"Atlanta Compromise" Speech

by Booker T. Washington

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What is the "Atlanta Compromise" according to DuBois?

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Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was an African-American educator and leader who advocated racial reconciliation through economic progress, rather than social activism. Booker T.

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The so-called "Atlanta Compromise" was articulated in a speech by Washington to an almost entirely white (it was segregated, in fact) audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition, a sort of fair held in Atlanta in 1895. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and an advocate for education for African Americans, faced a rather dire situation. Jim Crow was firmly in place in the Deep South and beyond, and violence in the form of lynchings was beginning to rise as white people policed racial etiquette and protocols by instilling fear and intimidation. Moreover, black people were largely landless sharecroppers and tenant farmers, locked in a cycle of debt and dependence by a system that was rigged to keep them that way.

In the face of all this, Washington offered a compromise. He told the approving audience that "the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly," and that African Americans in the South should focus on their own economic improvement, which he believed was the key to social equality. He urged both white people seeking labor and African Americans seeking jobs to "cast down your buckets where you are," looking to each other to establish a society united by a commitment to mutual economic progress. This was the "compromise" in question: African Americans would accept political and social inequality in return for a fair crack at economic opportunity. Whether Washington took this position out of naivety, self-interest, or simply realism remains a matter of debate. But in the face of stifling oppression, he saw economic improvement more than social activism as the most viable solution. As the question suggests, he was vilified by many African American leaders, most famously W.E.B. Dubois, for being willing to compromise on black equality.

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The Atlanta Compromise also emphasized two things that DuBois would have been unlikely to support: that black people remain in the South and that they limit themselves to agricultural and mechanical work.

Booker T. Washington's message to "cast down your bucket where you are" was an appeal to black people not to migrate to northern cities, but instead to "[cultivate] friendly relations with the Southern white man." In saying this, Washington overlooked the mortal threats faced by black people in the South——lynching, rape, and, after Reconstruction, criminalization. Convict leasing existed at the time that Washington made his speech in 1895. It was a system in which black people were arrested and sent to prison for crimes as minor as loitering or public gambling, with the intent of sending them to work on chain gangs. This became another way to extract free labor from black people.

Washington and DuBois also had very different ideas about education. Washington did not see the use for liberal arts education. DuBois, on the other hand, had dedicated his life to the pursuit of education and thought that this was essential for uplifting the race. Without education, black people would be unable to improve their conditions. Washington thought in very practical, immediate terms, assuring black people that work, good financial habits, and community building would rescue them from oppression. He did not account, as DuBois did, for black people being excluded from jobs, particularly in manufacturing, as they were in both the North and South, or, for some jobs, eventually being eliminated altogether due to the introduction of automated machines.

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Dubois was reacting to Booker T. Washington's famous speech (1895) in which Washington proferred a "compromise" to a county torn by the political situation of the post-emancipatory era.  In an effort to appease both liberals and conversatives, Washington said, "In all things purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, and yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."

The meaning was that black folk could have their own culture and whites another, but when it came time for political and social agendas, the country must come together as a single entity.

Dubois intially applauded Washington's compromise, but later changed his mind.  The "seperate but equal" ideology may have seemed good in theory, but in reality it served to further reinforce divisions.  Dubois argued that though well-meaning, the reality was that racists were using the division to keep blacks out of higher education and better paying jobs. 

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