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Booker T. Washington and the ‘Atlanta Compromise’


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National Museum of African American History and Culture
Lonnie Bunch, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present A Page From Our American Story, a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. It will showcase individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.
A Page From Our American Story
Booker T. Washington and
the ‘Atlanta Compromise’
In his 1900 autobiography, Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington wrote:“I had no schooling whatever while I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I went as far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books. The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression on me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.”
The vision of that schoolroom and the idea that learning was “paradise” would provide lifelong inspiration for Washington. He is, perhaps, best remembered as the head of the world famous Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, founded in 1881, and known today as Tuskegee University.

Booker T Washington speeks at Carnegie Hall
Booker T. Washington holds a Carnegie
Hall audience spellbound during his
Tuskegee Institute Silver Anniversary
lecture, 1906. Mark Twain is seated just
behind Mr. Washington.
The New York Times photo archive.

His driving personality led a group of businessmen to ask if he would take the lead in creating the school. The Tuskegee Institute was the embodiment of Washington’s over-arching belief that African Americans should eschew political agitation for civil rights in favor of industrial education and agricultural expertise.

Washington believed that once it was apparent to whites that blacks would “contribute to the market place of the world,” and be content with living “by the production of our hands,” the barriers of racial inequality and social injustice would begin to erode. Those words were spoken on September 18, 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition held in Atlanta, Georgia, known as the Atlanta Exposition. Washington’s speech stressed accommodation rather than resistance to the segregated system under which African Americans lived. He renounced agitation and protest tactics, and urged blacks to subordinate demands for political and equal rights, and concentrate instead on improving job skills and usefulness through manual labor. “Cast down your buckets where you are,” he exhorted his fellow African Americans in the speech.

Throughout his adult life, Washington played a dominant role in the African American community and worked tirelessly to improve the lives of blacks, many of whom were born in slavery. He gained access to presidents, top national leaders in politics, philanthropy and education. President William McKinley visited the Tuskegee Institute and lauded Washington, promoting him as a black leader who would not be perceived as too “radical” to whites. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to the White House. A picture was published of the occasion, which angered many whites who were offended by the idea of a Black American being entertained in the White House. Washington was never invited to the White House again, although Roosevelt continued to consult with him on racial issues.

Washington also associated with some of the richest and most powerful businessmen of the era. His contacts included such diverse and well-known industrialists as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Julius Rosenwald, enlisting their support to help raise funds to establish and operate thousands of small community schools and institutions of higher education for the betterment of African Americans throughout the South.

However, by the early 1900s, other African Americans, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter, were becoming Booker T Washington & Teddy Rooseveltnational figures and speaking out about the lack of progress African Americans were making in

Booker T. Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt
at The Tuskegee Institute, 1905.
Yale Collection of American Literature,
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

American society. Du Bois, initially an ally of Washington’s, was particularly vocal about what he believed was Washington’s acceptance of black’s unchanging situation and began to refer to Washington’s Atlanta speech as the “Atlanta Compromise” — a label that remains to this day.

The criticism by Du Bois and others diminished Washington’s stature for some in the black community. They denounced his surrender of civil rights and his stressing of training in crafts, some obsolete, to the neglect of a liberal arts education. Washington’s public position of accommodation to segregation came in conflict with increasing calls from African Americans and liberal whites for more aggressive actions to end discrimination. Opposition centered in the Niagara Movement, founded in 1905, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an interracial organization established in 1909.

Yet there was another side to Washington. Although outwardly conciliatory, he secretly financed and encouraged lawsuits to block attempts to disfranchise and segregate African Americans. Since his death in 1915, historians have discovered voluminous private correspondence that shows that Washington’s apparent conservatism was only part of his strategy for uplifting his race.

Even in death, as in life, Washington continues to engender great debates as to his true legacy. He was a founder of Tuskegee Institute, building it into one of the premiere universities for African Americans at a time when few alternatives were available, and he raised considerable funds for hundreds of other schools in the South for blacks. Yet, his ‘Atlanta Compromise’ speech stressed the need for blacks to accept the status quo and focus on manual labor as a way to economic development. In contrast, Du Bois believed that the “object of all true education is not to make men carpenters; it is to make carpenters men.”

