Sermon Illustrations

Debate Between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois About Who Should Be Educated and Trained

Almost exactly a century ago, American listened to a debate between two great thinkers, two men who had unquestionable credentials, first-rate minds, and powerful pens.

Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. In September 1895, in a speech in Atlanta, Booker Taliaferro Washington advocated training in practical skills for young people of African descent. His speech and his ideas resounded throughout the country. At his Tuskegee Institute, Washington started courses in farming, bricklaying, mattress making, and wagon building. He insisted that his people stay out of politics and not agitate for rights. His slogan was, "Cast down your bucket where you are,“ which meant that everyone should look at the resources they already had available, and learn to use these things. If you will farm, if you will labor, if you will work hard, you will "earn" – that’s his word, not mine – you will earn your rights and privileges.

Over against Washington was his younger contemporary, the proud, intellectual, aloof William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. In this very year, 1895, as Booker T. Washington was delivering his Atlanta speech, W. E. B. Du Bois was receiving his doctorate from Harvard University. Du Bois challenged Washington’s acceptance of racial separation and demanded equal rights. More than that, he attacked Washington for minimizing the value of higher education. Du Bois instead spoke of training the talented tenth. The leaders, the exceptional people, the gifted and talented, these are the ones who should be counted on to lift and lead others. You cannot, he said, expect everybody to get ahead. Train the talented tenth, so that, as he put it, again, his words, not mine, "The best can lead the worst." Develop the talented tenth.

From a sermon by Joseph Smith, The Talented Tenth, 11/16/2009

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