David Frum

02.06.13

Understanding Booker T. Washington

I have been corresponding offline with Jeet Heer (follow him on Twitter) about Booker T. Washington and WEB DuBois. He introduced me to a very interesting Irving Howe essay from 1968 about the famous feud between the two men. Today, Heer blogs at greater length about the Howe essay:

Here are two paragraphs that Heer quotes from the essay, but you can spend a useful few Black History Month minutes reading the full discussion. Here's Heer, quoting Howe:

Booker T. Washington was in effect the leader of a conquered people, and a conquered people is never quite free to choose its own leader. He was, if you like, the Petain of the American Negroes, but far shrewder and far more devoted to his people than Petain was to the French. The evidence also suggests that Washington was sometimes a surreptitious de Gaulle, deeply involved in a quasi-underground resistance.

Professor August Meier, a historian whose symapthies are wholly with the civil-rights militants, has printed in the Journal of Southern History, May 1957, a fascinating account of the Washington-Du Bois struggle in which he presents a large amount of evidence to show that the issues cannot be reduced to acquiescence vs. militancy. Du Bois was an intellectual whose obligation it was to thing in terms of long-range ends; Washingtn was a leader who had to cope with immediate problems. The white South had just achieve a counterrevolution in which Negroes had been reduced to near-slavery; in fact, as Washington made clear in still-impressive autobiography Up from Slavery, the Negroes were in many respects worse off than before the Civil War. They were frightened, demoralized, and economically helpless. Simply to come to them and cry out for militant struggle would have elicited no response from them, would have been little help to them, and would have provoked ghastly retaliation from the white South.