Friday, September 9, 2016

The NRR Project: Booker T. Washington’s 'Atlanta Compromise' Speech

Booker T. Washington speaking in New Orleans, 1915.

Atlanta Exposition Speech
Booker T. Washington
1908 recreation
3:22


Was Booker T. Washington a kiss-ass?

I know less about this topic that you do, I bet. A cursory listen to this excerpt from the African American leader’s famous, attention-grabbing speech leads to examination of the whole text of it, and more research.

The most masterful outline of the recording and its context is available here from Professor Jacqueline M. Moore. Washington, born a slave, was a self-made man who worked in mills and mines to make enough money to pay for his advanced education. He rose in expertise and esteem in the black community, eventually assuming the founding leadership post at the prestigious Tuskegee Institute for black students, in Alabama.

His speech was originally given at the Cotton States and International Exhibition in Atlanta on September 18, 1895. In it, he strikes a conservative tone – one that turned him overnight into the go-to black authority for the white establishment of the day.

Washington’s views are accomodationist. He advises black people famously to “’Cast down your bucket where you are’” – to be happy with your lot, as it were –“cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.” “By whom we are surrounded” is a telling phrase. Without knowing more about Washington’s acts and words, I believe he’d describe himself as pragmatic. The black population of American in 1895 was not substantially better off than it had been in 1865. The Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896 would endorse complete segregation, until the protests, violence, and reforms of the Civil Rights era.

Washington saw economic power as the leverage that would provide black people with political power, rather than the other way round. He urged them to cooperate humbly with the white race for the benefit of both, meanwhile assuring whites that blacks were not only concerned with equal rights, but happy to live in complete separation, save for when they were needed for some servile task. He touts the black race as far superior (and more cost-effective) than immigrants as laborers.

The idea that the African American population of 8 million people would know, as one, its “place” was a public declaration that reassured the general population, preserved the unspoken differences between races, and put serious reform to sleep for half a century. Lynchings proceeded apace, and the Ku Klux Klan’s near-rise to national power took place in the 1920s. Assuredly, there were a few detractors, and many more radical activists, such as W.E.B. DuBois, rejected what came to be called “the Atlanta Compromise” speech.


Washington is what is condescendingly used as a description of an articulate African American person, “well-spoken.” It seems this has been the key to white acceptance down the years; Martin Luther King was well-spoken, Sidney Poitier was well-spoken, and so on. In fact, I believe a black person has to be about 10 times better-spoken than the average white person to be considered well-spoken. That President Obama is a terrific writer and masterful orator stands by itself, but undoubtedly a shred or two of his appeal relates to that idea of a black person possessed of white “correctness.” (Thank God, the President is funny, has teenagers in his house, and makes his own playlists, and so becomes seemingly comprehensible as a person to me.) His presentation as a reasonable person made him acceptable.

The speech worked. Washington received millions for Tuskegee, which educated several generations of pivotal American figures. Washington became a voice at least for a time, helping as best he could. It is interesting to contemplate what his rich white donors would have thought if they had known that Washington was funding anti-segregationist and anti-voting rights efforts on the sly. What if this speech was calculated, in part, to put the racist establishment to sleep?

Gradualism in human rights did not work in America better than it did anywhere else. It is arguable that things are worse for African Americans now than they were in 1965. It seems that rights are won, racists are conquered, and the eye blinks and it’s all slid back to where it was before, and we have to suffer through it again.

So the answer, I think, is yes and no. In the speech, Washington straddles the contradictions in a single sentence when he says, “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.”


The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag.’