The Atlanta Exposition Address and the “C” Word

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Booker T. Washington delivered the Atlanta Exposition Address on September 18th, 1895 with the goal of improving race relations between the blacks and the whites by tailoring his speech to the needs of both sides. To get them to work together toward a common goal, he expressed that neither race can prosper until both sides come to a compromise. In his autobiography, Up From Slavery, Washington explains that he needed to say something that would “…cement the friendship of the races and bring about hearty cooperation between them” (935).

The speech was an immediate success; however, when it was initially printed in type, some people felt like they were being hypnotized by the words in a way. Washington’s accommodating philosophies, as well as his separate-but-equal mentality, gained him a fair amount of criticism after the speech was published. Was this self-reflective orator selling out, or did he have a feasible plan for achieving racial equality in the United States?

Atlanta Exposition 1895
You think I’m sellin’ out? I don’t THINK so!

Firstly, his pragmatic approach had to be carefully tailored not to agitate either the southern blacks or whites on either side. Even with this minefield of potential opposition on every side, his philosophy was relatively simple and boiled down to a couple of main concepts. He says, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (936). He is saying here that the blacks should accept segregation and discrimination for the time being and concentrate on things that are more important like learning a trade, working hard, and bettering themselves as a race in every aspect. To him, it was more important for blacks to focus on economic equality rather than on social and political equality. Washington argued that racial equality can happen through segregation, albeit only in a slow manner.
Many blacks felt after reading his speech in type that Washington sold himself out and only said what the white man wanted to hear. In their eyes, he failed to challenge white supremacy directly, which further extended their wait for freedom. He was even called a traitor, yet Booker still says in his autobiography after the speech “My own belief is, although I have never before said so in so many words, that the time will come when the Negro in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to” (941). This passage makes him sound confident in his beliefs and like he knows exactly what he’s doing as if he planned it all to happen this way. Equality would happen, just not right away.
W.E.B. DuBois, on the other hand, felt otherwise. Washington’s philosophy of accommodation directly opposed DuBois’s outrage at inequality and racial injustice. He did, however, believe that Mr. Washington was correct on a few issues, like that blacks were responsible for their position, that they should focus on self-improvement, and that advancement in economic areas are more important than political areas.

WEB Dubois Atlanta Compromise
Started from the bottom now we here

He was much more outspoken than Washington about the injustice blacks were facing and felt that only radical reform and protest would get them the civil rights they deserved. He demanded equality, the right to vote, and for black education to be provided according to their ability. The main difference between them was that DuBois believed that these goals could be achieved quickly with constant agitation, while Washington thought that blacks had to start at the bottom and work their way up. For this reason DuBois called the Atlanta Exposition Address the “Atlanta Compromise”, although compromise is only a bad thing if you side with DuBois’s philosophy. Washington wasn’t selling out his own people because he and DuBois wanted the same thing when it came to equality, they just had different methods of attaining these goals.

Booker T. Washington wasn’t a sellout. He knew that the only way to make any progress whatsoever was to tell the whites what they wanted to hear. They were the more politically and socially powerful race and if they wanted segregation, they were going to get it. By the blacks agreeing to comply with segregation, the whites had to guarantee that the blacks would receive a basic education. By starting at the ground level, they would have a solid foundation to build themselves up and eventually work themselves out of their situation. I don’t think that Washington was hostile at all to the blacks during this speech. Everything that he said was to protect them because most of these people were just recently freed. Even though some had skills in farming and carpentry, many didn’t have any useful trades or education to begin with, so what could they possibly put on the table for society? A lot of these former slaves didn’t have anything to offer, which is why Booker T. Washington’s philosophy made sense to so many. It was realistic, and it set realistic expectations. “It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges” (937). The key word in that quote is “prepared”.  The blacks weren’t ready to be completely equal and integrated into society yet because they weren’t yet prepared to be equals.

Booker T. Washington was trying to say that the blacks were overstepping their bounds and trying to gain freedom too quickly before they were ready. Most of them wouldn’t have been able to find work, as they didn’t have any real skills and weren’t properly educated. I think that Washington did the black population a favor without them even knowing it. He’s a con man, in a sense, and was using a confidence trick in which he gained the confidence of the whites to scam them later. I think that “Atlanta Compromise Speech” is a fair criticism of the speech because that’s exactly what it was. The blacks would submit to segregation and the whites would guarantee basic education and fund black charities. Many felt they needed to compromise because the blacks had such limited opportunities at the present time.

The Atlantic Exposition Address can be widely supported as a realistic approach to gaining racial equality or as a speech that sold out the black people to racist whites, depending on who you ask. If this speech was made today about the homosexual community, for example, it would probably have had the same reaction among anti-gay groups and the homosexuals in our society. It all boils down to who you ask at what particular time, and what side they happen to be on. At that particular time, at that particular place, with this nation’s overtly racist background and history, Booker T. Washington had a good approach for laying the foundation to what would later become the civil rights movement.

Note: Citations taken from: Paul Lauter:  The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.  Print.

Further Reading:

From Booker T. Washington (1856–1915).  Up from Slavery: An Autobiography.  1901. (Chapter XIV)

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