"The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing."
It was for these words at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta that Booker T. Washington was tommed (although the term hadn't been invented yet), and a lifetime of vision and work toward making Black equality in America a reality was lost, perhaps forever.
For the thirty years since emancipation, Washington and his Tuskegee Institute had perfected a blueprint for the full assimilation of the Black man into American society. Washington, correctly and eerily, foresaw that unless he came into his own with tools and skills and good living, the Black man (who had been "freed" with only the clothes on his back) would remain resented by white society, both for his economic dependence and, in his plight, as a reminder of the shame of slavery and the failure of reconstruction.
In a deal with the Democrat south, the Republicans had ended reconstruction in return for Rutherford B. Hayes' ascension to the presidency in the dead-heat 1876 election. Without the presence of Union troops, Jim Crow, the systemization and institutionalization of the segregation and marginalization of Black America, began, and all of white America was in on it, either actively or tacitly.
By the time of Washington's Atlanta "exposition" of Black progress, Homer Plessy had already been arrested in 1892 for being in a "white" rail car, and Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision that enshrined Jim Crow into law, was only a year away. Washington asked white America to "cast down your bucket where you are" and hire America's Blacks (instead of white immigrants), who had to their credit, largely kept the peace in the postwar south. But it was not to be. Jim Crow, the lynchings, all of it, grew worse, not better.
W.E.B. DuBois, Harvard's first Black Ph.D., although initially sympathetic, correctly labeled the speech the "Atlanta Compromise" and by 1903 had written in The Souls of Black Folk:
Mr. Washington’s programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races. Again, in our own land, the reaction from the sentiment of war time has given impetus to race-prejudice against Negroes, and Mr. Washington withdraws many of the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens... at this period a policy of submission is advocated.
In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing.
For a man trained in the classics, where the pursuit of individual virtue and excellence is the highest purpose in life, DuBois could scarcely have held any other view.
To understand where we are today, add to the equation Marcus Garvey's later (1920s) demagogic Pan-Africanism and his conclusion that America would always remain a "white man's country", and it all starts to come together.
The irony is that WEB tommed Booker T., and was in turn tommed by Marcus, who in his radical way agreed with Booker T. (Later, Malcolm X was to similarly tom Martin Luther King, as Nation of Islam is a philosophical descendant of Garveyism.)
It cannot be said that either Booker T. or WEB was wrong: such is the nature of true tragedy. However, now that Black America has wrested the equality before the law that DuBois fought for, Booker T. and Black self-empowerment are shown to be the longer view, and the more stunning of the two visions. What today is agreed upon among Black Americans from Sowell to Farrakhan is that, as Washington observed in the very next sentence of that 1895 speech that ended up destroying him, "[n]o race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized."
The Achilles' heel of the visionary is that he sees too far ahead, and cannot answer the question, "What about today?" As in a dream, Booker T. Washington saw the slow train coming, but like in a nightmare, he was powerless to get us out of the way. But I shall keep up my hopes that visions do not die, that they are only postponed, and Washington will someday be forgiven his gradualism and recognized for the astonishing prophet he was.