Paths to African American Social Equality

Matthew North
Independent Scholar
Secondary Teacher, North Carolina

Course: United States History
Syllabus Section: Jim Crow America, Progressives
Audience: Middle School, High School



Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were African American leaders in the period after Reconstruction. On the path to their goal of uplifting African Americans, they faced numerous difficulties, including systemic racism, poverty, and violence. The two shared an overall vision of improving the lives of African Americans, but they had philosophical differences over how best to achieve this vision. This lesson will give students the opportunity to analyze the two men's viewpoints, and to consider which leader was more successful in helping African Americans to improve their lives.

Students will need a basic understanding of the Jim Crow system that developed after Reconstruction. The central question of this lesson could be posed as follows: Do marginalized people best achieve equality through economic advancement or political and social initiatives?

Scope and Sequence

This lesson is designed for two 90-minute block periods or two to three 55-minute periods. Students will read background information on the differences between the philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Students will answer guiding questions and compile evidence to help them form a written hypothesis concerning the essential question: Which leader's strategy had more potential to advance the cause of African American equality?


To show mastery of the content, a student will be able to:

  1. Explain the problems African Americans faced after Reconstruction, and the strategies used to solve the problems.
  2. Analyze primary and secondary sources to determine the philosophies of both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.
  3. Cite textual evidence to hypothesize which strategy would be more effective in lifting up African Americans.


Common Core Essential Standards

RH.9-10.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

RH.9-10.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

RH.9-10.6: Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

*Note: These are adapted from the national Common Core Reading and Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6–12, starting on page 61 in the print edition, and available online.

Materials Needed

—Internet access to AASC and other websites


Essential Questions

  1. Do marginalized people best achieve equality through economic advancement or political and social initiatives? While both strategies have merit, which do you think would be more effective?
  2. Both Du Bois and Washington were acknowledged as leaders within the African American community. Explain in detail each of their philosophies. Which leader's strategy had more potential to advance the cause of African American equality? Why?

Instructional Procedures

Warm-Up Activity

As a classroom warm-up activity, write or project the following literary quote so that all students can see it. Have the students respond to the quote and warm-up questions below in their class journal. Then, ask the students to call on their prior knowledge of Jim Crow and Reconstruction in order to come up with a list of ways in which African Americans' rights were limited in the Jim Crow South.

"A colored man cannot get any charge made against a white man here.... They take the colored man and send him to the penitentiary and the law is not executed on the white man at all. We well have to have some protection or else go away from here."

—Jane and Minnie Evans complain of the legal process in Waynesboro, Mississippi, c. 1900.(Richard Wright, Black Boy. HarperCollins, 1998. P. 78.)

Warm-Up Questions:

  1. What problems does the quote highlight?
  2. What other problems did African Americans face in the Jim Crow South?


Historical Context

After the warm-up, you will need to provide some basic background on Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. If you have access to a digital projector and an Internet connection, this video gives a good introduction to the conflict.

For further background material, students should read the Encyclopedia of African American History entry on the Washington–Du Bois Conflict.

Reading/Video Questions:

  1. How were the two men's backgrounds different?
  2. How did their upbringing affect their philosophies?
  3. What issues did they agree on?
  4. What were their major differences?


Primary Source Document Analysis

The readings for the lesson have been modified for high-level middle school students and intermediate high school students. Clarification of some terms (displayed in bold text) has been provided in the word banks following each reading. If you wish to use the complete documents, links to the texts are provided below. Students should be given copies of both readings. You may choose to have the students work in small groups or as partners to read, annotate the texts, and answer the questions.

I. "Atlanta Compromise" Speech (18 September 1895)

Introduction: Booker T. Washington delivered the "Atlanta Compromise" speech to a mixed audience at Atlanta's Cotton States and International Exposition in September 1895. Washington became a national figure after the speech, and many whites believed he was a new spokesman for African Americans. Washington's philosophy of economic improvement, before political and civil equality, became central to the debate over how African Americans should improve their standing in American society.

[...]To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: "Cast down your bucket where you are"–cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.

Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. And in this connection it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man's chance in the commercial world, [...] No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.

To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, "Cast down your bucket where you are." Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, [...] Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labor wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, built your railroads and cities, [...]

While doing this, you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen. As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sickbed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours [...]

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the most extreme folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. [...] It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercises of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.



Word Bank
grievances: complaints     agitation: protest     folly: mistake



Guiding Questions

  1. Washington tells African Americans to "cast down your bucket where you are." What does he mean?
  2. Washington also tells the white race to "cast down your bucket where you are." What is he asking whites to do?
  3. What does he say that African Americans must do to prosper?
  4. Give two examples from the speech of how Washington explains that African Americans have helped whites.
  5. What does he warn African Americans against doing?
  6. Find two quotes from the text that exemplify Washington's philosophy of how African Americans can improve their lives.



II. Niagara Movement Declaration of Principles (1905)

Introduction: The Niagara Movement, which was led by W. E. B. Du Bois and others, was the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The principles outlined in the document reflect the problems that African Americans faced, as well as a vision for the future.

