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The Conservative Curmudgeon
October 14, 2008

Re-examining Booker T. Washington: Black America’s Prophetic Leader
by Allan C. Brownfeld

In recent years, Booker T. Washington, the pre-eminent black leader and educator of the late l9th and early 20th centuries, has come under increasing criticism by many in the black community and among academics of all races. The criticism is for promoting self-help and economic independence rather than political action — as advocated by others such as W.E.B. Du Bois — as the best way to advance members of his race in the post-Civil War years in the South.

In June 2006, a symposium celebrating the l50th anniversary of Washington’s birth was held at Northwestern University. The symposium was sponsored by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based public policy research institute whose mission is to discover, develop, and promote free market solutions to social and economic problems. The papers delivered at this symposium have been published recently under the title, Booker T. Washington: A Re-Examination.

In the introduction, Lee Walker, president of the New Coalition for Economic and Social Change and a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, notes that, “Although many today have never heard of him, the Wizard of Tuskegee was, without doubt, the most powerful and influential black leader of his time, and arguably of all time. He received honorary degrees from Harvard and Dartmouth, dined with U.S. presidents and the Queen of England, and was the first black person to have his image appear on a U.S. stamp and commemorative coin. President Eisenhower created a national monument to Booker T. Washington in l956.”

Dr. Rayford W. Logan, professor of history at Howard University, describes Washington’s speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895 as “one of the most effective pieces of political oratory in the history of the U.S. It deserves a place alongside that in which Patrick Henry proclaimed, ‘Give me liberty, or give me death.’”

In Lee Walker's view, “It is astounding that a man so widely respected and even revered by his contemporaries is now so thoroughly overlooked. What was it that made Booker T. Washington the central figure in American race relations at the dawn of the 20th century? Why did historians of the era label the years from l895 to l9l5, ‘The years of Washington?’ And why have modern scholars been so quick to dismiss this mountain of a man?” These questions and many others were addressed during the course of the symposium.

Washington leapt onto the national scene following the nationwide publication of his speech at the Atlanta Exposition in l895. This was the same year that respected abolitionist Frederick Douglass died. Douglass, one of Washington's personal heroes, had been black America’s leader and spokesman for 50 years. Washington inherited Douglass’ firm belief in the strength and capability of his black brethren. When asked by a white journalist, “What do you blacks want from white people?,” Douglass replied, “Just leave us alone and we can take care of ourselves.” It was Washington’s firm belief that former slaves could stand on their own feet and achieve prosperity in American society.

The most important theme for Washington was education. A second theme, closely tied to education, was self-reliance. Tuskegee began as a Normal School and focused on training black men and women to become skilled at building, farming, and other occupations so they could earn their way into mainstream American society.

A third Washington theme was entrepreneurship. Living at a time of racism and segregation, Washington encouraged black men and women to look at the need for goods and services in their communities as an opportunity to start their own businesses. In l900, Washington founded the first black businessman's association — the National Negro Business League (NNBL). He personally helped many black businesses to get started by introducing black entrepreneurs to white investors.

In l90l, Washington published his autobiography, Up From Slavery, which became the best-selling book ever written by a black. It was eventually translated into seven languages and was as popular in Europe as it was in Africa. Up From Slavery was more than an autobiography. It was an explication of Washington’s major themes: education, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship.

Professor Anne Wortham of Illinois State University declares that, “As a member of the Tuskegee Institute class of l963, I was truly a beneficiary of Booker T. Washington's legacy.... One of Washington’s well-known metaphors was, ‘Cast down your bucket where you are’... Washington’s critics have distorted the metaphor to suggest that his words were those of an appeaser of white racism, an ‘Uncle Tom.’ It is wrongly used to suggest that Washington believed the best approach to race relations was that blacks should not protest the system of white supremacy that blocked their strivings. But if Washington actually believed that blacks should not protest the state of their community, why did he devote all of his life to promoting industrial education, economic self-sufficiency, self-responsibility, and self-cultivation?... ‘Cast down your bucket’ was the advocacy, not of resignation or passive accommodation, but of self-initiated and self-responsible action.”

At the l922 unveiling of the Booker T. Washington memorial, Dr. George Cleveland Hall said of Washington: “He changed a crying race to a trying race and put in their hands the wonderful crafts of the age. He instilled in their minds the dignity of labor and urged them to stop marking time, but keep pace with the grand march of civilization.”

Professor Glenn C. Loury of Brown University notes that, “There’s a deep truth in Booker T. Washington's legacy... It is that insisting on respect from others, demanding it, in the name of justice, in the name of what is right, saying we ought to be respected —ultimately is not a satisfactory strategy. Respectability is not something that you can demand from people. It’s something that has to be earned on the basis of what you do with your life.”

Washington believed that blacks must have indispensable skills and economic independence. In l905, Tuskegee Institute produced more self-made millionaires than Harvard, Yale, and Princeton combined. Interestingly, Up From Slavery influenced the title of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s, Up From Liberalism. Washington was a man of his time —but the values he taught are eternal, as relevant today as a century ago.

Dr. Frank Harold Wilson, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, stated that, “As a ‘man of action’ he left us a legacy of institution-and-organization-building, ‘bridge-building’ across the racial divide, and race pride... His
ideas on education and self-reliance are the ideas we are required go come back to and build on.”

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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