Free Argumentative Essay About Booker T. Washington: Child Of The Civil War And Reconstruction Era

Type of paper: Argumentative Essay

Topic: United States, Washington, America, Race, Community, Politics, White, Conservatism

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/12/21

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Booker T. Washington and W.E.B DuBois: Savior or Sellout?


Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, two prominent and educated black activists during the Jim Crow era, engaged in the so-called “Great Debate” over what strategy for black empowerment and racial progress would facilitate the procurement of basic civil rights for African Americans and other subaltern and oppressed sectors in America. These civil rights activists were situated at opposite ends of the political continuum and articulated philosophies that were firmly rooted in disparate political traditions and ideologies. Washington embraced a brand of black conservatism, which touted organic leadership, racial collectivity, accomodationism, industriousness and practical education of the traditional liberal arts agenda, economic advancement, and overt skepticism of legal and political rights because he was a “child of the reconstruction” (Washington, 1912). Moreover, he firmly rooted his philosophy in the primacy of the individual and self-help, which are core conservative values.
W.E.B Du Bois, the founder of the NAACP at the outset of the twentieth century and educated in the liberal tradition, launched a vitriolic campaign against Washington and decried the conservative precepts Washington espoused as necessary to achieve racial progress and empowerment (Bracey, 2008, p. 34). Political and ideological differences thus account for the disparate strategies and conceptions for how African Americans would achieve racial equality, social progress, and economic agency. Ultimately, these two leaders polarized the African-American community because, conditioned by their different upbringings and experiences, Washington and Dubois propagated opposing strategies for African Americans would achieve social progress, political agency, the protection of their civil liberties, and economic autonomy. Dubois and other members of the African American community decried Washington’s deployment of politics of supplication as a viable way to achieve racial progress due the inorganic nature of Washington’s vision. However, it its unequivocal that, although Washington publically publicly eschewed a civil rights agenda in favor of promoting practical education, he was not a so-called “sellout.” Rather, he envisioned members of the African-American community progressing from the bottom up under the auspices of competent black leadership recruited from the intelligentsia within the African community that would lead various institutions that focused on economic competency and moral uplift. However, Washington’s concession to racist discourses and propaganda and acceptance of segregation as a fact of life that could not be altered by political agitation depicts him as a sellout who fomented apathy in the white community towards their black counterparts.

The experiences Washington endured during childhood and adolescence taught him that he could only achieve and enjoy success by working harder and more diligently than others as a way to prove h is worth than others to prove his worth. When he turned sixteen years old, Washington left home and journeyed to Hampton, Virginia from West Virginia so that he could attend the educational institution of his choosing: Hampton Institute. Washington embodied the conservative tenets of self-help and personal accountability. In order to be able to afford tuition and support himself away from his parents’ home, Washington worked at the school as a janitor while also generally working harder than his fellow students in order to excel in the classroom. He applied such a diligent and methodical work ethic to all of his endeavors as a civil rights activist. Upon graduating from Hampton Institute, Washing realized that, throughout his academic experiences, he had actually crystallized his own personal ideology that would bring about much success for African Americans who lived up to the fundamental tenets of conservative and “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps” (Washington, 1963). Washington’s struggles undoubtedly impacted his strategy for racial progress and poignantly reflect conservative principles.
Black conservatism, an ideology that was then primarily consigned to the Northern regions prior to the Civil War, was profoundly shaped by various forces including Christian evangelism, conservative impulses and federalism (Bracey, 2008, p. 17). Proponents of this political ideology underscored the necessity to attain political clout, economic agency, and civic recognition in mainstream American society. The emancipation of slaves in 1863 spawned a newer and more developed brand of black conservative thought shaped by epochal contingencies. Washington, born and raised during Reconstruction, emerged as the leading exponent of this reconfigured conservative ideology grounded in the “southern way of life” (p. 17). A passionate education reformer, Washington propagated a philosophy rooted in racial solidarity, self-help, industriousness, and accomodationism, and he call for African Americans to accept that racial prejudices and discrimination was a grim and quotidian feature of life. Thus, he told members of the Africa American community to reorient their focus inward in order to elevate themselves by working diligently, to obtain a pragmatic education, and pursue material ambitions.
Washington is best known for founding the Tuskegee Institute, an educational institution that focused on cultivating vocational skills such as crafts and agricultural farming, as well as in industrial trades that would help Africa Americans procure jobs that yielded them decent wages and economic success. Furthermore, Washington commanded African Americans to inculcate in their children the values of industriousness, thriftiness, diligence and patience. If African Americans successfully achieved these lofty goals, would elicit both praise and respect from the white community. Doing so would hasten the process of racial equality and ultimately result in tangible gains and equal treatment by their white counterparts. Washington idealistically believed that winning the praise of the hegemonic white community would render the second-class citizenship of Africans moot. Washington’s seminal and most famous speech that he delivered in 1895 was dubbed the “Atlanta Compromise Speech” at an exposition. In this speech, Washington clearly articulated philosophy for racial empowerment in terms of rhetoric and the receptive audience. Standing on a podium in front of a predominately white crowd, Washington appeased them by squashing any fears and/or anxieties about “uppity blacks,” which suggests that African Americans were “living by the production of our hands” rather than chafing against the social system in order to bring about radical changes that would threaten the status quo and tear societies and communities asunder (Washington, 1895). Washington further declared that African Americans needed to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” as he had done as a young adult in order to truly improve race relations and progress towards and truly egalitarian society. Many observers and scholars, however, believe that he was invited to speak at the exposition because his very presence on the stage was an embodied signifier to the rest of the world that American society had made great strides in attaining racial equality and bettering race relations. This speech ultimately laid the foundation for the compact dubbed the Atlanta Compromise forged between white and African-American leaders. It promised that that southern African Americans would not encroach the political establishment in the south because it was overwhelming predominated by white Democrats. In return, white leaders ensured that all southern blacks would receive an adequate education and have their rights such as the writ of habeas corpus protected (Kelley, 2008). By arguing against black political agitation and virtually accepting segregation and second-class citizenship as a fact of life, Washington incurred much criticism as a sellout


Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Dubois presented their own strategies, visions, and agenda to defuse class and racial hostilities, to ascertain what role blacks leaders should embrace in order to enact meaningful change, devise a plan that articulated what reparations white America owed to the historically disadvantaged African American and subaltern communities. Du Bois’ philosophy reflected a radical rather than gradual methodology, as he grafted protest, lobbying and agitation into his vision for racial progress and the protection of black civil rights. In Souls of Black Folk, his most renowned work on race relations in America, Dubois discusses his view on race that developed based on his personal experiences as an educated African-American man in a U.S. society constructed on the pillars of white hegemony, capitalism, and oppression, which of which were factors in the guiding ideology referred to as the possessive investment in whiteness. Dubois argues that southern blacks must secure the right to receive an education, to vote without harassment or fear, and to obtain both social and economic equality.
More famously, Dubois discusses him conceptual framework known as the double consciousness to describe the struggles African Americans faced on a quotidian basis. He provided a basis for African-American epistemologies vis-a-vis his theory of double consciousness. Dubois argued: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousnesstwo souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder" (Dubois, 1996, 3). Double consciousness is not a positive way of living, but rather a reality for those who are black and living in an America marred by racism and social injustice. This theory captures the idea of having to be raised in hustle in order to deal with the legacy and conquest of slavery and the extermination of white supremacy and all forms of anti-blackness.
Dubois clearly disagrees with Washington’s philosophy of blacks pursuing a vocational education that would inculcate the value of industriousness and virtually accepted racism as a fact of life. Rather, Dubois believed that African Americans absolutely needed to get a classical education rooted in the humanities and liberal arts to prepare and raise future leaders in the African-American community (Dubois, 1996, p.3 ). Dubois’ foundational and seminal work cogently articulates an intellectual argument for freedom in the blacks’ civil rights struggle by highlighting the lived experiences of African Americans.


Booker T. Washington represents one of the first success stories for an African American as a literate and well-educated former slave. Moreover, he played a critical role in erecting the first colleges for black students. Moreover, throughout his lifetime he effectively uplifted the black community. Many scholars question, however, if he had really helped African Americans advance their lot in an overtly racist society. He enjoyed great success when his educational institutions finally opened, and he concurrently went on a public speaking tour as the voice and representative of the black community. While he went to great lengths to help better the African American community, many members of the black community viewed his public speeches as more harmful to racial progress than beneficial. Observers decry the legacy of apathy in the white community as a direct result of Washington’s blasé attitude, nonchalance regarding, and his censuring of members of the African American community.


Bracey, A. (2008). Savior or sellouts: The promise and peril of black conservatism, Booker T. Washington to Condoleeza Rice. Boston: Beacon Press.
Du Bois, W. (1903). Souls of black folk. Retrieved February 10, 2015 from
Kelley, R.D.G. To make our world anew: A history of African Americans. United States: Oxford University Press.
Washington, B.T. (1895.). Atlanta’s exposition address. Retrieved March 16, 2015 from
Washington, B. (1963). Up from slavery, an autobiography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

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