Booker T. Washington: The Debate Continues
I recently heard a lecture in Milwaukee in which the speaker stated “Booker T. Washington was right.” While suggesting valuable proposals for economic development for Milwaukee’s devastated communities, the speaker went on to say he had been a disciple of Cornell West and W.E.B. Du Bois, but converted.
The comment about Booker T. Washington caused concern. So I went back to look at the philosophy and work of Booker T. Washington and the controversies that surrounded him.
Following is some historical analysis and some of my thoughts concerning the work of Booker T. Washington and its meaning today.
Washington entered Hampton Institute in 1872 at the age of 16. In 1881 he took charge of a small school in Tuskegee Alabama and began to put his theories into practice. The school became the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. He concentrated first on teaching farming and handicrafts like bricklaying, carpentry and blacksmithing. He played down the importance of history, mathematics and science and emphasized practical skills and the virtues of hard work, patience and perseverance. Later in his career he began to emphasize the importance of entrepreneurship.
Washington organized the National Negro Business League in 1900 and became its first president. W.E.B. Du Bois was also active in the League’s formation. A major component of Washington’s philosophy was the complete playing down of political action. The general idea was that the black community should make no serious demands upon existing political injustices. He thought the black community could get more from the ruling landowners and industrialists by catering to them as opposed to fighting them. Consequently he discouraged all political activity and made no sustained fight against the evils of Jim Crow segregation, disenfranchisement and lynching. In his speeches he only occasionally mentioned these outrages.
Washington had a philosophy that in all things social African Americans “can be a separate as the fingers yet one as the hand with things essential to mutual progress.” He accepted the poll tax and literacy test requirements for voting, insisting only that these measures be applied fairly to both whites and blacks. Washington opposed African-American migration to the North.
The one place he consistently condemned Jim Crow practices was in labor unions while at the same time was a staunch enemy of trade unionism calling it a form of slavery which prevents a man from selling his labor as he pleases.
On September 18, 1895 Washington gave a famous speech at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition where he called upon black people to “…cast down your buckets where you are.” He drew this symbol from the story of a water famished ship crew off the shore of South America who when casting their buckets into the sea came up with fresh water from the Amazon River where they had thought there was only salt water. Consequently black people should make the best of the situation confronting them and by implication not seek relief through migration or political demands. He called upon the rulers of the South to also cast down their buckets into the rich labor source offered by the black masses instead of wasting their effort to attract white immigrants from Europe. In return Washington pledged black people would prove to be loyal workers.
W.E.B. Bois later characterized Washington speech as the “Atlanta Compromise.” He described the speech calling on African Americans to “…survive through submission,” asking black people to give up “…political power, insistence on civil rights and higher education.”
Washington was offering the southern white landowners and industrialists of the North and South an obedient people as a work force for maximum exploitation and cheap labor . Without unions, without political organization and without allies they would be helpless in the grips of an exploitive system.
All of this was done at a time in history when Jim Crow laws were being written into the laws of the South, lynching was at its high point and the black community was under constant attack.
Washington’s Atlanta speech was hailed by industrialist spokesmen in the North and the South as the way of the future. Washington’s popularity among the white upper classes, following his Atlanta speech, was remarkable. He was received and lionized everywhere in wealthy circles. He became the personal friend and close associate of many multimillionaires including such figures as H.K. Rogers of Standard Oil, William H. Baldwin Jr., VP of Southern Railway, Collis P. Huntington, builder of Newport News and railway magnet. He was the guest of Andrew Carnegie at his castle. He dined at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt and became the arbiter of all federal appointments relating to African Americans. Donations poured into Tuskegee from wealthy sources. Carnegie gave $600,000.
Washington received honorary degrees from Harvard in 1896 and Dartmouth in 1901. He went abroad being made much of by Queen Victoria of England and a long list of royalty.
The historian Saunders Redding characterizes Booker T. Washington’s role as “…white America had raised this man up because he espoused a policy which was intended to keep black people docile and dumb in regard to civil, social and political rights and privileges.”
