On September 18, 1895, a profound African American leader, activist and advocator for racial equality, Booker T. Washington spoke before an integrated mass at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. Although the organizers of the exposition worried that the demeanor of the public would not be prepared for such a progressive move outside of their innate social norm, they decided that inviting a black speaker would impress Northern visitors with the evidence of racial progress in the South.
The “Atlanta Compromise Address”, as it came to be called, covered concerns of “uppity” blacks by claiming that the African American race would complacently live by the productions of their hands. Considered the definitive statement of what Washington termed the “accommodationist” strategy of black response to southern racial tensions, the Atlanta Exposition Address was widely regarded as one of the most significant speeches in American history.
Washington’s speech responded to the “Negro problem”—the question of what to do about the endless social and economic conditions of blacks and the relationship between blacks and whites in the economically shifting South. Appealing to white southerners, Washington promised his audience that he would encourage blacks to become proficient in agriculture, mechanics, commerce, and domestic service, and to encourage them to “dignify and glorify common labor”. He assured whites that blacks were loyal people who believed they would prosper in proportion to their hard work.
Agitation for social equality, Washington argued, was but folly, and most blacks realized the privileges that would come from “constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. ” Washington also eased many whites’ fears about blacks’ desire for social integration by stating that both races could “be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress. ” Washington’s speech also called for whites to take responsibility for improving social and economic relations between the races.
Praising the South for some of the opportunities it had given blacks since emancipation, Washington asked whites to trust blacks and provide them with opportunities so that both races could advance in industry and agriculture. This shared responsibility came to be known as the Atlanta Compromise. In the beginning of the speech Dr. Washington wanted to express that as blacks compromised one third of the population of the South, that region could not afford to ignore the black race, if it wanted to prosper.
He also wanted to show due respect to those with higher standing amongst the multitude like the Governor of Georgia who was in attendance, and Board of Directors of the Expo, who had put on the exposition. One reason Dr. Washington felt that respect and honor were due was that the board had gone to great lengths to recognize and include the efforts and accomplishments of ex-slaves in all aspects of the exposition. After almost 10 years post-reconstruction era, sincere efforts had been made to the restoration of the devastated South by both the black and white race. This Exposition was meant to showcase and honor that common effort.
Black Southerners were included from the beginning in the planning and construction of the Expo all the way through to their inclusion in the expositions and their attendance at the event. As a round of applause filled the air as Washington took the stage, it was clear that this event was seen by all as a hopeful time and as a rebirth of the South for blacks and white alike. What followed next in the speech, however, was a taking assessment of reality and a forewarning to our people. When Booker T. Washington said that we were “ignorant and inexperienced,” he was not meaning this in a derogatory way.
In retrospect, he was speaking of the reality that in the mere 30 years since the end of slavery we were still learning, or needed to be learning, how to live as free people and how to value what is really important versus what looks important. Sadly, while ignorance and inexperience were a valid excuse in 1885, in the 128 years since this speech we still seem to have failed to learn the lessons Dr. Washington was speaking of. We still appear to respect and value a record deal with all the perks or stardom over an understanding of real estate or property ownership and acquiring an industrial skill.
To the overvaluing of entertainment, we can today add athletics and “urban pharmaceuticals”. We still have too many of those who believe it is of more value to get while they can at any means necessary than starting and building a successful career and business. While entertainment, sports, and other forms of making do each have their value to those who find it suitable, these are not foundational to the sure success of a people. These, if sought prematurely and without the proper foundation will not provide for lasting success, and may in fact cause failure to achieve the lasting success of a society.
As I took a step and researched more on the late leader it is clear that you must understand one thing in order to keep all of Booker T. Washington’s writings and ideas in proper perspective. He loved the pure value of work. He worked tirelessly himself and taught that a job well done was reward enough in itself. But he also understood and taught that: “The man who has learned to do something better than anyone else, has learned to do a common thing in an uncommon manner, is the man who has a power and influence that no adverse circumstances can take from him. I believe that we are still at the starting point, but that leaves me full of hope. It is never too late to learn a good lesson, if we learn it correctly.
Neither the South, nor the nation at large, can ignore the Black race and hope to prosper. But we desperately need those in our Black communities, who hear and understand what Booker T. Washington knew and tried to impart. These ideas will take a reconditioning process for many. It may not be easy, but it is crucial. If we succeed it will bring in a new era in our nation. One in which the Black community can take the lead.