There was good reason for Booker T. Washington to be apprehensive. For a black man to be invited to address the distinguished audience at the Exposition was itself controversial. The South was a tinderbox of raw emotions over racial issues and more than a hundred blacks a year were being lynched. Voting rights, the right to serve in public office or on juries, and even basic personal security against violence were rights that Southern blacks once enjoyed during the U.S. Army's occupation of the South for 12 years after the Civil War, but these and other rights were now eroding throughout the South after that army had long since gone home and had been disbanded.
The restoration of home rule in the South meant the restoration of white majority rule - the rule of an embittered people who had lost a devastating war and then seen their slaves freed and placed on an equal legal plane with themselves, in some cases serving as public officials ruling over them with the backing of the bayonets of the Union Army. In the angry backlash that followed, blacks were increasingly barred from public office and from the ballot box, and laws were being passed segregating the races in public transportation and other public accommodations. The right to a fair trial became a mockery for blacks, and the shadow of the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist night riders fell over black communities across the South. It was in this atmosphere that Washington rose to address the dignitaries and common folk of both races at the Atlanta Exposition.
What could Washington say to this audience of white Southerners - many of whom, he knew, had come only to see him make a fool of himself - and at the same time be true to the blacks in the audience who were full of pride that someone of their race was for the first time being given the honor of addressing an audience including such dignitaries as the governor of Georgia?
"By one sentence," Washington said later, "I could have blasted, in a large degree, the success of the Exposition." More than that, one careless remark could have blasted any hopes of racial peace and progress.
It is hard to judge anyone's performance without knowing what cards he was dealt before deciding how well he played them. Not only on this occasion, but also throughout his career, Booker T. Washington was dealt one of the toughest hands of any black leader in American history.
The central theme of his talk was given in one sentence: "There is no defense or security for any of us except in the development of the highest intelligence of all." He disarmed his audience by waving aside issues which were already lost causes for his generation, such as racial integration. "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." But neither here nor anywhere else did he renounce equal rights under the law. "It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercises of these privileges," he said in Atlanta. By linking rights and responsibilities, Washington was able to address both the blacks and the whites in the audience on common ground. And by linking the fates of the two races, he was able to enlist the support of some whites by arguing that blacks would either help lift up the South or help to drag it down.
In the context of the times, the speech was a masterpiece. It was reprinted, in newspapers across the country and praised by blacks and whites alike, Northerners and Southerners. The governor of Georgia came over to shake Washington's hand after the speech and President Grover Cleveland wrote to him about the "enthusiasm," with which he had read it. Overnight Booker T. Washington was recognized as a leader of his people - indeed, the leader of his people, the successor to Frederick Douglass, who had died just seven months earlier.
The historic differences that would later arise between Washington and the more militant W. E. B. Du Bois were differences of emphasis and priorities, not differences of fundamental principles. Du Bois was in fact among those who sent messages of congratulation to Washington on his Atlanta Exposition speech.
As one of the founders and longtime pillars of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Du Bois concentrated on the restoration and advancement of political rights for blacks and focused his public attacks on the system of racial segregation and discrimination known as Jim Crow in the South. With eloquent bitterness, he indicted whites for racism. Booker T. Washington took no such public stance and instead directed his efforts toward the internal self-development of blacks in things ranging from personal hygiene to saving, farm management and the establishment of businesses. The whites he spoke of and to were those whites willing to support such activities, especially those willing to help financially.
The net result was that Washington was often praising whites of good will, while Du Bois was attacking whites of ill will. Washington was promoting a kind of vocational education with a heavy moral and self-disciplinary component at Tuskegee Institute, while Du Bois promoted academic education designed to produce militant fighters for their rights against oppressors. However, this historic dichotomy was less sharp at the time than it later became in retrospect, after a new generation of more militant black intellectuals condemned Washington as an Uncle Tom.
At the time, during the early years of the 20th century, Du Bois was, like Washington, also painfully aware not only of the external dangers from white racists but also of the internal problems of a recently freed people, among whom illiteracy was widespread and experience in the ordinary business of life was still new, uncertain and errant. Du Bois, during this stage of his own development, spoke of "the Great Lack which faces our race in the modern world, lack of Energy," which he attributed to "indolence" growing out of tropical origins and which had now become a kind of "social heredity."
