Washington: The Long Game for Equality

The close of the Civil War was, naturally, the beginning of seismic changes in American political life. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 had legally freed all slaves in Confederate territory, though for obvious reasons the law was effected only in places that the Union had reclaimed; this culminated in its declaration in Texas in 1865, on June 19th, the origin of the Juneteenth holiday. Nationwide abolition followed with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified that December. The painful and incomplete process known as Reconstruction had begun.

Booker T. Washington was born in Virginia in 1856, not long before the war, and had just turned ten when the first Juneteenth celebrations were held. Like Frederick Douglass he taught himself to read, and ultimately attended Hampton University and Virginia Union University (then known by different names—both historically Black colleges founded mainly to educate freedmen). His 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, recounts the challenges of his education; it remains one of the most respected books of the twentieth century US.

Washington himself went on to help found the Tuskegee Institute in 1881, an Alabama college devoted to training Black teachers. His leadership became extremely prominent over the next thirty years, and Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft each met with him in person. Harvard and Dartmouth both awarded him honorary degrees.

Men may make laws to hinder and fetter the ballot, but men cannot make laws that will blind or retard the growth of manhood.

Booker T. Washington

Working against the backdrop of Reconstruction, in a South seething with resentment that often boiled over into violent acts like lynchings, Booker T. Washington was an activist as well as an educator. However, he and his allies (dubbed the “Tuskegee Machine” by Northerners) advocated a quiet, accommodating approach. In the autumn of 1895, he gave a speech on the topic of race relations in Atlanta which became the basis of his program, later called the Atlanta Compromise. Rather than mount a public campaign that directly challenged Jim Crow laws, Washington believed that the Black community in the South should negotiate with them: in order to secure modest political gains, such as free basic education and vocational training, the Tuskegee Machine would accept racist policies such as segregation and disfranchisement, tolerate bans on Blacks receiving higher education, and not retaliate against violence. In the meantime, they would concentrate on establishing an independently prosperous and educated Black community, in order to win the sympathies of whites in the long term—a policy referred to as “racial uplift.”

This approach was not without critics in his own day, any more than in ours. W. E. B. Du Bois, a Northerner who had at first sided with Washington, changed his mind on policy. His criticisms of Washington, though generous and measured, were firm: “[We] do not expect to see the bias and prejudices of years disappear at the blast of a trumpet; but … Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.” Du Bois was particularly emphatic that higher education—education that would not “make men carpenters, but make carpenters men”—must not be sacrificed to political expediency.

Indeed, some critics of the Atlanta Compromise, past and present, have argued that Washington’s conciliatory approach may have done more harm than good. In accepting rather than challenging the caste system of the South, some say, he made it easier to view the Black community as less deserving of legal rights and due process than their white counterparts, and easier to consider their maltreatment as excusable or even natural.

Washington was not deaf to these critiques. Although (rightly or wrongly) he considered the danger of a racist backlash too grave to accept Du Bois’ views, he did quietly help to sponsor certain political measures, such as important legal cases and associations like the National Negro Business League, that went beyond the minimum of the Atlanta Compromise.

His legacy remains complex accordingly. The civil rights movement, inaugurated forty years after Washington’s death, took the route of Du Bois rather than his—whether we speak of more confrontational figures like Malcolm X or pacifists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet even so, there he lies beneath the trees, on the grounds of the Tuskegee Institute that he helped to create, and that has educated generations of Americans. Our own view of education here at CLT certainly aligns with the classical ideals of Du Bois than with Washington’s practical concerns—but then, ideals themselves have to be put into practice, and Booker T. Washington saw and acted rather than hanging back. It is an attribute we all have need of.


Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this overview of the Bhagavad Gita, this “Great Conversation” piece about the concept of nature, or this student essay on the value of studying music.

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