Washington’s position that “the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly,” stands in stark contradiction to his covert support of legal challenges to discrimination. It is difficult to calculate the negative impact that flowed from Washington’s unwillingness to speak out publically against lynching and other acts of violence against blacks at the time — even with his extraordinary access to presidents and other prominent whites in the nation.

These two giants — Washington and Du Bois — underscore the fact that there was not a single linear path to achieving racial equality in the nation. The struggle required African Americans to both battle and accommodate the realities of segregation and discrimination to help future generations more fully realize the promise of America.

All the best,
Lonnie Bunch, Director

Lonnie Bunch
Director

in the Library … Michelle Alexander”s ‘The New Jim Crow,’ a troubling and necessary book … a worthy repost


Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist

Michelle Alexander”s ‘The New Jim Crow,’ a troubling and necessary book

Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. suggests reading “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, who contends that the mass incarceration of black men for nonviolent drug offenses, combined with sentencing disparities and laws making it legal to discriminate against felons in housing, employment, education and voting, constitute nothing less than a new racial caste system.

Syndicated columnist

Related

“You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this all while not appearing to.”

— Richard Nixon as quoted by H.R. Haldeman, supporting a get-tough-on drugs strategy

“They give black people time like it’s lunch down there. You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find: just us.”— Richard Pryor

Michelle Alexander was an ACLU attorney in Oakland, preparing a racial-profiling lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol. The ACLU had put out a request for anyone who had been profiled to get in touch. One day, in walked this black man.

He was maybe 19 and toted a thick sheaf of papers, what Alexander calls an “incredibly detailed” accounting of at least a dozen police stops over a nine-month period, with dates, places and officers’ names. This was, she thought, a “dream plaintiff.”

But it turned out he had a record, a drug felony — and she told him she couldn’t use him; the state’s attorney would eat him alive. He insisted he was innocent, said police had planted drugs and beaten him. But she was no longer listening. Finally, enraged, he snatched the papers back and started shredding them.

“You’re no better than the police,” he cried. “You’re doing what they did to me!” The conviction meant he couldn’t work or go to school, had to live with his grandmother. Did Alexander know how that felt? And she wanted a dream plaintiff? “Just go to my neighborhood,” he said. “See if you can find one black man my age they haven’t gotten to already.”

She saw him again a couple of months later. He gave her a potted plant from his grandmother’s porch — he couldn’t afford flowers — and apologized. A few months after that, a scandal broke: Oakland police officers accused of planting drugs and beating up innocent victims. One of the officers involved was the one named by that young man.

“It was,” says Alexander now, more than 10 years later, “the beginning of me asking some hard questions of myself as a civil-rights lawyer. … What is actually going on in his neighborhood? How is it that they’ve already gotten to all the young African-American men in his neighborhood? I began questioning my own assumptions about how the criminal-justice system works.”

The result is a compelling new book. Others have written of the racial bias of the criminal-injustice system. In “The New Jim Crow,” Alexander goes a provocative step further. She contends that the mass incarceration of black men for nonviolent drug offenses, combined with sentencing disparities and laws making it legal to discriminate against felons in housing, employment, education and voting, constitute nothing less than a new racial caste system. A new segregation.

She has a point. Yes, the War on Drugs is officially race-neutral. So were the grandfather clause and other Jim Crow laws whose intention and effect was nevertheless to restrict black freedom.

The War on Drugs is a war on African-American people and we countenance it because we implicitly accept certain assumptions sold to us by news and entertainment media, chief among them that drug use is rampant in the black community. But. The. Assumption. Is. WRONG.

According to federal figures, blacks and whites use drugs at a roughly equal rate in percentage terms. In terms of raw numbers, whites are far and away the biggest users — and dealers — of illegal drugs.

So why aren’t cops kicking their doors in? Why aren’t their sons pulled over a dozen times in nine months? Why are black men 12 times likelier to be jailed for drugs than white ones? Why aren’t white communities robbed of their fathers, brothers, sons?

With inexorable logic, “The New Jim Crow” propounds an answer many will resist and most have not even considered. It is a troubling and profoundly necessary book.

Please read it.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: lpitts@miamiherald.com

Civil Rights Activist Rosa Parks


 

On This Day: February 4

Rosa Parks
Born: February 4, 1913
Died: October 24, 2005
Age: 92 years old
Birthplace: Tuskegee, AL, United States
Occupation: Activist

Read Rosa Parks’ biography >>