The Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Martin Luther King Jr.
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How does Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. synthesize elements of the philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois in his "I Have a Dream" speech? What is the contemporary legacy of these central figures in African American history?

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I would first say that any attempt to show that King "synthesized" the thoughts of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois must begin by noting that King's politics are far more in the tradition of Du Bois than Washington. Booker T. Washington, coming out of the first post-slavery generation,...

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I would first say that any attempt to show that King "synthesized" the thoughts of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois must begin by noting that King's politics are far more in the tradition of Du Bois than Washington. Booker T. Washington, coming out of the first post-slavery generation, is most famous for preaching the importance of black people accommodating themselves to white supremacy. He believed black people should allow themselves to accept second-class citizenship in return for access to jobs and economic gains. He believed that if they could raise themselves up economically, civil rights would naturally follow. He was willing to put off equality to another day.

W.E.B Du Bois differed sharply from Washington. In The Souls of Black Folk, he argues it does permanent damage to black people to accept inferiority. Writing in 1900, he asserts that black people must demand equal rights now: the end to segregation, full voting rights in the South, and the same educational and job opportunities as white people. He does not agree with Washington's idea that black people should accept being shoeshiners and train porters until a better day dawns.

King takes his playbook largely from The Souls of Black Folk, campaigning for full equality immediately. We can see the legacy of Du Bois in in some lines of the "I Have a Dream Speech":

Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

That legacy also shines through in his extended metaphor that a bill is due from white people and must be paid now.

However, a case can be made that King also wished to adopt Washington's attitude that black and white people should join hands and work together. King never want to exclude white people from the civil rights movement, and he could be seen to echo Washington in such phrases as

We cannot walk alone.

Today, Du Bois's historical legacy is much more favorable than Washington's. In retrospect, it is very clear that Washington's idea of black people accepting second-class status as a trade-off for white acceptance was never going to get them anywhere. Today, it comes across as offensively servile, though in his defense, Washington was born into slavery and was among the earliest to have to deal with that violent racism that came with freedom. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, in contrast to Washington's thought, is today very highly regarded as a classic and deeply relevant work that still resonates in the twenty-first century.

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