The Origins of Black Liberalism & Conservatism (part 1)

W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington

We hear the terms conservatives and liberals thrown about in political discussions on a regular basis, but for the longest time, we only seemed to apply the terms to “white” people. Today the conversation has broadened to include at least the “black Conservative.”  It is strange, however, that we never hear much about the “black Liberal.”

It is my belief that in this discussion, instead of going back to find an origin to “black conservatism,” we need to go back to find the origins of “black liberalism.”  Looking at the historical evidence, the descendants of African slaves in America have always tended to be conservative.  There have been no greater patriots, no more loyal citizens, and no more of a consistently faith-oriented people in the history of this nation.  Never the less to hear the talk today, “the black conservative” is the rare and new breed.

While this discussion of black conservatives and/or liberals seems like a relatively new one, dating back only to the 2000 elections or shortly before, the origins of the debate between black conservatives and black liberals trace back to 100 years earlier and the turn of the 20th Century.  It was highlighted by the juxtapositions of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

On September 18th, 1895, Booker T. Washington gave one of the greatest speeches ever given in the United States and possibly in any nation, by any man or woman, of any color or nationality.  So powerful was this speech that from the very next day for weeks, the name Booker T. Washington and “the speech” were discussed on every corner and on the front pages of major newspapers across America, and the entire western world.  The speech before a mixed crowd of thousands, black and white, attending the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition was significant not only for what was said but also for the fact of who said it and where.  A black man, an ex-slave, in the Jim Crow south, had given a speech before a mixed crowd of thousands and received a thunderous reception and ovation from all. Whites cheered madly while much of the black audience wept with joy.

After the speech, even Dr. W.E.B. Dubois sent Dr. Washington a message that read as follows:

My dear Mr. Washington,
Let me congratulate your phenomenal success at Atlanta-
it was a word fitly spoken.

W.E.B. Du Bois
Wilberforce, 24 Sept. 1895

As congratulatory as Dr. Du Bois was on September 24th of 1895, however, in 1903 in a now famous book, The Souls of Black Folk, Dr. Du Bois used an entire chapter to denigrate Booker T. Washington as a sellout for the very same speech.  He even renamed the speech the “Atlanta Compromise Speech,” which to their shame, most books and resource sites now refer to it.  While I would like to discuss this matter of the name “compromise” in detail, and what to do about it, I must save that for another time.  My focus here will be to discuss what was different about these men, and their ideologies which caused Du Bois to consider Washington a “compromiser and a sellout.”

Let’s first look at the backgrounds of Drs. Du Bois and Washington.  Their backgrounds are as different as their ideologies and worldviews.

Washington was born a slave, poor and in the south—Du Bois free, of some means and in the north.

Washington was born illegitimately and never knew his father, who was white.  Du Bois was born to respectable parents and knew his father who was mostly black.

Washington was denied an official education until he was a teen. Du Bois attended good northern schools.

Washington received an industrial education at Hampton Institute in Virginia and never studied at a university. Du Bois studied at 3 universities, two of which were among the most prestigious in the world (Harvard and The University of Berlin, Germany)

Washington lived and worked his entire life in the south. Du Bois lived and worked most of his entire life in the north or abroad.

Washington taught, spoke and wrote for the uplift of the common man.  Du Bois taught, spoke and wrote for the uplift of the elite, his “Talented Tenth.”

These backgrounds were the fertile ground in which the ideologies and worldviews of these men grew.  Washington’s ideology grew from the practical realities of what he learned in the salt and coal mines, as well as the practical, industrial education in the segregated society of the south.  Du Bois’ ideology grew from theoretical education he received in the radicalized and elitist universities of Hartford, Connecticut, and Berlin Germany. A great part of these ideologies was based upon prevalent worldviews of their times and surroundings.  Hampton Institute was very much biblically centered, while Harvard College and the University of Berlin were centers of the formation of secular humanist thought

Booker T. Washington believed that a relationship with a living God was essential to success in life.  He believed that the walk of faith and the relationship with God was a personal one.  He gained his love for God’s Word from his time at the Hampton Institute.  He recounts his introduction to the Bible as follows:

No man’s life is really complete until he owns a bible that is part of himself.  One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned at this institute (Hampton), was the value of the Bible. For the first time in my life I had put into my hands a copy of that book which I could call my own.  And ever since, I have possessed that Bible.  No matter how busy I may be and no matter how many responsibilities crowd upon me, I never have let a day pass without taking my bible and reading a chapter, or at least a few verses.  It is valuable from an historical and a literary point of view; it is more valuable from a spiritual point of view.

His daughter Portia stated: “We never at home started a day without prayer, and we closed the day with prayer in the evening. He read the bible to us each day at breakfast and prayed. That was never missed.”

His speeches and writings were not full of the sentimental, spiritually charged rhetoric, however, which was and is still so common in the speeches and writings of many black ministers, activists, and leaders. Washington’s faith was one lived in the context of life.  He took seriously the scripture 2 Timothy 3:5, which said there would be those “having a form of godliness but denying its power.”  He lost patience with churches and ministers who spoke of “pie in the sky” religion, but whose religion was not beneficial to every man and woman. He was often at odds with clergy and prone to taking them to task over their flowery emotional messages, and sentimental themes, yet lacking the substance needed to elevate the individual above real problems. “Our religion,” he said, “must not alone be the concern of the emotions, but must be woven into the warp and woof of everyday life.”

