’s speech, DuBois first clarifies Washington’s intentions to aid blacks: “First, political power, Second, insistence on civil rights, Third, higher education of Negro youth” (DuBois). However, he responds by saying, Washington’s advice would lead to three extremely negative factors for the black population at the turn of the century: “1. The disfranchisement of the Negro. 2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro. 3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro” (DuBois). Although all three of these problems are important, I have chosen two that clarify and validate DuBois’ argument.
DuBois first mentions “disenfranchisement of the Negro,” which means the denial of the right to vote. This is so very important because if one does deny another the right to vote, they are breaking the law, because according to Amendment XV, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (Constitution). DuBois is absolutely right in criticizing Washington about the disenfranchisement of the blacks because every citizen of the United States cannot be denied the right to vote. For many young people in particular, the right to vote is a defining part of their lives and identities as Americans. By taking away a right outlined in the Constitution, Washington is already lowering the standard of living, create a “distinct status of civil inferiority” for blacks (DuBois).
This second critique of Washington – “legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority” – was and is supremely important. The effects of this practice, known as Jim Crow legislation, are clearly outlined by Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow. Although she is comparing Jim Crow era legislation to the modern-day civil justice system, she describes historical parallels which are relevant to DuBois’ arguments. She writes that the “caste system [was] born, in part due to a desire among white elites to exploit the resentments, vulnerabilities, and racial biases of poor and working-class whites for political or economic gain” (Alexander 191). Her description of Jim Crow laws bears an unwelcome resemblance to the purpose and effect of Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech, especially when she uses “caste system” to label the society of the time. I believe that this is the most damaging and lasting legacy of the practices that Washington endorsed in the years following the abolition of slavery.
The disenfranchisement of blacks and the creation of a distinct caste of blacks were extremely damaging effects of Booker T. Washington’s argument. By brining these to light and criticizing Washington, W.E.B. DuBois helped forward the US in terms of race.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. New York: New Press, 2011.
DuBois, W.E.B. “W.E.B. DuBois Critiques Booker T. Washington.” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web. January 1, 1903. Accessed February 2, 2015.
“The Constituamation of the United States: Amendments 11-27.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 2 Feb. 2015.
Washington, Booker T. “Booker T. Washington Delivers the 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech.” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web. Accessed February 2, 2015.