The Battle for the Souls of Black Folk: W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and the Debate That Shaped the Course of Civil Rights

From the death of Frederick Douglass on February 20, 1895, to the death of Booker T. Washington on November 14, 1915, black America split in two. The debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois that dominated that twenty-year span would define the age and create a distinct set of beliefs about the black role in white America. It would also lay the foundation for the ideologies of the post-World War II Civil Rights Movement.

Du Bois would come to his anti-Washington position slowly. In fact, he originally celebrated Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” and had a cordial if not productive relationship with Tuskegee’s leader. But by 1898, the relationship started to falter, and the two would become personal and ideological foes whose public battle would engulf the movement for black rights and begin a substantive discussion of how to get them.

Their conflict would ultimately frame the debate about civil rights throughout the twentieth century. Despite the common caricature, the two were not divided by conservative and radical politics: if Du Bois is the lynchpin of a lineage that runs from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, it is just as easy to pinpoint Washington as the connective tissue that binds Martin Delaney and Malcolm X.

Of course, this kind of problematic oversimplification creates more dilemmas than it solves, omitting the cacophony of voices surrounding these leaders, forgetting the legitimate influential leadership of others, and assuming a two-party bipolar caste to debates involving the best methods for countering white supremacy. Still, such cribs exist for a reason. There were massive numbers of influential backers of Tuskegee, but all tended to defer to Washington on major policy issues. William Monroe Trotter was a Du Bois ally and staunch opponent of Tuskegee, but his radicalism left him far less influential than Du Bois. The same could be said of Ida Wells’ gender. Marcus Garvey is sometimes placed alongside Du Bois and Washington, but he didn’t even arrive in the United States until after Washington’s death.

And so it was that in the twenty years between 1895 and 1915, two leaders shaped the contours of the struggle for African American rights in the twentieth century. This feud is usually treated by biographers of one or the other, always cited, always assumed, but rarely given pride of place in any influential manuscript.



This book is different. It seeks to situate the conversation between Washington and Du Bois in a place of primacy in order to fully examine its contours. In so doing, it comes to some significant new conclusions.

First, the split between the two began much earlier than presumed by most accounts. Whereas most assume a rift beginning with the publication of Souls of Black Folk in 1903 or an earlier controversy over a school superintendent job in Washington, DC in 1900, the rift actually began two years earlier in 1898, making those later incidents more understandable. Second, even though it has an earlier beginning than is normally acknowledged, the great battle between the two was really kept aflame by others and events that were out of their control. Advisors, sycophants, and neophytes pressed each of the men to further exacerbate a program against the other. Finally, the caricature of Washington as an Uncle Tom stuck for so long after his death largely because Du Bois lived longer. That Du Bois got such a long-lasting last word shaped the perception of the debate and allowed him to influence American thinking about the debate and about Washington, distorting his role in the debate.

It was a conversation that included many voices, many opinions. It evolved over time, becoming fiercer and more personal as the years progressed. It produced a cacophony of ideas that made it anything but a bipolar debate, even though it would ultimately shape the contours of two influential biographies and the two dominant strains of activist strategy. But despite its complexities and steadily accumulating bitterness, it was still, at base, a conversation—a contest at the turn of the century to capture the souls of black folk.