By Ronald Court
For two years, I’ve debated with myself over whether to tackle the 800 pound gorilla in the room whenever anyone seems to mention Booker T. Washington. That is, the prevalent but faulty belief in academia that BTW was inferior to WEB Du Bois. I had concluded that, as Booker T. himself was too busy leading, uplifting and accomplishing to debate WEB in person, neither should I. Until now.
Booker T. died too young and early, leaving a vacuum that WEB never would have filled had BTW lived. Instead, WEB’s bitter world-view went largely unchallenged for the better part of a century so that many who claim to know and teach American History today simply reject Booker T. Washington as a “compromiser,” “accommodationist” “wizard” or head of the “Tuskegee machine.”
Let these teachers and students, mired in WEB Du Bois’s deeply, profusely written feelings of alienation and anger, lift the veil of ignorance from their own eyes.
Let them first rid themselves of the false notion that Booker T. campaigned against Du Bois. No, Du Bois plotted against BTW in forming the short-lived Niagara Movement as well as enlisting others to obtain “every scrap of evidence” to use against BTW.
The archives in The W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass quote WEB writing of “another and more bitter controversy. This started with the rise at Tuskegee Institute, and centering around Booker T. Washington, of what I may call the Tuskegee Machine.”
So Du Bois coins a disparaging term to describe BTW’s effectiveness and historians who should know better parrot it and thus become complicit in besmirching BTW’s good name. It is dishonest.
Further, Web disingenuously writes, “There came a controversy between myself and Booker T. Washington, which became more personal and bitter than I had ever dreamed.”
Really? What an interesting way to acknowledge an issue while implicitly disavowing responsibility. It ranks right up there with today’s currently politically popular, “mistakes were made” and “absent any controlling legal authority…”
Two-time BTW biographer Louis Harlan is hard put to find evidence that BTW entertained personal or bitter thoughts towards WEB. But that didn’t stop him from characterizing BTW as “devious” or labeling his speeches as “banal” and “hackneyed”. I’ve posted several speeches here. Judge for yourself.
I’ll say it again: BTW was too busy doing good to bother much with WEB… with one exception: Washington secretly financed Du Bois and others to challenge Jim Crow in the courts. Does that seem “personal and bitter” to you?
BTW was, however, not without fault. I believe Stephen Mansfield gets it right in his bio,
“Then Darkness Fled” The liberating Wisdom of Booker T. Washington:
“It is necessary to acknowledge what is true in the charges against him. It is true that Washington entrusted the future of his race to the goodness of America and was betrayed. He felt this himself all too keenly in the closing years of his life. Washington taught his people to invest in America for a harvest of respect, equality and prosperity. They received instead the Jim Crow fruits of a racist land…
It is true also that Washington misunderstood the nature of racial prejudice. He assumed that those who hated his people did so because of who his people were, either because they were black or poor or illiterate or uncultured. In other words, he assumed that racial hatred was rational. Therefore, if he could change what his people were, he could remove the object of white hatred.
The truth is, … racial hatred is irrational. It is simply hatred for the sake of hatred and rarely has any reasonableness about it… there is often little the hated can do to assuage the hatred against them… In 1915, it seemed that Washington, who believed in whites more than whites believed in themselves, had simply been deceived.”
Today however, is much different than 1915. Impediments to equality – at least as a matter of written law – are no longer, so anger and alienation no longer serves the purpose they may have “back in the day.” Today, they have become simply impediments to further progress. Du Bois no longer has a tenable solution to the problem of the color line. Rather, Washington’s approach, properly understood and updated in today’s context, is far more promising.