Civil Rights Near the Turn of the Century

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Compare and contrast W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

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Booker T. Washington was twelve years older than W. E. B. Du Bois, not a huge age difference but a peculiarly crucial twelve years in American history, since it included the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856, Du Bois into a...

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Booker T. Washington was twelve years older than W. E. B. Du Bois, not a huge age difference but a peculiarly crucial twelve years in American history, since it included the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856, Du Bois into a landowning family in Massachusetts in 1868. Washington had to walk 500 miles to attend the newly-founded Hampton Institute, a technical, agricultural, and teacher-training college, at the age of sixteen. Du Bois was the first African-American to be awarded a doctorate by Harvard University.

The differences in the education of the two men were reflected in their views on the subject. Both supported increased educational opportunities for black Americans, but Washington focused on technical and vocational subjects which would allow poor black people to gain employment, whereas Du Bois argued that African Americans should study the Ivy League curriculum of classics and liberal arts, which would prepare them for leadership.

Washington and Du Bois clashed over the Atlanta Compromise, an informal agreement which Washington struck with leaders of the white community in which African-Americans accepted segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement as facts of life so long as they were given some educational and employment opportunities and access to justice. Du Bois initially congratulated Washington on the Atlanta Exposition Speech in which he outlined this arrangement but later came to view it as much too accommodationist for his tastes. However, Du Bois lived a long time and later came to regret his more forthright criticisms of Washington.

Some critics, such as Thomas Sowell, have also argued that, while the two men clearly disagreed, the most extreme antipathy was always between their supporters and was not reflected in the attitudes of Washington and Du Bois themselves.

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W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington both were instrumental in attempting to improve the social, political, and economic situation of African Americans around the turn of the century. They differed, however, in how and when social, political, and economic improvement would occur.

In 1895, Booker T. Washington gave a speech in Atlanta, Georgia, in which he declared that the primary goal of African Americans should be economic progress, educational opportunities, and equal rights in court. He also claimed in his speech that as long as these opportunities were afforded, African Americans should accept segregation and their status within American society. This became known as the "Atlanta Compromise" and would result in criticism from W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois believed that Washington's beliefs were incorrect and that African Americans should instead demand equal rights in all areas of society. Du Bois cited the 14th Amendment, which established full citizenship for African Americans, as the reason African Americans should immediately demand equal rights from white citizens.

As far as economic success was concerned, Washington believed that it would take time and would not occur quickly. Washington hoped that through years of hard work, African Americans would eventually achieve an increase in social and economic standing. He believed that with this increase in social and economic standing, African Americans would eventually become respected and included by white Americans. Booker T. Washington believed that an improvement to economic standing for African Americans would come through the learning of skills and trades, which his Tuskegee Institute attempted to teach. Through the learning of skills and trades, Washington hoped African Americans would have more opportunities for greater earnings than unskilled labor jobs.

Du Bois's approach to improvement for African Americans focused more on education and political action. Du Bois was well-educated and surrounded himself with other well-educated African American leaders. Du Bois was also instrumental in forming the political group "Niagara," which aimed to achieve equal civil rights and greater opportunities for African Americans. Many of the goals established by the group Niagara eventually became central to the NAACP.

As you can see, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois had a shared overall goal of improving the political, economic, and social standing of African Americans. Their approaches, however, were quite different. Du Bois favored education, political action, and a refusal to accept a status as second-class citizens. Washington favored slower progress made through the learning of skills and trades, slow economic improvement, and, at least for the short term, acceptance of a lower social status. Washington hoped that this would lead to overall improvement for African Americans.

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Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were African American leaders in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. They were both very concerned about the lack of rights that African Americans had. They both were concerned about the steady erosion of the rights that African Americans had gained during Reconstruction. However, they disagreed on how African Americans should proceed to get their rights.

Booker T. Washington believed African Americans should work to get economic equality first. He believed African Americans should get vocational training, so they could get jobs. Once they got jobs and were more secure economically, they then would protest about the lack of political equality. This was known as the Atlanta Compromise.

W.E.B. Du Bois believed African Americans should get all of their rights immediately. He did not feel that African Americans should have to wait for one set of rights while the other set of rights was attained. He felt African Americans deserved all of their rights as soon as possible.

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