Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

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Ragtime portrays a world that is chock full of injustices, whether its been racial or xenophobic. Racial tensions are at an all time high during the progressive era, between the years 1900-1917. These changes were needed to adapt a society full of white supremacy. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses were all used to keep blacks out of politics. Booker T. Washington was not a fictional person like Coalhouse Walker and had a large political following during this era. During this time, socialists like Emma Goldman thought only a socialist society could ever truly reform the American Society.

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E.L. Doctorow writes a novel with an arbitrary view that people lived and died solely because of the color of their skin, class, or where they were from. He describes the dark truth of the progressive era despite what approach you have to civil and social change, whether you preach peace or violence, the color of your skin will never change, nor will the preconceived ideas of who you are.

Booker T. Washington was born a slave in Virginia and rose to be one of the most influential African-Americans during the Progressive Era. One of Washington’s beliefs was that education was the best way to change how society viewed a person. In the “Atlanta Compromise” address, he calls on whites to provide vocational jobs and opportunities to blacks. In exchange, blacks would give up the demands for civil rights and equality to work. His thought process was if blacks could gain a foothold in the economy and hold reputable jobs that social equality would eventually follow but without a fight. Respect would be given after African Americans became established in the workplace. However, he was furthering the oppression blacks experienced. By allowing whites to still treat blacks as the hired help, but not as equal professionals’ nothing would ever change.

“The African Americans will have to show that they are useful beings that can both excel and perform at challenging jobs. In essence, Washington’s plan was for African Americans to prove themselves to the dominant white race by acquiring high economic status.”” (Gibson, “”78.02.02: Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois: The Problem of Negro Leadership.”) by only going after jobs, blacks would gain economic status but never change the view society had. Blacks would still be considered inferior because of the color of their skin. Washington preached peace and promoting civil actions, most civil leaders realized economic status would not change society norms.

Coalhouse Walker was a fictional character written by E.L. Doctorow, a black musician whom the family and us know very little about. Coalhouse comes into the New Rochelle family’s life because of Sarah and her baby. He comes as a stranger– a strange black man who seems to not know his place in society. His introduction to the family is how most of society accepts him, very distant and uncommunicative. “When Mother came to the door the colored man was respectful, but there was something disturbingly resolute and self-important in the way he asked her if he could please speak with Sarah (156).” His ways were what Booker Washington preached, that blacks should take skilled labor jobs, such as a musician, and gain economic foothold by acquiring wealth. But Coalhouse’s money and little social power did nothing but aggravated the family. His self assurance was intimidatingly annoying to Mother and Father on the first visit, he was determined to get what he came for.

Father and Coalhouse’s first interactions were tense, father had no respect for a man who didn’t seem to know his position in society and father’s house. “It occurred to Father one day Coalhouse Walker Jr. didn’t know he was a Negro (Pg 162).” Coalhouse doesn’t fit into the societal norm Father has set for a black man. Father struggles to accept a man who doesn’t know his place and this pushes him even further from the society Coalhouse wants to fit into. It annoys Father that Coalhouse becomes a weekly visitor to win Sarah back over. The passage where Coalhouse is described as “dressed in the affectation of wealth to which colored people lent themselves.” (156) Coalhouse is showing his wealth, just as Evelyn Nesbit does but because of the color of Coalhouse’s skin is bothers Father and most white males. Coalhouse is trying to fit in with upper white class society by dressing like them, driving the same car, but the upper white class cannot accept him. Coalhouse doesn’t fit into the stereotype

the family or social has for hi and others.

Coalhouse’s major conflict comes from a simple relaxing Sunday drive home from the new Rochelle house. A black man driving a brand new model T Ford drove past a firehouse operated by white bigots. They block Coalhouse on the road and refuse to let him past unless he pays a road fee. A fee that doesn’t exist on a public road. Coalhouse reminds calm in the situation, goes to find a police officer to help him. When he returns he finds human feces left inside his car. He calmly asks them to clean the car out. They refuse and Coalhouse leaves the car there. Eventually the situation esclapes and the car is completely vandalized. The car windows are broken, the car is dented and soon gets pushed into the lake at the bottom of the hill. The car has lost any monetary value it might have once had, but it still represents a great deal to Coalhouse, as it is the symbol of his fight for social justice.

Coalhouse has an idea of how he presents himself to society and how society should treat him. He dresses like a professional, in nice attire, acts like a gentleman and treats people kindly. These ideas don’t match with how he is treated or perceived. Even the family was standoff at first, but after a while they began to respect Coalhouse. Coalhouse Walker attempts to execute a revolution, with violent acts of terrorism on the firefighters that caused the damage to the car. Coalhouse comes to the realization that Washington’s values can only get you so far. You can dress, act and work alongside white folks but you will never gain their respect or be treated equally until you fight for it.

