An Appreciation of the Man and his Times
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There can be little question as to the magnitude of Booker T. Washington's personal accomplishment. His rise from the lowest depths of society to a position of fame and influence was remarkable, especially because of the overwhelming obstacles Negroes faced. His life has demonstrated to generations the great truth that a man's origin need not determine his destiny. Even more, it has served as an example of dedication and humanitarian service rarely surpassed.

While few advocates of Negro rights have questioned Washington's motives, many have disputed his methods. Some condemn them without fairly trying to understand the limitations under which he worked. Others look only at the "public Washington"—the Washington of the Atlanta speech and Up From Slavery. For the complete picture, we must go to those scholars who have uncovered the "secret Washington" fighting behind the scenes for full black citizenship. Yet, even then, the question remains: Could he have done more for his race by speaking out, refusing to compromise, demanding justice?

"He did what was possible, given the time and place in which he lived, and he did it to the utmost."

Samuel R. Spencer Jr

Clearly, Washington felt that he could not and still maintain his vital connections with the white Establishment. He was convinced that Tuskegee, in the deepest South, could not survive a hostile environment. Further, Washington doubted that open militance would do any good in that era of racial discord. Infused with the conviction that his own success or failure would help determine the success or failure of the race, he was deeply reluctant to take any public action that seemed unlikely to succeed.

In all his actions, Washington was intensely practical. While his intellectual critics were concerned with ideals and principles, he thought chiefly in terms of material results for the masses. For most of a race barely subsisting, he argued that economic progress at that time meant more than social equality or voting. If Washington had to make a choice of goals, he would choose first what he felt his people needed most—and also what he thought they had the most chance of attaining. He was accused of compromising away black rights, but at no time did Washington concede anything that he believed Negroes had or were likely to get.

Having chosen to concentrate on economic betterment, Washington told his people that whites would willingly grant them political and civil rights as they acquired skills and property. Perhaps for a time he believed it. But a man of his psychological insight could not long hold such an optimistic opinion of human nature. Unfortunately, experience would show that prejudice often intensified when blacks were able to compete economically with whites. While Washington persisted in his counsel, his covert actions against discrimination and segregation belied his outward faith in the inevitability of equal rights. Though his undercover efforts were often unsuccessful, they illustrate that he did attach importance to civil and political rights in his own time even while he was belittling them in public.

Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington. (Library of Congress)

Washington's public utterances did rationalize injustice. His widely quoted remarks often comforted foes of Negro rights and undermined those blacks who were able, and who felt it important, to speak out. Sometimes he gave the impression that Negroes did not really mind being disfranchised and segregated. As Charles W. Chesnutt believed, if Washington could not reverse contemporary trends by open opposition, he might better have remained silent.

Particularly unfortunate were Washington's efforts to dominate Negro opinion through press control and the "Tuskegee Machine." Forthright demands for equal rights might have done little good at the time, but they needed to be heard. The suppression of these demands, together with Washington's influential remarks, gave many the impression that such rights did not matter to the Negro.

Despite these valid criticisms, Booker T. Washington stands out as one of the great personalities in American history. Few, if any, have overcome greater obstacles to accomplish so much. Thoroughly dedicated to the betterment of his race but realistic in judging the possibilities and limitations of his environment, he steered a course designed to realize the greatest practical good for the greatest number of his people. In the words of one of his biographers, Samuel Spencer, "He did what was possible, given the time and place in which he lived, and he did it to the utmost." Can more be asked of any man?

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Last Updated: 20-Feb-2009