Approaches in Fighting for Civil Rights: “Of the Coming of John” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were very important African American leaders in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They both felt strongly that African Americans should not be treated unequally in terms of education and civil rights. They had strong beliefs that education was important for the African American community and stressed that educating African Americans would lead them into obtaining government positions, possibly resulting in social change. Although Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois had similar goals to achieve racial equality in the United States, they had strongly opposing approaches in improving the lives of the black population. Washington was a conservative activist who felt that the subordination to white leaders was crucial for African Americans in becoming successful and gaining political power. On the other hand, Du Bois took a radical approach and voiced his opinion through public literature and protest, making it clear that racial discrimination and segregation were intolerable. The opposing ideas of these African American leaders are illustrated in Du Bois’ short story, “Of the Coming of John”, where Du Bois implies his opposition to Washington’s ideas. He shows that the subordination of educated black individuals does not result in gaining respect or equality from the white community. In fact, he suggests that subordination would lead the black community to be further oppressed by whites. However contrasting their views might have been, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were significant influential black leaders of their time, who changed the role of the black community in America.
Booker T. Washington’s ideologies for economic advancement and self-help played a major role in his approach to fight for equal rights. By founding the Tuskegee Institute in Mound Bayou, he created a university that was segregated for black students and encouraged higher educational standards (Meier 396). These students were also encouraged to follow the social system of segregation in order to achieve political status in the United States. In an interview with reporter Ralph McGill, Du Bois recalls that in the process of obtaining funds for the Tuskegee Institute “Washington would promise [white philanthropists] happy contented labor for their new enterprises. He reminded them there would be no strikers” (Du Bois, qtd. in McGill 5). This shows the nature of Washington’s contradicting approach in obtaining political power by embracing the system of segregation and working with white leaders rather than against them to achieve his goals. Washington’s view was clearly addressed in his famous speech “The Atlanta Compromise” when he stated “in all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (“Atlanta”). These words supported the segregation of schools that were unequal in the type of education that black students received compared to white students. This therefore complied with the social status that was imposed on the black community to educate black students to become labor workers rather than politicians.
On the other hand, W.E.B. Du Bois chose to publicly speak out against segregation and published many literary works that favored racial equality. He states in his chapter “Of the Training of Black Men” from his book The Souls of Black Folk, that a black college “must maintain the standards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and cooperation” (13). Rather than complying with the inferior standards set for them, this idea fought for an equal education that would allow black students to become ambitious and educated enough to possibly take on political positions. In contrast to Washington’s views, Du Bois believed that in accepting the subordinate culture that was forced on African Americans, Washington and his conservative followers “helped rationalize [segregation]… and put a public stamp of acceptance… when he spoke at the Atlanta Exposition”(McGill 3). He also states that “in that same speech [ Washington ] implicitly abandoned all political and social rights” (McGill 4). This makes clear that according to Du Bois, Washington ’s ideas did not help the status of African Americans; rather, they postponed the achievement of equality and validated the inferior status of the black community.
One of Du Bois’ famous works of literature that focused on racial inequality was his story “Of the Coming of John.” The characters in this story symbolize many ideals that were present during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in southern communities which were heavily racist against black people. The protagonist John represents the ideal young black man striving for success and change during the times of segregation. While he is away at college, the town’s black population waits and “dreamed in an inarticulate way of new things that would be done and new thoughts that all would think” (8). The black community in his town parallels the attitude of the conservative population who believe that with John’s degree, some sort of positive change will come for the black community. Du Bois introduces the view of the general white population when he describes the attitude that the town Judge had on John obtaining an education. While the Judge felt that an education would “make a man out of” his white son, he also felt that an education would “spoil” the black John (8). Du Bois introduces John’s counterpart when he describes the Judge’s son who was white and also named John. The white John signifies white men who were treated superior to black men when obtaining an education.