The peak of Coalhouse’s revolution comes when Coalhouse, and his followers break into and rigged Pierpont Morgan’s New York residence. This is where the two men, Coalhouse and Booker T. Washington meet. Washington is brought in to reason with Coalhouse to disarm him and his army. Washington is described by Doctorow as “at this time the most famous Negro in the country. Since the founding of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama he had become the leading exponent of vocational training for colored people.

He was against all Negro agitation on questions of political and social equality.” (279) Doctorow describes Washington of a man in power but doesn’t have the respect of “his people”. Coalhouse seemed to be a follower of Washington’s belief that assimilating into white culture would lead to equality, eventually. However Coalhouse now holed up with Morgan’s residence rigged to blow up might call Washington a traitor. He is so willing to preach vocational skills and wealth instead of a college education and position of power to force change to occur. He doesn’t fight for the rights of people, but rather works alongside white politician to suppress the demands for social changes.

Washington enters the home to plead to Coalhouse to disarm himself and give into the white man. Washington is an intellectual but he himself cannot fathom why Coalhouse was driven to the extent of violence. Where father who was not always so welcoming to Coalhouse realized how injust the treatment of Coalhouse was. Father even seems to understand the racism that Coalhouse has faced, the events have opened his eyes to the treatment of Coalhouse.

While Malcolm X was a civil rights’ leader during the same time as Martin Luther King Jr., their thoughts about social change differed greatly. Malcolm X urged his followers to defend themselves against social injustices by an means necessary, where MLK preached nonviolent acts–like sit ins. Malcolm’s beliefs are similar to Coalhouse–defend yourself. Coalhouse blew up the firehouse after the vandalization, terrorized the city until they demanded the white men be brought to justices. Coalhouse even demanded the Model T Ford be returned to its original state. Willie Conklin the, white bigot who caused all violence is forced to repair the Model T outside Morgan’s residences as the world, watches. Willie is forced to repair the car in the middle of the streets. New to the society, a white man replaces something he took and ruined from a black man. The world watches a white man fix what he did wrong.

In the eyes of Washington, Coalhouse is a crazed man who needs to be stopped because he is not helping the movement that Washington is striving to lead. He terrorizes the city to teach them a lesson, but will they learn from it? However, in the eyes of Malcolm X he is doing what must be done– fixing the wrongs he’s faced, regardless of who is hurt in the end. Coalhouse demand justice for his vandalized model T by filing a report and talking to the police, but his pleas for help was never met.

He was a calm man until society pushed him to the point of violence when his own quest for justice was dismissed so quickly because of the color of his skin. When the city became scared of this man of the run, fighting the wrongs of his injustice his demands were met because the white folks were scared of what Coalhouse might do to them.

Booker T. Washington is numb to the struggles his fellow people of color are placing. He was has gained economic power that he preaches about and believes in the success of his movement to end racism and social injustices. Washington does seem to be able to connect with Coalhouse of any emotional level. Coalhouse is convinced that his behavior is necessary for any change to occur. After Washington’s plead about disarming himself and to follow Washington’s beliefs Coalhouse says “And that therefore, possibly, we might both be servants of our color who insist on the truth of our manhood and the respect it demands.() Coalhouse is fighting this fight for personal reasons besides gaining money or position.

Coalhouse is willing to sacrifice himself for his cause. He knows that after holding the Morgan residence hostage there is no chance of him leaving alive. He has found for his cause honorable and stayed truth throughout. Coalhouse tried to get justice for his car in the proper legal way, and it manifested into a huge problem when ignored. Coalhouse’s gang of misfit boys terrorized the city just like Malcolm X’s crew the black panther did. Both of their acts and following could be considered terrorism.

Terrorism in the unlaw use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. Both represent black men who are willing to take the matter of their injustice into their own hands and fight for what they believe is right. Although both end up dead in the end of their fight, they both make leads and bounds for the movement.

There has and will always be a divide in what people believe the best way for social change to occur. Some believe in peace while others believe any means necessary. In Ragtime there is Washington’s belief of peace will solve more than violence. Peace will cause the most change, there’s just not a fast timeline. While Coalhouse is willing to use whatever means necessary to fight for what’s right. He blows up fire stations, killing and injuring people. In the end Coalhouse realizes regardless of how he dresses and acts he will always be a black man in society’s eyes. They cannot see him as anything else first, the preconceived ideas and social norms will not change with either acts of peace or violence. Both approaches yield no success for either man. Coalhouse gets his car back and restore but is dead on the street. Washington has economic power but no respect from his people, or most of white politicians.

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Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.. (2019, Sep 29). Retrieved from