Celebrated African-American educator, author, speaker, and Republican presidential adviser Booker T. Washington (pictured) was known for his ability to communicate freely across the heavily divided racial lines in the Deep South — sometimes drawing the ire of fellow Black leaders in the North. Born in to slavery in 1856, Washington made education a top priority and eclipsed his humble beginnings. After graduating college and becoming a teacher, Washington would go on to become the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in 1881. Washington, however, would deliver a controversial speech on this day in 1895 that changed relationships between those in the North and the South.
Dubbed the “Atlanta Compromise,” the speech was delivered to a largely White audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition. In the speech, Washington essentially conveyed a message that Blacks in the South had reached a particular zenith and that they should be content with what’s been handed to them considering the racial tensions of the time. While many Whites at the expo were skeptical of having a Black speaker, it was later written that Washington’s inclusion was to show the South’s northern neighbors that racial progress was occurring.
From Washington’s speech:
Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. 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.
Washington was a target of criticism for this speech, which some Black leaders found to be pandering and subservient.
Without a doubt, the speech’s seedy undercurrent was that an agreement had been made between southern Black leaders and the White ruling class that African Americans would bend to majority political rule in exchange for basic education and not rising together in protest.
Supporters of this measure were known as the “Tuskegee Machine,” because Washington was the president of the school at the time. He had an ability to forge relationships with powerful, wealthy Whites and struck back door deals in order to keep a semblance of peace in the South. Of course, Whites flocked to the idea of the agreement because it meant that Blacks would stay out of their way.
W.E.B. Du Bois (pictured right) and others referred to the speech as the “Atlanta Compromise” because they saw the speech and its unspoken agreement to be far too accommodating to Whites.
Washington’s position was that Blacks in the South needed to take things slower and accept the hand they were dealt, combating their situation through hard work in exchange for advancement. Du Bois, on the other hand, contended that Blacks should have the same opportunities for liberal arts education, voting rights, and civic equality, shunning his former ally’s philosophy.
Du Bois wasn’t always against Washington’s speech, but between 1901 and 1903 his stance was irreversibly altered by the racism surrounding him and the lynching of other Blacks. Du Bois wrote a critical review of Washington’s book, “Up From Slavery,” which was further expanded upon his book “The Souls Of Black Folk.”
While the “Atlanta Compromise” continued many of the same oppressive conditions for southern Blacks, it gave rise to a more militant voice from the North and planted the early seeds of the Civil Rights Movement. Du Bois and his “talented tenth” concept was inspired and born as a result of Washington’s speech. While the pair never fully reconciled their differences, their prominent voices and ideals had goals of varying means to aid their people.
It should be noted – and applauded – that both men did agree on wanting improved conditions for African Americans via education and advancement.