The story “Of the Coming of John” also reflects many views that Booker T. Washington had and suggests that his approach of subordination to white leaders would ultimately lead to the further oppression of the black community. Du Bois explains how the black John only realized that segregation and discrimination were wrong after he was educated in the North. He states that John “grew slowly to feel almost for the first time the Veil that lay between him and the white world; he first noticed now the oppression that had not seemed oppression before…” (10). This quote signifies an important aspect of how the white community in the South conditioned the black population to think that they in fact, were “supposed” to believe that they were inferior to the whites. When John arrives at his hometown, he is subordinate to the Judge, being respectful and following certain conditions imposed on black people. For example, John felt that he offended the Judge when he knocked on the front door of the Judge’s house rather than the back door, something that Du Bois suggests is disrespectful for a black person to do to a white person (15). He then asks the Judge if he could teach the black children at the church. The Judge states clearly the views of white leaders during this time when he explains to John that “in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men…accept the situation and teach the darkies to be faithful servants and laborers as your fathers were…”(15). Only after John accepted this condition, was he able to teach the black students in a school that was far more “dangerous,” “insufficient” and “dirtier” than the school for white students. Here, Du Bois implies exactly how Washington’s view of subordination was faulty. Although the white leaders gained respect for black intellectuals that followed their conditions, these black intellectuals were unable to change the segregation and discrimination toward black people because of the ideal subservient role a black person had to play. Furthermore, the education given to these black students was not of the same caliber as the white students’ and therefore, as Du Bois suggests, the black colleges educated a “stalwart labor force” for the benefit of the white population (Training BM 2). By this, Du Bois asserts that if black students were educated according to what white leaders wanted them to become, they would grow to be subordinate laborers rather than independent businessmen and politicians.
This situation also reflects the town of Mound Bayou in which Washington helped fund a racially segregated school for black students. He promised the black community that with education and dedication, black students could become wealthy businessmen and help spread wealth throughout the black community (Meier 397). John also makes a similar promise to the black community in “Of the Coming of John.” He “spoke of the rise of charity and popular education, and particularly the spread of wealth and work. He sketched a vague outline [of] the Industrial School that might raise…the charitable and philanthropic work that might be organized [and]…money that might be saved for banks and business” (13). However, Du Bois points out that although this approach strove for a positive change in the black community, it would ultimately fail if it provided the white community with the labor force they wanted. When the Judge of John’s town became aware that John was teaching his black students about revolutions and equality, he closed down the school and told the children to “get back to work” in the fields (17). John’s plans for equal opportunity and education for the black community was stopped to prevent some sort of retaliation against the whites. Therefore, Washington’s approach of subordination to achieve change and success was not triumphant in John’s situation and instead, caused the black community further loss and oppression.
W.E.B. Du Bois was an extremely influential leader for black radicalists during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His views helped influence the black population to pursue an education which allowed them to obtain better jobs and therefore become efficient members in society. More specifically, W.E.B. Du Bois and his organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), published many short stories and poems by African American writers in their magazine The Crisis. This magazine was dedicated to the writings and the experiences of African American people in the early 20th century. This magazine made it possible for black writers during the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer, to gain exposure and eventually become significant African American writers in history (Crisis). Another direct influence that W.E.B. Du Bois had on the black population in America was through his book The Souls of Black Folk where he promoted the upward movement of black people as a reaction to the oppression that they were enduring (Du Bois, Training BM 2). This attitude inspired a middle class of educated black people to stand up for civil rights which in turn fueled the revolutionary Harlem Renaissance movement.
Booker T. Washington also influenced the black community on a grand scale. Along with his views, he also promoted for black individuals to obtain training in service trades and agricultural occupations (Meier 397). As a result, a black middle class was developed. The creation of a black middle class allowed for black leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, to emerge from the population and stand up for black civil rights as respected and educated black men. Indirectly, the views of Booker T. Washington changed the course of history by inspiring many black people in America to gain an education, voice their opinions, and fight for civil rights.
As a result of Du Bois’ and Washington’s’ hard work in defending the rights of African Americans, many important leaders emerged from the black population who eventually made history for being successful in gaining equal rights for black people. Although they had contrasting views in the way they approached and fought for black civil rights, Washington and Du Bois both left a lasting impact on American history. With Du Bois’ outspoken radical approach to fight for equal rights, he compelled white communities nationwide to accept the black population as equal and civilized people. In his story, “Of the Coming of John,” Du Bois illustrated situations that many black men had to face and described the negative outcome that can result from subordination to the white population. He empowered black people to stand up for their rights and fight for equality in their communities inspiring them to take part in the civil rights movement. Washington, on the other hand, supported black students and urged them to become successful professionals in order to make a significant contribution to their community. Through their unique approaches, both influential leaders contributed to the rise of a black middle class which gave the black community more equal opportunities in America. In the end, both of these black intellectuals inspired many black people to gain an education, make a difference and become the successful black citizens who we see today.
“Atlanta Compromise.” The Great American History Fact Finder. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Web. 28 Oct. 2008.
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Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of the Coming of John.” Best American Essays of the Country. Ed. Joyce Carol Oats. New York : Houghton Mifflin. 2000.6-19. Print.
—. “Of the Training of Black Men.” Atlantic Online. Sept. 1902. Web. 28 Oct. 2008.