Booker T. Washington: de Gaulle Disguised as Petain?


In the two decades before his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington was far and away the most admired black man in America. He was almost unique in having many supporters in both black and white America. This was a period when black America reached its post-slavery nadir in virtually every area of life – socially, economically, politically. In the South — where 90% of black Americans lived — the successful counterrevolution against Reconstruction meant that Jim Crow was firmly and ferociously in place. In the north, blacks enjoyed more political rights but socially and economically were at the bottom of the ladder.

To this dire situation, Washington offered a path for progress for improving race relations which was designed to appeal to both blacks and whites. In his famous 1895 speech in Atlanta, Washington advocated a compromise whereby African Americans would give up the demands for equal political rights in exchange for assistance in a mutually beneficial program of education and economic improvement. In words of Washington’s most intellectually rigorous critic W.E.B. Du Bois, this program consisted of “industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights.”

Washington’s program won much applause at the time but by the beginning of the 20th century was starting to be criticized by a rising generation of black activist, the foremost of which was Du Bois, whose 1903 book The Soul of Black Folks includes an incisive dissection of the limits of the Atlanta Compromise. For Du Bois, economic advancement without political equality was an untenable goal which would do little to solve the race problem. The quarrel between Washington and Du Bois was one of the central debates of modern American history and set the contours of African American politics for the rest of the century (the echoes of this argument can still be heard to this day).

More than a century later, Booker T. Washington’s reputation has fallen tremendously. Although his role in founding the Tuskegee Institute made him a central figure in the history of African-American education, it’s fair to say that the general consensus is that Washington was a trimmer who worked to support the status quo rather than worked to change it,  a capitulator to Jim Crow, a patsy who served the wealthy whites who financed his school and political program. In short, a sell out and Uncle Tom.

Over at the Daily Beast, David Frum, with the help of a new biography of Washington, has written a series of posts trying to restore some of the luster of black leader’s name. (The posts are collected here).  Frum’s argument relies heavily on emphasizing the severe constraints that Washington worked in a deeply racist America. In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to dine at the White House, the first time an African-American had received such an invitation. In response South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman warned that “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.”

I’ll leave it to readers to evaluate the cogency of Frum’s argument. They did remind me of a very interesting semi-defense of Washington offered by the late Irving Howe in an essay on Du Bois published in Harper’s, March 1968 (and reprinted in Howe’s book Celebrations and Attacks). The main purpose of Howe’s essay is to give readers a largely admiring overview of the achievements of Du Bois (I say largely admiring because Howe is appropriately curt with the Stalinism that Du Bois adopted in the ninth decade of his very long life). In rehearsing Du Bois’ story, Howe assumes most readers of Harper’s – an audience largely made up of well-educated, middle-class whites – wouldn’t be familiar with him.

Yet in celebrating Du Bois’ importance, Howe is careful to give a very empathetic account of the great nemesis that Du Bois combated:

Booker T. Washington was in effect the leader of a conquered people, and a conquered people is never quite free to choose its own leader. He was, if you like, the Petain of the American Negroes, but far shrewder and far more devoted to his people than Petain was to the French. The evidence also suggests that Washington was sometimes a surreptitious de Gaulle, deeply involved in a quasi-underground resistance.

Professor August Meier, a historian whose sympathies are wholly with the civil-rights militants, has printed in the Journal of Southern History, May 1957, a fascinating account of the Washington-Du Bois struggle in which he presents a large amount of evidence to show that the issues cannot be reduced to acquiescence vs. militancy. Du Bois was an intellectual whose obligation it was to think in terms of long-range ends; Washington was a leader who had to cope with immediate problems. The white South had just achieve a counterrevolution in which Negroes had been reduced to near-slavery; in fact, as Washington made clear in still-impressive autobiography Up from Slavery, the Negroes were in many respects worse off than before the Civil War. They were frightened, demoralized, and economically helpless. Simply to come to them and cry out for militant struggle would have elicited no response from them, would have been little help to them, and would have provoked ghastly retaliation from the white South.

Washington had then to manoeuvre from day to day to day, making the best he could of all but total defeat. He spoke deprecatingly of political rights in order to assuage the whites whose money and toleration he needed; but in practice as Professor Meier shows, he covertly tried to preserve the Negro franchise and kept supplying funds for test cases in courts….

Washington was not an attractive figure; he was a remarkable leader who helped sustain the morale of a broken people. And to the extent that he succeeded, he prepared the way for his own removal. Du Bois was a brilliant intellectual who insisted that only a program of unconditional equality could be acceptable to enlightened Negroes and who proposed a major immediate task the training of a Negro elite, ‘the Talented Tenth,’ which might lead the black masses into struggle…..

We see here one of those utterly tragic situations in which two enormously talented men are pitted against each other in ferocious struggle, each clinging to a portion of the truth, each perceiving a fraction of necessity, but neither able to surmount those objective barriers which the triumphant whites place before all Negroes, acquiescent or rebellious. The more men like Du Bois and Washington were penned in as Negroes, the more they were driven as Negro leader to fight with one another. Yet from that war, at unmeasured cost, there emerged the Negro movement as we know it.

There’s much to say about Howe’s beautifully balanced and modulated essay. It deserves to be read in its entirety (and it’s a shame Celebrations and Attacks is out of print). One thought that occurs to me is that there is an element of hidden autobiography here. In 1968, Howe was the middle-aged veteran of socialist politics who suddenly found himself out-flanked by a new generation of radicals who advocated much more aggressive politics than he ever dared to. Howe’s battles with the New Left left many scars but it also informed his attempt to see both sides of the great debate between Du Bois and Washington. Howe was, in effect, searching for an equipoise in the Washington-Du Bois debate that eluded him in the politics of the late 1960s.

(For a more recent evaluation of Booker T. Washington, see this interesting essay from Blair L.M. Kelley.)

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