"Atlanta Compromise" Speech

by Booker T. Washington

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What was the main point of Booker T. Washington's argument in his 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech?

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Washington's main point is summarized in the following passage from his speech:

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...

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Washington's main point is summarized in the following passage from his speech:

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.

This speech was a call, amid the rise of Jim Crow in the late nineteenth century, for African Americans to focus on material progress—that is, economic success. Washington saw that most African Americans lived in extreme poverty and thought that this was a more urgent concern than the state of legal and social inequality that was increasingly being forced upon them. This speech is sometimes called the "Atlanta Compromise" because Washington, as one of the most recognizable and influential black men in the United States, was urging African Americans in the south to cease "agitation" for legal and social equality in return for the opportunity to gain economic success. In other words, he was asking white business owners to invest in the black community by hiring black men for skilled jobs. He thought that social equality rested on economic equality and that both whites and blacks could flourish under a system of segregation. To illustrate this point, he famously said that the races could remain socially as "separate as the fingers" while economically being part of the same hand, working toward mutual success. The speech was given at the Atlanta Exposition, in front of a predominately white audience. Many of his critics, including most famously W.E.B. DuBois, claimed that his position amounted to selling out, and that his faith that black people could attain social equality through the marketplace, as it were, was naive. They observed that, far from embracing black efforts at self-improvement, whites viewed successful African American men as threatening. Washington's approach, often called "accommodation," nevertheless represented a major strain of African American political thinking near the turn of the century, during some of the darkest days of white supremacy in the "New South."

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The purpose of the speech was to convince black people to pursue vocational training, content themselves with segregation, and, in encouraging the former values, placate whites—particularly the philanthropists on whom Washington depended.

Washington had no interest in liberal arts education for African Americans. This put him at odds with educators and intellectuals, particularly W.E.B DuBois who would succeed Washington as a leader of the black community. In the speech, which was delivered at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Washington implored black people to remain in the South—"cast down your buckets where you are"—and to seek work in a new economy that would require workers who were trained in agriculture, as well as in certain new technical skills. However, segregation would make it difficult for them to be hired and, if they were hired, would make it difficult for them to make a decent wage.

He placated whites with his avowal of segregation, arguing that in all things "social" blacks and whites could be as separate as the fingers of a hand. In saying this, Washington acknowledged an interdependency between the races, but insisted that a distinction that should be maintained.

Arguably, Washington's talk of compromise was somewhat self-serving. He had founded the Tuskegee Institute, an agricultural and technical college in Alabama intended to educate young black men in vocational fields. The school owed its existence and its expansion to the white philanthropists who funded it. Washington's accomodationist rhetoric afforded him a prestige and access to resources that other black people, even other leaders, did not have. He was the first black person, for example, who was invited to dine at the White House, during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency.

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