A Pretty Tight Place

Black (Rhetorical) History Month: A speechwriter's view of Booker T. Washington's controversial "Atlanta Compromise" speech.

In honor of Black History Month, this speechwriter is going to spotlight a notable speech by the great civil rights leader, Booker T. Washington.

The date was September 18, 1895. The occasion was the Cotton States and International Exhibition in Atlanta, Georgia. The organizers of the event wanted to impress visiting Northerners with the progress of race relations in the South. So Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, was invited to speak at the opening ceremonies. Washington had founded Tuskegee in 1881, primarily to train African-American teachers.

Washington’s invitation to speak at such a prestigious event was a great opportunity. It was also a great challenge. As a white friend confided to him before he left home, “In Atlanta you will have to speak before Northern white people, Southern white people and Negroes all together. I fear they have got you into a pretty tight place.”

They had indeed. But Washington, a gifted speaker, rose to the occasion with a speech that managed to appeal powerfully to all segments of the audience. The core of his message was this:

There is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all. If anywhere there are efforts tending to curtail the fullest growth of the Negro, let these efforts be turned into stimulating, encouraging, and making him the most useful and intelligent citizen. Effort or means so invested will pay a thousand percent interest. These efforts will be twice blessed—blessing him that gives and him that takes. There is no escape through law of man or God from the inevitable:

The laws of changeless justice bind

Oppressor with oppressed;

And close as sin and suffering joined

We march to fate abreast.

Nearly sixteen millions of hands will aid you in pulling the load upward, or they will pull against you the load downward. We shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-third its intelligence and progress; we shall contribute one-third to the business and industrial prosperity of the South, or we shall prove a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing, retarding every effort to advance the body politic.

Brave, eloquent and sensible words. But the exhibition itself, with separate buildings for white and Negro exhibits, revealed how tragically far the former Confederate states were from recognizing real racial equality. Even the auditorium where Washington spoke was segregated, with blacks confined to separate rows of seats. (That they were allowed to be present at all was considered a great concession by those in charge.)

Because Washington accepted segregation in the course of his speech, his remarks have been called the “Atlanta Compromise.” As he put it:

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist 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. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. 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. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.

Then as now, Washington was severely criticized for making any concessions at all to legal inequality.

I believe that the answer to his critics lies in the words “just now.” In the preceding sentence, Washington said, “It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours.” Clearly, he was saying that over the long term, African Americans would be satisfied with nothing less, although he was ready to compromise in the short term if it meant economic progress for the South’s black population, most of whom were desperately poor. In other words, Washington was making tactical rather than a strategic decision.

The irony was that only after segregation was abolished by law did it finally became apparent, even to its die-hard advocates, how much it had done to retard the economic development and greater prosperity of all Southerners, whites as well as blacks. Booker T. Washington had been exactly right when he said in Atlanta that there is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all.  Alas, it took more than half a century for common humanity, common decency and common sense to prevail.

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