"Atlanta Compromise" Speech

by Booker T. Washington

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What was the main idea of the Atlanta Compromise speech given by Booker T. Washington?

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In the Atlanta Compromise speech, Booker T. Washington shows his implacable faith in securing civil rights for African Americans from within the system. Unlike more radical civil rights activists, he doesn't address himself to dealing with the deeply-ingrained structural racism—in the economy, in society, and in public life—that holds back people of color. Instead, he focuses on AfricanAmericans gaining parity of esteem with the white majority through hard work and education.

Once African-Americans can show that they're just like white folks underneath the skin, so the argument runs, then they will start to be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Education is essential to this end. Washington was a firm believer in the transformative power of education and saw it as the most important means for African Americans to improve their life-chances and to gain respect in the eyes of white society.

Such faith in the power of education, though admirable in some respects, overlooked the uncomfortable fact that millions of white Americans didn't care how educated their black fellow citizens were. They were chronically unable or unwilling to see past the color of their skin and were therefore not prepared to treat them as equals. That being the case, the vision of racial equality set out by Washington in the Atlanta Compromise speech is deficient in that it deals with formal, rather than substantive, equality.

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Born into slavery in 1856, Booker T. Washington became a prominent educator, author, and civil rights leader. He was the leading spokesperson for black civil rights after delivering his famous Atlanta Compromise speech in 1895.

The main idea of the speech was that black people should focus on improving their economic lot. He thought that economic self-sufficiency was the keystone for blacks citizens's eventual political and social equality. Vocational education, he believed, was the best way toward economic progress:

In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress

At the time of the speech, black people faced discrimination and segregation—especially in the South under Jim Crow laws. In the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was permissible. Black people faced more than segregation, however; they also were denied the right to vote, and lynchings were not uncommon.

W. E. B. Du Bois led the criticism against Washington. Du Bois believed that black citizens needed full economic, social, and political equality. After Washington's death in 1915, Du Bois became the leading spokesman for black civil rights.

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Booker T. Washington was a leader in the African American quest for equality in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. He was concerned about the lack of rights for African Americans.

In the Atlanta Compromise, Booker T. Washington told African Americans that they should focus on getting their economic rights first. He believed African Americans should get an education and then get good jobs. He felt that it was very important for African Americans to become secure financially before dealing with the lack of rights in other areas. He believed that once African Americans were financially secure, they could then focus on the fight for political rights that had been denied or restricted after Reconstruction ended. Not all African Americans agreed with Booker T. Washington. Some African Americans felt they should get all their rights immediately instead of waiting to get their political rights.

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The main idea of Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech (delivered in 1895) was that blacks and whites in the South should realize that they needed each other and that they should act in ways that would allow them to coexist.  Washington told both sides to “cast down your bucket where you are.” 

Washington’s message was aimed at Southerners of both races.  He wanted the white Southerners to realize that black Southerners were a good source of labor for them.  He wanted the whites to hire black people to work for them instead of hoping that they could get immigrant labor.  He argued that black workers had proved their fidelity and their industriousness and that they would not engage in strikes and other disruptions that would harm their employers.

At the same time, Washington wanted black Southerners to be content where they were.  He wanted them to stop thinking about going to the North or to foreign countries.  He felt that they should not try to push for political power or equal rights.  Instead, they should work hard in the South and, by doing so, cause whites to (eventually) respect them.

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Washington's speech argued that the new landscape of post Civil War America lent itself for African- Americans to be a valuable component.  I think that this is seen in Washington's call for African- Americans to be a part of the new move from farms to factories, and to partake in the industrialist setting that enveloped America.  There was less of a call for racial and social equality and more of a call for African- Americans to be a part of the economic progress of the time period.  The speech called for African- Americans to be a part of the labor pool, to be viewed as more important than immigrant labor, and to be content with the idea of earning an income in this setting.  The speech did not call for a transformation of power or a change in how African- Americans were viewed or how they possessed power in such a setting.  Rather, the speech called for African- Americans to be a part of this industrial progress, however small a part that might be.

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