On September 18, 1895, the African American educator and leader Booker T. Washington delivered his famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. Considered the definitive statement of what Washington termed the “accommodationist” strategy of Black response to southern racial tensions, it is widely regarded as one of the most significant speeches in American history.
Two years earlier, Washington had spoken in Atlanta during the international meeting of Christian Workers. That audience, comprising northern and southern whites, responded favorably to his speech, in which he advocated vocational-industrial education for Blacks as a means of improving southern race relations. In the spring of 1895 Washington traveled to Washington, D.C., with a delegation of mostly white Georgians to solicit support from Congress for an exposition on social and economic advances in the South. Washington pointed out to a congressional committee that since emancipation, Blacks and whites had made advancements in race relations that should be highlighted in an exposition, and he urged federal support for the event, to be held in Atlanta. This speech, along with his 1893 address to the Christian Workers, prompted the exposition’s board of directors to ask Washington to speak at its opening exercises.
Washington’s speech responded to the “Negro problem”—the question of what to do about the abysmal social and economic conditions of Blacks and the relationship between Blacks and whites in the economically shifting South. Appealing to white southerners, Washington promised his audience that he would encourage Blacks to become proficient in agriculture, mechanics, commerce, and domestic service, and to encourage them to “dignify and glorify common labour.” Steeped in the ideals of the Protestant work ethic, he assured whites that Blacks were loyal people who believed they would prosper in proportion to their hard work. Agitation for social equality, Washington argued, was but folly, and most Blacks realized the privileges that would come from “constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.”
Washington also eased many whites’ fears about Blacks’ desire for social integration by stating that both races could “be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Washington’s speech also called for whites to take responsibility for improving social and economic relations between the races. Praising the South for some of the opportunities it had given Blacks since emancipation, Washington asked whites to trust Blacks and provide them with opportunities so that both races could advance in industry and agriculture. This shared responsibility came to be known as the Atlanta Compromise.
The speech was greeted by thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Clark Howell, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, moved forward to the speaker’s platform and proclaimed the speech to be “the beginning of a moral revolution in America.” Washington’s words, telegraphed to every major newspaper in the country, were greeted enthusiastically by whites—both northern and southern—and by most African American leaders.
The speech also cemented Washington’s status as the most influential Black leader and educator in the United States between 1895 and 1915. Due partially to his conditional acceptance of racial subordination, Washington served as an advisor to U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, both men with deep racial biases. Washington was able to help Roosevelt and Taft select Black candidates for nominal, traditionally Black political positions. Washington also advised rich industrialists on how best to direct their money to support Black education in the South and, in so doing, largely controlled the funding of most Black southern schools.
But Washington had his critics, none more aggressive than another leading Black educator and scholar of his day—W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois, a native of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was educated at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee; Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the University of Berlin in Germany. In 1897 he accepted an appointment to the faculty of Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) and moved to Atlanta. Although Du Bois recognized Washington’s speech as important, he soon came to see Washington’s ideas of gradualism for civil rights as acquiescence to many southerners who wanted to maintain the inferior status of Blacks. In Du Bois’s view, “Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission. . . . [His] programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.”
Du Bois’s upbringing in New England and his exposure to liberal democratic views elicited a very different response to the Negro problem. That different response crystallized with the publication of Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Du Bois believed that Blacks should launch legal and scholarly attacks on racism and discrimination without hesitation, and he called for education of the most talented Blacks to lead this struggle. The “talented tenth,” he believed, should represent the antithesis of gradualism and should seek to free Blacks in the present. The Souls of Black Folk rallied opposition to Washington in Black intellectual circles. Leaders of the Black community were polarized into two camps: the “conservative” supporters of Washington’s accomodationism, and the “radical” critics of Washington. Du Bois, harnessing radicals’ unhappiness with Washington, founded the Niagara Movement in 1905, which advocated for civil rights for Black people and led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The Atlanta Compromise represented Booker T. Washington’s strategy for addressing the Negro problem and has long served as the basis for contrasting Washington’s views with those of Du Bois. Even today, scholars and educators debate the utility of Washington’s educational ideas. Most agree that to understand Washington’s speech, it is necessary to place his thinking within its historical context, at a time when African Americans were struggling to transition economically from the legacy of slavery. Despite the continued debates over the speech and the criticisms of Washington by many Black progressive thinkers, his address continues to be one of the most important speeches in American letters.