Compare and contrast the leadership styles of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) and W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) were two of the most prominent leaders of the black community in their time. Both were concerned with the issues of oppression that faced the African American community (where Jim Crow laws enforced segregation in much of the country)...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) and W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) were two of the most prominent leaders of the black community in their time. Both were concerned with the issues of oppression that faced the African American community (where Jim Crow laws enforced segregation in much of the country) and dedicated a considerable amount of their efforts to combating it. However, they differed considerably in their approach.

Washington favored a more conservative approach—he acknowledged the discrimination facing African Americans (both in social views, economic status, and legalized segregation) but believed hard work, determination, and education would lift African Americans into a higher social status. Accumulating material prosperity would provide the black community with more political and economic leverage and win the respect of whites in the social sphere. Washington’s approach has sometimes been called “accommodation,” as he favored accepting the status quo of segregation and focusing efforts on economic growth and opportunity.

On the other hand, Du Bois favored much more radical and direct action to combat oppression. He advocated political and social action to help combat the discrimination blacks faced in the United States. Instead of Washington’s view of accepting the status quo but putting in hard work to improve the individual and collective black status, Du Bois wanted African Americans to fight for their own rights and not accept the status quo. He was one of the founders of the NAACP, which would be instrumental in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and was also a major influence on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Both leaders promoted education as one of the key tools to lifting the black community out of oppression. Washington, however, pushed for more practical education (including trade skills, industrial and farming skills, etc.) that would primarily boost black economic opportunity. Alternatively, Du Bois advocated for a more classical college education for African Americans, who could then use that education to help push for direct political and social action to combat segregation. He described the “Talented Tenth,” referring to a 10% of African Americans who were college-educated and could thus be leaders in their community.

Both had similar goals (ending racial discrimination and lifting the black community out of oppression), but they had vastly different views on how to achieve it. Washington encouraged African Americans to work hard, learn practical and marketable skills, and earn respect and equality through economic status. Du Bois also advocated for education, but he wanted to use education to train further leaders who could help directly combat segregation through political and social action. He was an enormous influence on the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Booker T. Washington argued that blacks in the South would have to establish a solid foundation for economic prosperity before they pushed for political and especially social equality. In his famous speech to the Atlanta Exposition in 1896, Washington made the point explicit:

To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”— cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.

Washington's message, often termed the "Atlanta Compromise" was wildly popular with "New South" whites, who sought a stable workforce and justification for segregation. Washington, while a firm advocate for African-American rights, believed these rights would best come gradually and through accomodation to Southern whites.

W.E.B. DuBois, an academic intellectual who, unlike Washington, lived in the North, argued that African-Americans should agitate against the rapidly intensifying Jim Crow laws. While not rejecting the importance of an economic base for social equality, DuBois thought Washington's approach would not lead to this equality. He argued instead for the cultivation of an intellectual elite, a "talented tenth" that would lead the movement toward black equality:

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, in their own and other races.

This approach, formed in many ways in response to Washington's speech, suggested that talented young black men should be educated in the liberal arts (like DuBois himself) rather than agricultural and technical training, as was the focus of Washington's Tuskegee Institute.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team