Was Booker T. Washington a Pawn?
Washington was a smart and deliberate man. He knew how to use words and get people to agree with him. On Sept. 18, 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Washington was asked to speak to show that the South was more progressive than northerners would assume. Washington knew he was being used, so he played to the crowd’s base ideologies on segregation and race, even though he had much more complex opinions about both.
The Atlanta Compromise
“No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” declared Washington in his Atlanta Compromise speech in front of a predominately white audience. “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”
The speech has, for obvious reasons, been heralded as one of the greatest speeches in American history. Washington discussed the possibility of a economic relationship between whites and Blacks that would prove beneficial to both.
“As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one.”
It was clear Washington didn’t expect this economic relationship was not based on equality. He suggested to the whites of America that Blacks knew their place and would remain in it. He advocated for Blacks to willfully and ungrudging remain servants to whites before expecting major advances in American society. Many whites loved this about Washington and they praised his go-slow rhetoric and goals.