Douglass, Washington and DuBois:  An Essay on Similarities and Differences Among Them

Russell L. Adams
Afro-American Studies

        Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey Johnson Douglass, Booker Taliaferro Washington and William Edward Burghardt DuBois bore sonorous and evocative names. Their historical prominence centers around their intellectual contributions to the national struggle with America's color mania, a mania deeper than religion and older than the Constitution. Their accomplishments earned them worldwide renown in their respective lifetimes. Only Martin Luther King matches and perhaps exceeds them when ranked in the pantheon of African American leaders in the history of race relations in the United States.

        An orator/activist, Douglass fought the institution of slavery before the Civil War and the injustices of racism after emancipation. He became a well-known figure on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps the most able activist/orator and organizer in African American history, Booker T. Washington was a singularly effective proponent of Black-white racial accommodationism, a stance which made him the most famous person of color in the world at the turn of the last century. An astoundingly productive intellectual/activist, DuBois became internationally renowned through the power of his pen, from which flowed 16 books and hundreds of articles.

        Part of the explanation of their prominence may be that they were long-term activists. Douglass was in the national spotlight for an even 50 years ( 1845-1895); Washington for 20 years (1895-1915) and DuBois for 60 years (1903-1963). These were exceptionally long periods of time for unusually able individuals who, with different strategic theories, linked their energies to the noble cause of full inclusion of African Americans into the world's most free society. They each began life with very high levels of self esteem and intelligence, an early belief that learning and education could make a specific difference in their personal futures, and a sense of having a mission larger than themselves. Their individual attributes and efforts meshed with the social forces and historical events of their times, creating opportunities for them to stand out among the millions of persons involved.

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August 1999