On this date in 1895, Booker T. Washington solidified his position as the foremost black leader in America and helped reinforce segregation as part of what became known as the “Atlanta compromise.”
Washington addressed a mostly white audience Sept. 18, 1895, at the Cotton States and International Exposition, where he laid out an agreement he and other African-American leaders had reached with Southern leaders to ensure white supremacy in return for a few meager guarantees for blacks.
“It reinforced and legitimized legal segregation,” said Charles Jones, head of the Africana Studies Department at the University of Cincinnati.
The speech came as lynchings reached a peak in the post-Reconstruction South, and Washington hoped to avoid further violence and extend some educational and economic gains to blacks.
Washington urged blacks not to agitate for social justice or challenge white political rule, and whites guaranteed that blacks would receive due process rights and basic education — but only in vocational training and not in the liberal arts.
The unwritten agreement, which was articulated and codified into law by the U.S. Supreme Court the following year in Plessy v. Ferguson‘s “separate but equal” ruling, was controversial in its time but maintains an enduring influence.
“It helped maintain white privilege,” Jones said. “To minimize black humanity is to maintain white privilege.”
Washington dined with presidents and counted white America’s elite among his friends — including Andrew Carnegie, William Howard Taft, John D. Rockefeller and Julius Rosenwald — and he tried to leverage his influence to lift blacks out of rural poverty.
“Part of his influence was his alignment with the white power elite,” Jones said.
Jones said the longtime president of the Tuskegee Institute doesn’t carry much respect among present-day students, who the professor said may not fully appreciate how scarce educational and economic opportunities were for blacks in the 19th Century.
“You have to give Washington some credit — he helped expand the middle class,” Jones said.
Dissatisfaction with the Atlanta compromise — which helped preserve white supremacy and, of course, did not end racist terrorism — helped spur the formation just a few years later of the more impatient National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“The founding of the NAACP was in direct opposition to Booker T. Washington,” Jones said.
Jones said conservatives have long tried to cultivate their own leaders like Washington to challenge the modern-day NAACP and other more traditional black civil rights leaders.
“Republicans have been trying to identify their own set of black leaders from outside the black community (since at least the Reagan administration),” Jones said. “But leadership has to be organic, it has to come from the community.”
He said some of these conservative blacks, including Justice Clarence Thomas and economist Thomas Sowell, diminish traditional civil rights leaders as “race hustlers” in exchange for positions of power and influence.
He said those slurs, as well as complaints about the “race card,” help whites maintain their political dominance over blacks by establishing the fundamental terms of debate.
“As long as the discussion is on the terms and values of a Eurocentric system, everything is fine,” Jones said.
Washington pledged 120 years ago not to disturb white institutional power, which Jones said had long been maintained through “police terrorism.”
Jones said technology and social media have more explicitly revealed the everyday horror that black Americans have endured for centuries, and he pointed out that the Black Panthers were formed in the 1960s as a “self-defense” organization.
These new technologies help activists like Black Lives Matter to challenge the racist power structure in ways Washington could never have imagined, the professor said.
“What’s happening now is more immediate and visceral due to social media,” Jones said.
Listen to this 1904 recording of Washington deliver his Atlanta compromise speech: