In Du Bois’ Of Mr. Booker T. Washington, Du Bois strays further away from a political critique of the country. Instead, he focuses on Booker T. Washington’s rise to success, and what his ascendance meant both for America and for the American Negro. Washington, a prominent American of African descent, came to popularity in the country after Americans had begun to feel solemn about the treatment of African-Americans.
A staunch supporter of the Negro’s success, Washington introduced Tuskegee University and was able to curry favor with both the North and the South. Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise was one of the most notable successes on behalf of African-Americans in the late nineteenth century. Du Bois contends that radicals saw this speech as an act of surrender to the white race. African-Americans, they believed, were accepting their place in society. Conservatives, however, accepted this as mutual understanding.
Despite varying opinions on Washington amongst different groups, Du Bois believes that the way in which Washington speaks about the Negro is not helpful to African-Americans. Booker T. Washington was a symbol for America, as he began with very little and accomplished much. His persistence and advocacy created a link between blacks and whites, and facilitated a way in which blacks and whites could co-exist. Washington, however, accepted black inferiority. Instead of providing accolades to the black community for their efforts, Washington stated that he wanted blacks to focus on industrial education, accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. Du Bois believed that someone familiar with the plight of the black man would not propose this to newly freed men.
Washington, according to Du Bois, promoted submissiveness by asking that the Negro relinquish fundamental privileges. Firstly, Washington asks for them to rid themselves of political power. Instead of focusing on political power, Washington believed that the African-American needed to focus on personal development. Secondly, Washington had asked for African-Americans to give up their civil rights. Instead of focusing on gaining equality and civil rights, the black American needed to strengthen his own position in society and not focus on his position in relation to others. Finally, the African-American needed to give up higher education. Instead of focusing on higher education, they would instead focus on industrial education and become better workers.
Du Bois continues by arguing that Booker T. Washington was not necessarily to blame for the black man’s loss of status in the United States. Washington, however, did speed up the process by which blacks regressed, due to his overtly public concessions. He argues that Washington’s proposals for African-Americans resulted in the ultimate disenfranchisement of the Negro, the legal inferiority of this group, and the lack of aid to black colleges and universities. Instead of helping the African-American succeed, therefore, Washington was further stratifying them into positions of oppression.
He further stated that all nine million Negros could not make progress in economic despair if they had no political rights or educational opportunity. Thus, Washington’s proposal that blacks should take accountability for themselves was not only unfounded, but also paradoxical. According to Du Bois, Washington faces a triple paradox. Firstly, it would be difficult for Negros to gain positions of power if they are denied the right to vote. Therefore, political power and sovereignty should remain important. Secondly, if African-Americans continued to accept their position in society, it would be impossible for them to garner respect within their own group. This would also make it difficult for outside groups to respect them, as well. Thirdly, while he calls for the industrial education of African-Americans, he fails to mention that there is a dearth of adequately trained Negro teachers who would even be able to train this new generation.
Du Bois believes that there is a more adequate solution to the persistent problem of Negro inequality. He argues, at first, that the Southern United States bore no blame about the Negro condition. The new, free South was not the same as it had been before, and the white population that lived there in the time that Du Bois was writing was often remorseful about the sins of their ancestors.
Furthermore, he believes that African-American should stand up against Washington’s contentions. Though he provides examples and direction for progress, he also provides further stratification. His overall theory, however, removed value from the importance of black sovereignty, and did not necessarily value education. By standing up against this, the Negro would begin to finally gain a more relevant type of freedom.
In Du Bois' analysis of Washington's ascendancy, he positions Washington as both a protagonist and antagonist. Because Washington begun with very little and reached success despite his race, he is a protagonist in African-American history. However, this is somewhat conflicting, as Washington also calls for African-Americans to submit to prejudices presented to them. Instead of providing African-Americans with an analysis of how whites had oppressed blacks, Washington instead faulted African-Americans for their conditions and said that they needed to gain educations in order to achieve success. Du Bois does not agree with this and therefore positions Washington as a black antagonist within the United States.
In Booker T. Washington's analysis of the plight of black people, he fails to take into consideration the influence of slavery on blacks in America. While he called for blacks to take control of their situation, he failed to acknowledge the existence of a poll tax. In the era in which Washington wrote, a poll tax existed which required men to pay a tax every time they voted if their fathers had not had the right to vote. According to Du Bois, it would not be possible for African-Americans to achieve the level of success that Washington advocated vote with simple things such as the right to vote.
In his proposal of education, Washington fails to realize that African-Americans do not have the civil equality necessary in order to attain education and success. During this time period, the criminal justice system often penalized African-Americans for crimes, even when they did not commit them. These blacks were then forced to work on plantations to pay off debt, which resulted in a new type of slavery: indentured servitude.
This imprisonment of the African-American foreshadowed the condition of African-Americans in the 21st Century. While civil rights were granted in 1964, the United States perpetuated racism in other forms. Despite modern progress, the criminal justice system continues to imprison African-Americans at higher rates than it does white groups. When men leave these jails, they leave with no skills and no education, and are therefore placed into situations that originally landed them in jail. Thus, racism still exists in modern times.
Du Bois also did not entirely agree with Washington's advocacy of vocational schools. He argued that these schools would provide African-Americans with skills that would be useful for employment, but that it would stratify the more talented part of the African-American groups. If black men were to gain theoretical and classical education, they would be able to be real men. Thus, in order to achieve actual adulthood, money was not the only necessity: a freedom of the mind was, as well.