Who is Booker T. Washington?
Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) was an American educator, author, orator, and adviser to several presidents of the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African American community and of the contemporary black elite. Washington was from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery and became the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants. They were newly oppressed in the South by disenfranchisement and the Jim Crow discriminatory laws enacted in the post-Reconstruction Southern states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Washington was a key proponent of African-American businesses and one of the founders of the National Negro Business League. His base was the Tuskegee Institute, a normal school, later a historically black college in Tuskegee, Alabama at which he served as principal. As lynchings in the South reached a peak in 1895, Washington gave a speech, known as the “Atlanta compromise“, which brought him national fame. He called for black progress through education and entrepreneurship, rather than trying to challenge directly the Jim Crow segregation and the disenfranchisement of black voters in the South.
Washington mobilized a nationwide coalition of middle-class blacks, church leaders, and white philanthropists and politicians, with a long-term goal of building the community’s economic strength and pride by a focus on self-help and schooling. With his own contributions to the Black community, Washington was a supporter of racial uplift, but secretly he also supported court challenges to segregation and to restrictions on voter registration.
Washington had the ear of the powerful in the America of his day, including presidents. His mastery of the American political system in the later 19th century allowed him to manipulate the media, raise money, develop strategy, network, distribute funds, and reward a cadre of supporters. Nevertheless, opposition to Washington grew, as it became clear that his Atlanta compromise did not produce the promised improvement for most Blacks in the South. William Monroe Trotter and W. E. B. Du Bois, who Bookerites perceived in an antebellum way as “northern Blacks”, found Washington too accommodationist and his industrial (“agricultural and mechanical”) education inadequate. Booker fought viciously against them and succeeded in crushing the Niagara Movement they tried to found, but could not prevent their formation of the NAACP, whose views became mainstream. Black activists in the North, led by W. E. B. Du Bois, at first supported the Atlanta compromise, but later disagreed and opted to set up the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to work for political change. They tried with limited success to challenge Washington’s political machine for leadership in the Black community, but built wider networks among white allies in the North. Decades after Washington’s death in 1915, the civil rights movement of the 1950s took a more active and progressive approach, which was also based on new grassroots organizations based in the South, such as Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Booker’s legacy has been very controversial in the civil rights community, of which he was an important leader. After his death in 1915, he came under heavy criticism for accommodationism to white supremacy, even though his long-term, semi-secret goal was to end the disenfranchisement of African Americans, the vast majority of whom still lived in the South. However, a more balanced view of his very wide range of activities has appeared since the late 20th century. As of 2010, the most recent studies “defend and celebrate his accomplishments, legacy, and leadership”
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