29 reasons to celebrate Black History Month: No. 12 Booker T. Washington and the Atlanta Compromise

February marks Black History Month. Follow the AJC this month for a series of short stories and videos and people, places and events that played a significant role in the development of black people in America.

No. 12

Booker T. Washington and the Atlanta Compromise. By 1895, Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave, had risen to become the most powerful, and in some regards, respected black man in the country. Only 14 years earlier, in 1881, he established the Tuskegee Institute. So when he spoke at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition at the site of what is now Piedmont Park, it was going to be big. It was. But depending on what scholar you ask, the speech was either a groundbreaking look at the reality of race relations, or as W.E.B. Du Bois called it, the "Atlanta Compromise."

In the rousing speech, attended mostly by whites, Washington did not challenge segregation, instead he urged blacks to "Cast down your buckets where you are" and make progress as agricultural and industrial laborers. He told the crowd that Southern blacks would work quietly and submit to white political and legal rule in exchange for a guarantee that blacks would receive a basic education and due process in the law. In addition, those same blacks would not agitate for equality, integration or justice. “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing,” Washington said.

He went further by saying that blacks would do well to take advantage of the knowledge of labor – some of which he was teaching at Tuskegee – rather than in their limited knowledge of the arts.

“No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” Washington said. “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”

Southern whites loved the speech. Black intellectuals hated it. They both agreed that it is one of the most important speeches in American history.