"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


"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.


J-Deal said...

I was always taught in history that while the “the 5 fingers speech” was perceived by many in the South to state that segregation was okay, Washington had always meant it to be more of a realist speech. He understood that many in the South were true racists, they hated black people, and he knew that was something that wouldn’t change anytime soon.

By making sure that blacks were self sufficient, the innate racism would be lessened, hopefully to the point it would not matter. Kinda like the story of the poor man and rich man who both hate each other. The rich man hates the poor man, so refuses to hire him, ruining the poor mans life. The poor man hates the rich man, but can do nothing, so does the rich man even care? Washington believed that equality of usefulness, would trump racism.

Did Washington ever come out for legally enforced segregation? I might be mistaken, but I have never seen of a case where he has. And as we all know, he fought strongly against segregation behind the scenes.

Wasn’t the entire speech basically saying that we should agitate by actions? That our usefulness will bring us equality, that if we try to find equality just by socializing with whites, we are artificially forcing our progress?

As I stated before, Booker believed that Racism was a deep hatred... Much like a coworker that you hate, or hates you. Is it important for you two to go out for drinks at night? Or is it important for you two, to be able to work together? In this case, wouldn’t the agitation of questions of social equality also be the extremest folly? And it was a situation similar to this, that Washington - I would argue rightly - believed he was dealing in. I just cannot see how this mentality, and Du Bois mentality are polar opposites.

You stated that, “The Achilles' heel of the visionary is that he sees too far ahead, and cannot answer the question, "What about today?"” But it seems to me, that while Washington was a visionary, he was also worrying about the “today” it was he that believed that Blacks being able to till the field, be self sufficient was of more immanent importance than social equality. Even to a very primal level, that whites would not want to do business with a black person, if he did not have good personal hygiene. I can’t imagine getting more “Now” than that. One can have all the social equality he wants, but what matter is that if he can’t put food on the table? It was Washington that believed a system similar to 40 acres - but handled properly, the 40 acres program was a disaster - would do more for the black man, than nearly any other program enacted during reconstruction. He feared sharecropping.

If Washington did push for legally enforced segregation, than I am wrong. But I can see almost no difference between what Washington said above, and Frederick Douglas stating that segregation did not demean those who were being segregated, it demeaned the people who were doing the segregating.

I can’t help but reading the Atlanta Compromise speech, and think that it is a tough speech, asking of tough things. It asks much of both blacks and whites - albeit in a very tactful way.

Do not take this post as a rebuke, but a question. You seem to know more about this than I. My knowledge comes from the readings of Washington and Douglas, and my history classes. My teacher was a Liberal professor, who was a huge Du Bois fan, that believed strongly that Washington had gotten a raw deal. I guess it is Ironic too that Du Bois would be reprimanded by the NAACP for later calling for a certain amount of segregation, believing that without segregation, the black colleges would be destroyed.

connie deady said...

I have this theory regarding minorities (those subject to discrimination) based upon my experiences as a female baseball fan interacting with male fans on baseball message boards.

Female baseball fans are generally considered brainless women who are only interested in players cute butts. (the stereotype).

The first stage for the minority is the attempt to "be like" the majority. Thus the response is "I believe player x is the best centerfielder in the league because if you look at his VORP (value over replacement player)it is the highest for centerfielders"

This is followed by a certain resentment because despite your best efforts to show you can compete, you are still stereotyped by many. Thus the second stage is aggressive separation. This is creation of female groups and identification "Yes, player x is really a hunk and you can bite me".

Hopefully the minority can then progress to the third stage of "I'm okay, you're okay". True equality is recognition of diversity and difference without denigration of those who are different. "Player x has a cute butt, but have you looked at his VORP"?

I think much of the tension in the black community is between those who believed equality meant being like whites and those who believed equality resulted from improving the lot of the black race, without losing it. I a certain sense Booker T. Washington was more advanced than W.E.B. Dubois (though its been 30 years since I read them).

Hunter Baker said...

Tom, J-Deal, I want to thank both of you for the posts and comments you've done on this issue. I am better informed and happy to have had the opportunity to read something truly thoughtful.

We need an American Spectator piece out of this. Black History Month might make a good hook. I'm willing to help with introductions on that front.

J-Deal said...

Thank you for your kind words Hunter. It's been fun just looking this stuff up again, it has been a long while, but both Booker T and Douglas came up in a conversation a few days ago, and that's what got me started. - Both have strongly influenced my life.

Also Tom,

I think I may have misread your first statement.

"and a lifetime of vision and work toward making Black equality in America a reality was lost, perhaps forever."

Are you refering to Booker T's lifetime of vision? Or the black movements vision - being destroyed by the speech?

In my original comment I took it to mean the latter, reading it now, I think I was mistaken.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm honored with your promos, HB and STK, and thanks to J-Deal for starting this all off.

(I had already posted a response, but it seems to be stuck in Blogger purgatory, so here goes again---)

Yes, Mr. Deal, I was referring to America's loss of Booker T.'s vision. But my complaint with him and today's Black conservatives is that they seem to understand "the other side" better than their own.

Washington saw exactly what it would take to get through to (and around) whites, obviating segregation issues, but was unable to truly inspire his own people. His view was essentially materialistic, whereas DuBois spoke to "The Souls of Black Folk." Washington would or could never have written such a thing.

He promised a better tomorrow through hard work, but DuBois offered inherent dignity, as well as the instant satisfaction of righteous indignation. Marcus Garvey went even further with the seeds of "Black consciousness," a demagogic notion that "blackness" makes one innately special, an Übermensch.

Not having to do anything to be "special" is most appealing. It's my opinion that Martin Luther King's movement was a temporary revanchism toward DuBois, but the root, the main trunk, of today's Black thought (and problems) lies in Garveyism, and certainly not Washington.

(Connie, because you have such a unique perspective, you are an Überfan. Glory in it. Nietzsche observes that Übermenschen are persecuted, y'know.)