"Atlanta Compromise" Speech

by Booker T. Washington

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"Atlanta Compromise" Speech Summary

Booker T. Washington delivered his Atlanta Exposition Address, commonly referred to as the "Atlanta Compromise" speech, on September 18, 1895. The speech was controversial, and many of Washington's fellow Black leaders criticized his conciliatory tone and message. 

  • In his speech, Washington urges the Black community to take advantage of the labor opportunities that already exist in the South, namely simple industrial and agricultural work.
  • Washington cautions against "agitating" for immediate political and social equality, arguing instead that the Black community will only achieve true equality by first proving themselves to be an essential part of the southern economy.


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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Booker T. Washington's 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address is a classic statement of a moderate, and even conciliatory, position regarding the advancement of African Americans and the measures white leadership could, or should, take to enable it.

Beginning by pointing out that a third of the population of the southern states at the time (1895) is African American, Washington praises the “managers” of the Atlantic Exposition for their recognition of the “value” and the “manhood” of “the American Negro.”

In his address, Washington focuses upon what he considers the positive elements in the relationship between the Black and white communities only thirty years after emancipation. At the same time, he suggests that Black people may have sought a too rapid progress in the aftermath of the Civil War, alluding to the attempts by Black leaders in the early phase of Reconstruction to gain seats in the legislature instead of attempting more gradual social advancement through “real estate” or “industrial skill.”

Washington develops an analogy between a ship lost at sea and the condition of the newly liberated Black population. In his analogy, the lost ship signals a “friendly vessel” to indicate that its crew is dying of thirst. The friendly vessel repeatedly instructs the “unfortunate” ship to “cast down your bucket where you are,” but the distressed vessel continues to plead for water. Finally, the distressed vessel heeds the other ship’s instructions and lowers their bucket into the water; to their surprise, they find that they are sailing in “fresh, sparkling water.” Washington uses this analogy to suggest that the Black community in the South has sought help from outsiders instead of first looking to the people and opportunities that exist where they are, implying that the aid of the southern white population has not been requested. He states that there are opportunities in the South through which Black individuals can become successful in agriculture, commerce, and other simple forms of labor. He suggests that in their eagerness for freedom, the Black people as a whole have attempted to advance too quickly, neglecting the reality that one must start at the bottom in order to eventually work up and find success.

Washington then turns to the topic of immigration and the increasing desire to employ people of foreign birth as laborers in the South. Washington indicates that doing so would be unnecessary and self-defeating, and he urges whites to also “cast down your bucket where you are” and recognize that Black laborers, not foreign workers, should be utilized in the southern workforce. He describes the Black population as one that has always been “loyal” and has not engaged in “strikes and labor wars” (an allusion to the turmoil taking place among industrial workers in the North). Washington describes the Black population as “the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen” and urges southern whites to encourage the development of a Black labor force and to facilitate education in the skills needed to perform such work. 

Black people, Washington says, have proved their “loyalty” in the past and will continue to do so. Referencing slavery, Washington asserts that although Black Americans are now free and not bound to the whites as they were in the antebellum era, they can and will continue to cooperate with white southerners to peacefully grow and maintain the economy. Southern whites can help themselves by helping Black people, Washington says, for their fates are intertwined. For this same reason, he also warns that whites will harm their own interests by not aiding in the economic development of the Black community. If...

(This entire section contains 893 words.)

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Black people are not permitted to take a major role in the economy, Washington argues, then they will become “a veritable body of death, stagnating, depressing, retarding every effort to advance the body politic.”

While he takes pride in what the Black community has achieved independently and against the odds, Washington acknowledges that many of their achievements—including his very presence at this exposition—would not have been possible without the help given by white southerners and by northern philanthropists. 

Washington then pointedly states that the “most extreme folly” would be to “agitate” for immediate social equality. Instead, he suggests that gaining economic parity with whites is an essential first step if the Black community wishes to actually exercise the rights and privileges they seek. Washington insists that such social changes cannot be forced and will occur naturally over time: “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.”

Washington ends his speech by lauding the efforts of the Atlanta Exposition itself in providing Black people with a forum for showing the progress they have made in the thirty years since emancipation. At the end of the Civil War, former slaves had nothing, but they have made extensive progress in a relatively short period of time. Washington promises that whites will have the cooperation of Black people in solving the “great and intricate problem which God has laid at the doors of the South.” Again, he asserts that economic and material progress in the Black community is what will lead to the end of racial animosity and “sectional differences.” If the entire population, Black and white, work together for economic advancement, Washington says, then prosperity and social harmony will come to the South.