"Atlanta Compromise" Speech

by Booker T. Washington

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Why did Booker T. Washington's opponents criticize his "Atlanta compromise"? Are their criticisms valid?

Both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois had valid points about black people's place in American society, but their methods for achieving racial equality differed markedly. Washington, a pragmatic man who focused on material advancement within the racial hierarchy then prevailing in America, urged his race to forget about political power until they were economically self-sufficient. Meanwhile he advocated that blacks be patient about social equality and that they work hard to educate themselves as a means of advancing out of poverty and dependence, which would lead to acceptance by white people as equals, even if only in a limited sense.

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The Atlanta Compromise is a short reference to a speech that Booker T. Washington delivered at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, on September 18, 1895, in which he asserted, to a largely white audience, that black people would be better served by pursuing a vocational education...

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than by seeking a liberal arts education or political office.

At this speech, he also validated segregation, arguing that, in all things social, blacks and whites could be "as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." He encouraged Southern blacks to "cast down [their] buckets" in the South, with the hopes that they would remain in the region and that white industrialists would not favor white immigrants for jobs. Predictably, black people who had formerly worked on plantations were not welcomed into industrial work in the South, which prompted the first migration to Northern states in the early twentieth century.

W.E.B. DuBois was Washington's primary opponent, seeing his accommodationist speech as an attempt to placate whites in exchange for meager opportunities. DuBois favored direct confrontation with white supremacy, which he believed would result in political enfranchisement and economic justice.

DuBois also disliked Washington's emphasis on vocational training and eschewal of liberal arts education. DuBois and Washington were opposed to each other intellectually. Washington regarded himself as a practical man who favored practical skills. When he did read, he selected non-fiction. DuBois, however, was a proponent of the liberal arts and believed that black intellectuals could play an important role in uplifting less educated members of the black community.

Both Washington and DuBois made valid points. DuBois was regarded as a radical in his time. He demanded swift change to ensure the uplift of black people out of slavery and their full integration into American society as equal citizens. DuBois believed that black people had earned their citizenship and should not have had to make compromises that still placed limitations on what they could do.

Washington, too, worked toward the uplift of black people. His best-known work, Up From Slavery, addresses that goal. However, Washington—a very practical man—sought progress within present realities. He likely suspected that black people would never attain political and economic power on par with whites and, therefore, encouraged self-sufficiency through the available economic opportunities.

Washington's unwillingness to disrupt white supremacy led to his finding a large white audience. He became the spokesperson for the black community with white philanthropists, whose assistance would facilitate the construction of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881. He was also the first black man invited to dine at the White House with the First Family, during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency. This event sparked the outrage of Southern politicians and, interestingly, contradicted Washington's earlier expression in favor of social segregation—after all, this was an "integrated" dinner.

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