The Atlanta Compromise in Retrospect

Two great leaders of the black community in the late 19th and 20th century were W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. However, they sharply disagreed on strategies for black social and economic progress. Their opposing philosophies can be found in much of today’s discussions over how to end class and racial injustice, what is the role of black leadership, and what do the ‘haves’ owe the ‘have-nots’ in the black community. Booker T. Washington, educator, reformer and the most influential black leader of his time (1856-1915) preached a philosophy of self-help, racial solidarity and accommodation. He urged blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and material prosperity. He believed in education in the crafts, industrial and farming skills and the cultivation of the virtues of patience, enterprise and thrift. This, he said, would win the respect of whites and lead to African Americans being fully accepted as citizens and integrated into all strata of society.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a towering black intellectual, scholar and political thinker (1868-1963) said no–Washington’s strategy would serve only to perpetuate white oppression. Du Bois advocated political action and a civil rights agenda (he helped found the NAACP). In addition, he argued that social change could be accomplished by developing the small group of college-educated blacks he called “the Talented Tenth:” “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.”

At the time, the Washington/Du Bois dispute polarized African American leaders into two wings–the ‘conservative’ supporters of Washington and his ‘radical’ critics. The Du Bois philosophy of agitation and protest for civil rights flowed directly into the Civil Rights movement which began to develop in the 1950’s and exploded in the 1960’s. Booker T. today is associated, perhaps unfairly, with the self-help/colorblind/Republican/Clarence Thomas/Thomas Sowell wing of the black community and its leaders. The Nation of Islam and Maulana Karenga’s Afrocentrism derive too from this strand out of Booker T.’s philosophy. However, the latter advocated withdrawal from the mainstream in the name of economic advancement. This interesting 1965 article by writer Ralph McGill in The Atlantic combines an interview with Du Bois shortly before his death with McGill’s analysis of his life. In the interview, Du Bois discusses Booker T., looks back on his controversial break with him and explains how their backgrounds accounted for their opposing views on strategies for black social progress. Here is the full text of this classic in the literature of civil rights. It is a prophetic work anticipating and inspiring much of the views on strategies for black social progress.

W.E.B. DuBois was a spokesman for the Negro’s rights at a time when few were listening: he was highly intelligent, but toward the end of his career, he became embittered, a Communist, and finally left the United States and took refuge in Ghana. There shortly before his death, Ralph McGill sought him out for this talk. “As Washington began to attain stature as leader of his new, small, and struggling school at Tuskegee,” DuBois continued, “he gave total emphasis to economic progress through industrial and vocational education. He believed that if the Negro could be taught skills and find jobs, and if others could become small landowners, a yeoman class would develop that would, in time, be recognized as worthy of what already was their civil rights, and that they would then be fully accepted as citizens. So he appealed to moderation, and he publicly postponed attainment of political rights and accepted the system of segregation. “I know Washington believed in what Frederick Douglass had crusaded for from emancipation until his death in 1895. But he made a compromise. “We talked about it. I went with him to see some of the Eastern philanthropists who were helping him with his school. Washington would promise them happy and contented labor for their new enterprises. He reminded them there would be no strikers. To read the entire article go to


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