Up From Slavery

The relationship between Washington and his critics

Since publishing, Up From Slavery paints Booker T. Washington as both an "accommodationist and calculating realist seeking to carve out a viable strategy for black struggle amidst the nadir of race relations in the United States." While more contemporary ideas of black civil rights call for a more provocative approach, Washington was certainly a major figure in his time. Most critiques of him target his accommodationism, yet his private life was very much aimed at opposition through funding. The Atlanta Exposition speech shows his dual nature, giving everyone present something to agree with, no matter their intention. Washington deserves praise for "seeking to be all things to all men in a multifaceted society."[14] Many do argue against his being characterized as an accommodationist: "He worked too hard to resist and to overcome white supremacy to call him an accommodationist, even if some of his white-supremacist southern neighbors so construed some of his statements. Having conditions forced on him, with threat of destruction clearly the cost of resistance, does not constitute a fair definition of accommodation."[15] Historians are thoroughly split over this characterization.

W. E. B. DuBois initially applauded Washington's stance on racial uplift, at one point he went as far as to say of the Atlanta Exposition speech: "here might be a real basis for the settlement between whites and blacks in the South."[16] DuBois, in his book The Souls of Black Folk, congratulates Washington for accomplishing his first task, which was to earn the ear of the white southern population through a spirit of sympathy and cooperation. He also acknowledges the unstable situation in the south and the necessity for sensitivity to community feelings, yet he believes that Washington has failed in his sensitivity to African Americans. DuBois asserts that there are many educated and successful African Americans who would criticize the work of Washington, but they are being hushed in such a way as to impede "democracy and the safeguard of modern society." This is where their paths would diverge: Washington with his "Tuskegee Machine" and DuBois with the "Niagara Movement."[17]

In 1905, the Niagara Movement issued a statement enumerating their demands against oppression and for civil rights. The Movement established itself as an entity entirely removed from Washington in conciliation, but rather a new, more radical course of action: "Through helplessness we may submit, but the voice of protest of ten million Americans must never cease to assail the ears of their fellows, so long as America is unjust." For a time, the Movement grew very successfully, but they lost their effectiveness when chapters began to disagree with one another. Eventually, the Movement's efforts translated into the development of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).[18]

Of course there were other participants in this discussion of the future of the African-American race, including that of W. H. Thomas, another African-American man. Thomas believed that African Americans were "deplorably bad" and that it would require a "miracle" to make any sort of progress. As in the case of Washington and DuBois, Washington and Thomas have areas of agreement, though DuBois would not so agree: that the best chance for an African American was in the areas of farming and country life. In some respects, it is hard to compare the two as each has different intentions.[19]

Similarly, Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman (1905), began a newspaper controversy with Washington over the industrial system, most likely to encourage talk of his upcoming book. He characterized the newfound independence of Tuskegee graduates as inciting competition: "Competition is war….What will the [southern white man] do when put to the test? He will do exactly what his white neighbor in the North does when the Negro threatens his bread—kill him!"[20]

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