Washington’s program of creating a body of trained and obedient workers dovetailed fully with the interest of the big landowners and industrial exploiters of the time who were also segregationists. The wealthiest and most powerful white Americans picked Booker T. Washington as the leader of black people.
From the time of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta speech in 1895 there was a sharp rising opposition to his program. This was a time of growing struggle against the burning plagues of lynching, white riots, disenfranchisement, and Jim Crow laws.
Organizations like the National Association of Colored Men, the American Negro Academy, the National Association of Colored Women and the African-American Council, organized in 1899, demanded an end to lynching and the enforcement of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The anti-Booker T. Washington movement became concrete with the formation of the Boston Guardian, an African-American journal founded in 1901 and edited by Monroe Trotter and George Forbes. Soon after its founding the journal was endorsed by W.E.B. Du Bois and many other leaders from around the country.
Du Bois – along with Trotter, Baker and George Forbes –led the formation of the Niagara Movement in Buffalo New York in 1905. It militantly demanded the right to vote, full education, court justice, service on juries, equal treatment in the Armed Forces, health facilities, abolition of Jim Crow and the enforcement of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. They protested against the un-Christian attitude of the churches towards African Americans and condemned the policies of the employers and trade unions excluding black people from industries and unions. The Niagara Movement selected Du Bois as its general secretary. The Niagara Movement laid the groundwork for the formation of the NAACP in 1909.
This formation marked a turning point in the history of civil rights. It stood firmly against the stifling conciliation of Booker T. Washington and was the beginning of a more militant approach. The historian Harry Haywood said “The banner of revolt was unfurled, and the modern black liberation movement was born.”
Booker T. Washington died in November of 1915 at the age of 60. Saunders Redding sums up Washington’s role saying: “after all, Washington was the white South’s man. The white South had made him, raised him up as a savior of its conscience, and when he died the South wept…”Du Bois wrote, “we must lay on the soul of this man a heavy responsibility for the consummation of black disenfranchisement, the decline of the black college, public school and the firmer establishment of color caste in this land.”
I recently read Booker T. Washington: a Re-Examination compiled by Lee H. Walker, which is the result of a symposium held at Northwestern University in 2006 celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Booker T. Washington. The theme of this conference was to re-embrace the agenda of Booker T. Washington, described as “quality education, self-reliance, character, and entrepreneurship.” The conference called for a new agenda to advance to the black community.
While Washington called for “thrift and patience,” his “quality education” was a call for industrial education. The civil rights movement at the time consistently criticized Washington for depreciating the importance of college education. In reality Washington called for African-Americans in the South to get a skill for themselves and not seek equality on every level.
Booker T. Washington: a Re-Examination is published by the Heartland Institute.
Who is the Heartland Institute?
As an elected school member in Milwaukee, each month, I receive a stack of polished newspapers from a Chicago-based right-wing “think tank” called the Heartland Institute. They further the right-wing agenda at all government levels.
Under the banner of “free market” solutions to education, healthcare, taxes, the environment, telecommunication regulation and budgetary issues the Heartland Institute is a highly funded propaganda publishing house advancing the arguments of the most right-wing elements of corporate America. They are supporters of the Tea Party movement and see themselves as a “…clearinghouse for the work of 350 other think tanks and advocacy groups.” The Koch brothers help fund the Heartland Institute.
Heartland publishes 5 slick monthly newspapers supporting any demand that increases corporate profits and weakens the peoples’ movements and democratic rights. In education, vouchers are at the center of their reform demands. Their healthcare goal is to cut and privatize Medicare and Medicaid. They cheer the movement to limit voting rights. They persist that global warming is a farce.
Why does the right wing support and fund a rebirth of the legacy of Booker T. Washington?
Thrift, patience, and self-reliance are all admirable traits for individuals and communities. Du Bois and other leaders of the time never denied the need for individual discipline, independent entrepreneurial pursuit or land acquisition. But they went far beyond, demanding full equality and democratic rights.
Those resurrecting Washington describe his work outside of its historical context and his role as an appeaser to racism, segregation and exploitation.
Appeasement to racism, segregation and exploitation today is as destructive as it was in Washington’s time.