The Reconstruction was one of the significant periods of American History. Some historians indicate the start after the civil war while others said it began while the war was ongoing. Nevertheless, this period saw the social transformation of the South as strife gave way to reconciliation and social healing of the American people. In the midst of all this, one issue this study would like to look into was the role of the African-American people during this period.
It would appear that Reconstruction only benefited the whites and the blacks did not fully enjoy the rights befitting a citizen of the United States. This was underscored when, slavery gave way to segregation as a new way for whites to put the blacks in their place though asserting they were still equal. From the issues concerning blacks during Reconstruction, two prominent individuals among them would speak out – Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.
Initially, both men found common ground to cooperate and work together in the pursuit of the improvement of the lives of the black people. Both Washington and DuBois ironically blamed the black people bringing upon themselves their current plight, owing to an “inferiority complex.” Both men emphasized the need for the blacks to reprogram or retool their attitude and outlook in life stressing the need for self-reliance and spiritual and moral reengineering or regeneration rather asserting for rights because they felt that they were not ready yet despite being emancipated. Both men gave emphasis that economic advancement should come first before they can enjoy political rights such as the right to vote. Both strongly believed in solidarity and economic cooperation among themselves yet encouraging them to reach out to the whites (Gibson, 2010).
However, there came a point when both men began to disagree. DuBois found Washington’s conciliatory approach an an act of acquiscience to white oppression where blacks were told to trust the paternalism of the southern whites and accept the fact the whites were the “ruling class.” In the mind of DuBois, Washington was becoming a lackey of the whites and this was evident when he was warmly received and was endowed with a lot of incentives. DuBois felt Washington was doing a great disservice to the black people and to a certain extent, being a traitor to his race, especially the fact he was born to a slave family whereas DuBois was not. DuBois called for all blacks to fight for their rights to vote, education and for genuine equality through persistent political agitation to obtain full citizenship rights. He felt the “separate but equal” concept of segregation was not true equality at all since the “equal” facilities and amenities for blacks were inferior compared to that of the whites (Gibson, 2010).
Looking at it from Washington’s perspective, He felt that the newly-freed slaves were not ready to be assimilated into mainstream American society. He felt the need for mutual interdependence of blacks and whites. Yet Washington counseled blacks to obtain a useful education, work hard, practice frugality in order for them to purchase property of their own rather than rely on the generosity and charity of the whites. Washington believed that through this “economic” approach to the issues the blacks faced, they would ultimately be assimlated into mainstream American society as opposed to the rather radical and almost Marxist approach by DuBois. He felt he was no white lackey and believed he was doing the black people a favor by telling them to endure segregation especially at this early stage. (Gibson, 2010).
Between the two men and if I were a newly freed slave, I would pick Washington’s position. Admittedly, it is very tempting to subscribe to DuBois’s idea where we need to almost literally fight for our freedom and rights, to show whites we are no longer and are not an inferior race. To show “righteous anger” would perhaps make them rethink about their policy of segregation. It is indeed tempting to accept his advice on this matter. However, I feel Washington’s suggestion of accomodation makes more sense. Although I may resent having to put up with segregation, and DuBois’ proposal for agitation might antagonize the whites and instead of granting us recognition as equal citizens of the United States, it might further widen the gap and probably start a new civil war. I agree with Washington that we need to prove that we are worthy of being considered citizens of the United States but not in this manner. That doing it the same way the whites did long ago – the frontier spirit of hard work and perseverence would also benefit us as well.
I also agree with Washington’s suggestion for education although DuBois also advocated it. What good is the freedom we fought for if we do not know how to use it? Education is more important. Not only will it enlighten us in terms of providing technical competence in our chosen vocation, but also make us knowledgeable in terms of what our rights are. We will know what we are entitled to have by law and to ensure nobody will take it away from us owing to ignorance. Education will protect us from such attempts. This should also be coupled with strong moral and spiritual values religion provides. Although Washington advised us to bear with the current situation, I believe he is not necessarily telling us to let whites bully us or oppress us. Rather, we should use our current situation to prove ourselves with the hope that in due course, we will be granted full citiezenship rights when the whites see we deserve it. We are confident that there will come a time when segregation will disappear and American society will truly be integrated.
Gibson, R.A. (2010). Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois: The Problem of Negro Leadership. Retrieved 15 July 2010 ;http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1978/2/78.02.02.x.html;.