Law and living under the authority of laws that did not conflict with clear biblical law, or principle, was very important to Washington’s belief system.  As he also said:

“A man is free just in proportion as he learns to live within God’s law, and he makes grievous mistakes and serious blunders the moment he departs from these laws.”

Do you read the paradox of these words?  Is a man free in proportion as he learns to live within the law?  In other words, we must bind ourselves with laws to be truly free.

He went further to say, “if we would live happily, live honored and useful lives, modeled after our perfect leader, Christ, we must conform to the law, and learn that there is no possible escape from the punishment that follows the breaking the law.”  Here he was referring to man-made laws.  As stated, Dr. Washington truly believed in a personal relationship with a living God from whom we derive divine blessing. This God has laws governing life.  If we are to expect blessing and success, we must understand and live by these laws.  These laws also dictated a submitting to authority both divine and human.

Now, juxtapose this idea of a living personal God, and living under the rule of law with that of W.E.B. Du Bois.  Du Bois said:

The Soviet Union does not allow any church of any kind to interfere with education, and religion is not taught in public schools. It seems to me that this is the greatest gift of the Russian Revolution to the modern world. Most educated modern men no longer believe in religious dogma. If questioned they will usually resort to double-talk before admitting the fact. But who today actually believes that this world is ruled and directed by a benevolent person of great power who, on humble appeal, will change the course of events at our request? Who believes in miracles? Many folk follow religious ceremonies and services and allow their children to learn fairy tales and so-called religious truth, which in time the children come to recognize as conventional lies told by their parents and teachers for the children’s good. One can hardly exaggerate the moral disaster of the custom. We have to thank the Soviet Union for the courage to stop it.  (The Autobiography of W.E. Burghardt Du Bois (International publishers, 1968), ch. IV: The Soviet Union)

Du Bois spent most of his life advocating civil disobedience.  This disobedience began with rejection of faith in a living, personal and caring God and all He stands for. This is the essence of secular humanism and what was at the core of W.E.B. Du Bois’ ideology and all that has sprung from it. Du Bois pushed for agitation and civil disobedience as the way to freedom.  In the formation of the Niagara Movement, the precursor to the NAACP, he and the other founding members declared:

“Persistent manly agitation is the way to liberty, and toward this goal, the Niagara Movement has started and asks the cooperation of all men of all races.” (From the Declaration of Principles of the Niagara Movement, July 11, 1905)

And later in life regarding civil disobedience for change he stated:

“Use of force of every sort: moral suasion, propaganda, and where possible even physical resistance.”  (Dusk of Dawn 1940)

The two divergent views of Washington and Du Bois would lead to a major rift in the black community. A rift that would eventually make these men adversaries from that time forward, even though they each respected one another highly.

The Du Bois faction, beginning with the Niagara Movement launched a vigorous attack upon the person and character of Dr. Washington. The attacks of the Niagara Movement became so fierce and the rift so wide that Dr. Du Bois had to separate himself from this group, which would lead him eventually to join with others and form the NAACP. Interestingly, however, despite the attacks upon his character Booker T. Washington rarely, if ever, spoke a harsh word, or publicly criticized any individual detractors, black or white, on a personal level.   Once at a dinner in Boston that both Dr. Washington and his critics were invited to, one after another of his critics stood up to attack him. When he was finally asked to speak, he stood and said, “Gentlemen, let me tell you what we are doing at Tuskegee.”  And that he did.

But the attacks were not as much upon the person of Booker T. Washington as upon what he symbolized.  The real attack was upon the black community’s faith and loyalty to the ideals of the United States of America.

Part 2 will discuss the influences and collaborators with each of these two men as well as the modern-day effects of following the Du Bois model vs. the Washington model.

Default Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “The Origins of Black Liberalism & Conservatism (part 1)

  1. For many years I have been wondering if anyone remembers George Washington Carver, the “Peanut Man”. He helped Booker T. with the Tuskegee Institute, was a famous scientist/chemist, and asked God for wisdom in finding purpose for the peanut. If I remember correctly, God told him that it was impossible for any man to know the full wisdom of the peanut; but gave him 3 areas to work in; heat, pressure and ? (the 3rd slips my memory). He came up with thousands of uses for the peanut, my favorite being peanut butter!

  2. Beth Beatrice says:

    When my students read Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, they all express how inspired they are, and how much they realize that they’ve taken their own educations for granted, and that they won’t do that anymore. I teach in a local Catholic homeschool group. My students, up to this point, have been high school age people of caucasian or asian descent. The other ultra-inspiring story they read, that has a huge impact, is The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Much of Frederick Douglass’ work is out of print, and can only be purchased as an e-book. I own another inspiring book about Booker T. Washington’s efforts to build one-room schoolhouses for Black children across the south. He was an amazing man of faith, and a man of action.

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