[...] we believe that this class of American citizens should protest continually against the curtailment of their political rights. We believe in manhood suffrage; we believe that no man is so good, intelligent or wealthy as to be entrusted wholly with the welfare of his neighbor.

We believe also in protest against the curtailment of our civil rights. All American citizens have the right to equal treatment in places of public entertainment according to their behavior and deserts.

We especially complain against the denial of equal opportunities to us in economic life; in the rural districts of the South this amounts to virtual slavery; all over the South it tends to crush labor and small business; and everywhere American prejudice, is making it more difficult for Negro Americans to earn a decent living.

Common school education should be free to all American children and compulsory. High school training should be adequately provided for all, and college training should be the monopoly of no class or race in any section of our common country [...]

We demand upright judges in courts, juries selected without discrimination on account of color and the same measure of punishment and the same efforts at reformation for black as for white offenders.

We refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults. Through helplessness we may submit, but the voice of protest of ten million Americans must never cease to assail the ears of their fellows, so long as America is unjust.

Any discrimination based simply on race or color is barbarous, [...] but discriminations based simply and solely on physical peculiarities, place of birth, color or skin, are relics of that unreasoning human savagery of which the world is and ought to be thoroughly ashamed.

We protest against the "Jim Crow" car, since its effect is and must be to make us pay first-class fare for third-class accommodations, render us open to insults and discomfort and to crucify wantonly our manhood, womanhood and self-respect.

We regret that this nation has never seen fit adequately to reward the black soldiers who, in its five wars, have defended their country with their blood, and yet have been systematically denied the promotions which their abilities deserve. And we regard as unjust, the exclusion of black boys from the military and navy training schools.

We urge upon Congress the enactment of appropriate legislation for securing the proper enforcement of those articles of freedom, the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments of the Constitution of the United States.

[...]The Negro race in America stolen, ravished and degraded, struggling up through difficulties and oppression, needs sympathy and receives criticism; needs help and is given hindrance, needs protection and is given mob-violence, needs justice and is given charity, needs leadership and is given cowardice and apology, needs bread and is given a stone. This nation will never stand justified before God until these things are changed.

Of the above grievances we do not hesitate to complain, and to complain loudly and insistently. To ignore, overlook, or apologize for these wrongs is to prove ourselves unworthy of freedom. Persistent manly agitation is the way to liberty, and toward this goal the Niagara Movement has started and asks the co-operation of all men of all races.

And while we are demanding, and ought to demand, and will continue to demand the rights enumerated above, God forbid that we should ever forget to urge corresponding duties upon our people:

The duty to vote.
The duty to respect the rights of others.
The duty to work.
The duty to obey the laws.
The duty to be clean and orderly.
The duty to be send our children to school.
The duty to respect ourselves, even as we respect others.

This statement, complaint and prayer we submit to the American people, and Almighty God.



Word Bank
suffrage: voting rights     deserts: deeds     hindrance: barrier
monopoly: control     assents: agrees     assail: attack
barbarous: cruel     peculiarities: unique     wantonly: cruelly
ravished: attacked     grievances: complaints



Guiding Questions

  1. According to the document, which rights are being violated?
  2. How does the document advise the Movement's members to react to the violation of their rights?
  3. What are the duties laid out for the members of the Movement?
  4. How does this document differ from Booker T. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" Speech? What are the similarities?
  5. Find two quotes from the document that explain W.E.B. Du Bois's philosophy.

After the students have annotated the documents and answered the questions, have the groups share their findings with the class.

Closing Activities

The final activity asks students to give a written response to the following essential question:

Both Du Bois and Washington were acknowledged as leaders within the African American community. Explain in detail each of their philosophies. Which leader's strategy had more potential to advance the cause of African American equality? Why?

Assignment Notes
  • Students should show an understanding of the principles of each leader and cite specific evidence from the documents.
  • Adjust the required length and scope of the responses according to the level of your students.

Extension Activities

  1. For more advanced students, provide Du Bois's "The Talented Tenth" and Washington's "Industrial Education for the Negro." (Links are provided in the Further Reading section below.) Have the students analyze the documents to add depth to their written argument for the final activity.
  2. Have the students choose a social issue that confronts the United States today (equal educational opportunity, the war on drugs, political representation, economic inequity, etc). Students should then explore the issue in terms of Washington and Du Bois's competing viewpoints. How do philosophical differences similar to those displayed during the Washington/Du Bois debate present themselves today?
  3. Analyze marginalized groups from around the world and have the students create a presentation that explores the essential question, as applied to a specific group: Do marginalized people best achieve equality through economic advancement or political and social initiatives? Why?

Further Reading

Students can analyze additional writings from Du Bois and Washington that provide a fuller picture of their ideological conflict. Some suggested readings from AASC include:

W. E. B. Du Bois, "The Talented Tenth," in The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative Negroes of To-day. New York, 1903.

W. E. B. Du Bois, "The Comet," in Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1920.

Booker T. Washington, "Democracy and Education (1896)."

Booker T. Washington, "Industrial Education for the Negro", chapter from his book The Negro Problem (1903).