If white people lost all their racial prejudices overnight, Du Bois said, this would make very little immediate difference in the economic condition of most blacks. While "some few would be promoted, some few would get new places," nevertheless "the mass would remain as they are" until the younger generation began to "try harder" as the race "lost the omni-present excuse for failure prejudice." Du Bois assessment of the black masses at that time was not very different from that of Booker T. Washington, who characterized many of them as sunk into "listless indifference, or shiftlessness, or reckless bravado."
In short, at this particular juncture in history, both Du Bois and Washington saw a great need for the self-development of black Americans. Du Bois would later champion the "talented tenth" of the race who were already prepared for higher education and a more advanced way of life, many of these being people like Du Bois, descended from the ante-bellum "free persons of color," whose cultural development began while most of their brothers were still in bondage on cotton plantations.
By contrast, Booker T. Washington's lifelong preoccupation would be with those like himself who were "up from slavery" and who needed training in the basics of manual skills, work habits, personal hygiene and moral character. Washington's concern was with "the promotion of progress among the many, and not the special culture of the few."
To some extent the differences between Du Bois and Washington came from their addressing different constituencies living in very different economic and social circumstances, and having correspondingly different priorities. The vocational education that Washington promoted would have been a step backward for Du Bois' constituency. However, Du Bois conceded that vocational education "has accomplishments of which it has a right to be proud," and conversely, Washington declared: "I would say to the black boy what I would say to the white boy, 'Get all the mental development that your time and pocketbook will allow of,'" though he saw most blacks of his time as needing to acquire practical work skills first. Even in the present, Booker T. Washington said, "We need professional men and women" and he looked forward to a time when there would be more successful black "lawyers, congressmen and music teachers."
That was not the whole story, however. Washington operated in the Deep South, where he founded Tuskegee Institute in rural Alabama. Du Bois was a Northerner who grew up in Massachusetts and whose following was largely Northern, even when he himself taught at Atlanta University. Moreover, Washington had an institution to safeguard and promote, using money largely from white philanthropists who were willing to see blacks trained in mechanical skills but some of whom might have had serious reservations about providing them with academic education.
Du Bois could be, and was, far more outspoken than Washington on civil rights issues. Indeed, Washington's public posture was one of preoccupation with teaching the basics to his fellow blacks, with little time left to concern himself with legal rights and political issues.
This posture was central to his ability to raise money among many wealthy whites and to exert influence behind the scenes in defense of blacks with federal and state political leaders. In reality, however, when Booker T. Washington's papers were opened after his death, it became clear that, privately, Washington was not only concerned with civil rights but also goaded other blacks into similar concerns and himself secretly financed some of their legal challenges to Jim Crow laws.
In at least one case, even the black plaintiffs themselves did not know why their lawyer accepted such a pittance for his work. He was being paid under the table by Booker T. Washington.
While publicly turning aside questions about political issues during the era of systematic disenfranchising of blacks, Washington privately not only supported efforts to safeguard civil rights but also wrote anonymous newspaper articles protesting the violation of those rights, as did his trusted agents. He also worked behind the scenes to get federal appointments for blacks in Washington and postmaster appointments in Alabama, as well as to get presidents to appoint federal judges who would give blacks a fairer hearing.
What was utterly lacking in Booker T. Washington, however, was the ringing rhetoric of protest, so much beloved of intellectuals, however futile ^ it might be in practice at the time. Washington practiced what militants of a later era would only preach, to advance the interests of blacks "by all means necessary."
Booker T. Washington was, among other things, a master of duplicity and intrigue. But unlike some others who used such talents to line their own pockets while boasting of their concerns for the rights of fellow blacks, he was untouched by any hint of financial scandal and did not even let his fellow blacks know of many of his legal and political efforts in their behalf, for the chances of success in these efforts depended on their being conducted behind the scenes.
In his running of Tuskegee Institute as well, even a critical biographer noted, "Because of its strictness, Tuskegee Institute was almost entirely free of the scandals that racked many other boarding schools." A Southern white editor of that era confessed his amazement at how carefully Washington accounted for every dollar that passed through his hands at Tuskegee Institute.
Yet, Booker T. Washington was by no means a Sunday school paragon. He was ruthless in the building and maintenance of his power and in the advancement of the causes he believed in. He maintained a network of people around the country who did his bidding in the press, the foundations and in the political back rooms. He headed what was aptly called "the Tuskegee machine," though it was fact a nationwide operation. He himself was called "the wizard" by those who worked with him. His whole career was, in a sense, a juggling act on a high wire and no one was more aware than he that one misstep could bring everything crashing down.