Since the days of slavery, there have been disagreements about how to best advance African Americans. At the turn of the twentieth century, both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois labored tirelessly for the cause of bettering the prospects of newly freed slaves. President Obama shares much in common with Du Bois: both were born outside the South and attended Harvard. Both attained prominence through political activism and espoused a model of change based on the leadership of the elite: Ivy-League educated policymakers in President Obama’s case, and the “Talented Tenth” of Du Bois.
Booker T. Washington, by contrast, was born in the South into the very heart of Jim Crow America. He was educated at a historically black college (Hampton Institute which later became Hampton University) and rose from poverty to prosperity through entrepreneurship. Mr. Washington wanted to promote the means for immediate progress among everyday blacks. As the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Washington’s primary focus was teaching the uneducated, unskilled southern blacks to be self-reliant. This meant offering courses to train black teachers, but also to train blacks for farming and other less glamorous jobs that were available in the South at the time.
By contrast, Du Bois wrote in his essay The Talented Tenth that he thought it most important to develop “the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.” He felt that if middle class blacks could receive an Ivy League quality education, they would be able to lead the rest of the black community to a more prosperous future.
In actuality, both Du Bois and Washington contributed immeasurably to the advancement of black Americans. Although their approaches to the problem seemed mutually exclusive and even contradictory at times, both were necessary to overcome the oppressive aftermath of slavery. Three generations later, Dr. King refused to be painted into an ideological corner when addressing the challenges of the segregated South. He enlisted both educated spokespersons as well as everyday activists to accomplish the goal of equality for blacks in the eyes of the law.
Today, black Americans face the challenges of failing schools, broken homes, skyrocketing unemployment and rates of AIDS and other diseases that are well above the national average. It will take a variety of approaches to effectively address these problems, and African Americans cannot afford to be shackled to the rhetoric of the political left. We need to hear criticisms and solutions from all over the ideological spectrum so that we can employ the best approaches to improve education, restore families, reduce unemployment and empower African Americans to live healthy, prosperous lives.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.