In Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 14, “The Atlanta Exposition Address.” In my opinion, this is the most important chapter in the book (although I say this with the realization that I still have three chapters to read before I’m finished). Here, Booker T. Washington expresses the viewpoint that was criticized by W.E.B. Du Bois and others (see my post, “Of Booker T. Washington and Others”). And Washington’s view flows quite well from the ideas that he has conveyed earlier in his book.
Here is a quote from the Atlanta Exposition Address, which is in this chapter:
“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. 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 exercises 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.”
Booker T. Washington then refers to those who were concerned about his remarks: “But after the first burst of enthusiasm began to die away, and the coloured people began reading the speech in cold type, some of them seemed to feel that they had been hypnotized. They seemed to feel that I had been too liberal in my remarks toward the Southern whites, and that I had not spoken out strongly enough for what they termed the ‘rights’ of the race. For a while there was a reaction, so far as a certain element of my own race was concerned, but later these reactionary ones seemed to have been won over to my way of believing and acting.”
And yet, Booker T. Washington feels compelled to justify his remarks:
“I am often asked to express myself more freely than I do upon the political condition and the political future of my race. These recollections of my experience in Atlanta give me the opportunity to do so briefly. 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. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by the Southern white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights. Just as soon as the South gets over the old feeling that it is being forced by ‘foreigners,’ or ‘aliens,’ to do something which it does not want to do, I believe that the change in the direction that I haveindicated is going to begin. In fact, there are indications that it is already beginning in a slight degree.”
He then cites himself as an example: He worked hard and did meritorious things, and so whites gave him the honor of having a prominent public platform, which was unprecedented for African-Americans. As Booker T. Washington affirms, “Say what we will, there is something in human nature which we cannot blot out, which makes one man, in the end, recognize and reward merit in another, regardless of colour or race.” In my opinion, Booker T. Washington’s telling of his life story is an expression of his philosophy: if African-Americans work hard like he did, then that will impress white society and convince them to treat African-Americans as equals.
The following passage explicitly states that African-Americans shouldn’t fight so hard in the political realm, even though they should vote:
“I believe it is the duty of the Negro—as the greater part of the race is already doing—to deport himself modestly in regard to political claims, depending upon the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possession of property, intelligence, and high character for the full recognition of his political rights. I think that the according of the full exercise of political rights is going to be a matter of natural, slow growth, not an over-night, gourd-vine affair. I do not believe that the Negro should cease voting, for a man cannot learn the exercise of self-government by ceasing to vote any more than a boy can learn to swim by keeping out of the water, but I do believe that in his voting he should more and more be influenced by those of intelligence and character who are his next-door neighbours.”
But don’t get Booker T. Washington wrong! He’s against political discrimination. But, as he has said repeatedly in his book, discrimination hurts those who discriminate, as well as society in general, which may be why Booker T. Washington believes that racial discrimination will eventually fall by the wayside, without African-Americans having to fight for their rights:
“I do not believe that any state should make a law that permits an ignorant and poverty-stricken white man to vote, and prevents a black man in the same condition from voting. Such a law is not only unjust, but it will react, as all unjust laws do, in time; for the effect of such a law is to encourage the Negro to secure education and property, and at the same time it encourages the white man to remain in ignorance and poverty. I believe that in time, through the operation of intelligence and friendly race relations, all cheating at the ballot-box in the South will cease. It will become apparent that the white man who begins by cheating a Negro out of his ballot soon learns to cheat a white man out of his, and that the man who does this ends his career of dishonesty by the theft of property or by some equally serious crime. In my opinion, the time will come when the South will encourage all of its citizens to vote. It will see that it pays better, from every standpoint, to have healthy, vigorous life than to have that political stagnation which always results when one-half of the population has no share and no interest in the Government.”
And so this chapter contains Booker T. Washington’s controversial approach in a nut-shell. And there has long been debate between Booker T. Washington’s “Work hard, and white society will come around” approach, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ “fight for your political rights” method. (Neither of these are direct quotes, but represent my summaries of their positions.)
Another interesting point is that Booker T. Washington lauds President Grover Cleveland as a humble man, who treated all with respect, regardless of their race or class. I vaguely recall reading in Bruce Bartlett’s Wrong on Race, however, that Cleveland had some racist ideas. It’s interesting how complex human nature can be. Grover Cleveland may have had racist ideas, but Booker T. Washington saw a different side to Cleveland when he met him. I think also of J. Edgar Hoover: people call him a racist, and yet Thurgood Marshall’s impression of him was quite different.