When Booker T. Washington stepped to the podium at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895 to give a speech on race relations, two things happened.
First, many fellow Black Americans, including W.E.B. Du Bois, derided his speech as “The Atlanta Compromise,” because Washington called the agitation for social equality “the extremest folly,” advocating instead slow, steady, and segregated self-improvement for the American Negro.
Second, Booker T. Washington’s was acclaimed by the white power structure, and his less threatening approach to progress proclaimed in the press. Washington himself was elevated to the status of the pre-eminent “Negro leader,” at least in the eyes of white folks. Washington alone had access to the ears and pockets of millionaires like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Washington alone received an invitation to Teddy Roosevelt’s White House in 1901.
His debate with Du Bois — who called Washington “The Great Accommodator” — has been simplified to one of segregation versus integration. But Washington secretly contributed to anti-segregationist causes, all the while publically advocating an industrial education for Negroes, rather than the liberal arts education that Du Bois favored. Most notably, Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave, went on to found the Tuskeegee Institute, one of the first historically black colleges.
Washington was not a radical, and he caught hell from activists who wanted to move faster. In our time, Barack Obama’s moderate policies, his willingness to meet with his political adversaries, and his advocacy of Black self-reliance rankles many liberals and older Black leaders. As such, Obama and Booker T. Washington share a legacy of both personal achievement in the face of past adversity; and, in some ways, prudent accommodation with the larger power structure.