Booker T. Washington realized a century ago that education, character, and an economic foundation were–and would continue to be–the best weapons against poverty and racial discrimination.
Washington’s legacy was given specific focus at a two-and-a-half-day symposium held on June 4-6, 2006, cosponsored by The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change and The Heartland Institute. The event included six free panel discussions taking place at Northwestern University’s Chicago campus. Several of the experts present said it was the best lineup of experts on Booker T. Washington and his ideas ever assembled in one place.
This issue of News & Views opens with an essay, published in the Chicago Sun-Times on May 21, by symposium participant Mark Bauerlein. A full report from the symposium, including photos, appears on pages 4-7.
— Lee H. Walker
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the most remarkable individuals in U.S. history, Booker T. Washington.
At the height of his career, moving through a vigilant Jim Crow world, Washington was an icon, his fame eclipsed only by that of Teddy Roosevelt. Wherever Washington went, reporters crowded him for copy. At each lecture, thousands scrambled to hear him speak. Harvard gave him an honorary degree. When journalist Ray Stannard Baker toured the South in 1907, he noted, “Wherever I found a prosperous Negro enterprise, a thriving business place, a good home, there I was almost sure to find Booker T. Washington’s picture over the fireplace or a little framed motto expressing his gospel of work and service.”
And yet, for many this is no moment to remember. Washington’s “gospel” was too timid. He advocated “accommodationism,” which told black citizens to defer to white neighbors in social and political matters, and to work conscientiously for white employers. Although he quietly supported protests against discrimination, in public Washington downplayed white violence. He advised blacks not to vote if it might aggravate the white community. He let stand the claim that a fair portion of black men were prone to crime and degeneracy. And he used his network of contacts to crush rival black leaders.
The approach led to Washington being cast as an Uncle Tom, a toady buying into the worst stereotypes. In his own time, militant Bostonian Monroe Trotter called him the “Benedict Arnold of the Negro race.” In his legendary 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison put Washington’s catchphrases about responsibility in the mouth of his self-humiliating young protagonist. Black Panther icon Eldridge Cleaver termed Washington’s example a “genuflecting leadership,” and today’s college professors barely give him any notice at all.
This is an unfortunate depiction. It forgets the extraordinary circumstances of Washington’s time and obscures the value of his words to young people today.
Washington bore a heavy burden, and his goal was a practical one. African Americans in the 1880s were a vulnerable population, and the best way to improve their chances was through an educational program that would send them into the world as skilled workers and wise consumers, not agitators. And to make it happen Washington had to appease, cajole, and deflect white skeptics, politicians, and race baiters every day of the year.
Behind the program lay a simple strategy. Before you demand political rights and social status, Washington told his followers, get some economic power. Learn a skill, find a job, do it well, make your boss or client need you. Buy some property, take care of it, pay taxes, and raise property values so that the community wants you. Be a paying customer in the local shops so that the proprietor who admits you will count on your business. The profits you generate and the work ethic you model will blunt their racism and boost your finances. Let them shun you in the train stations and the voting booth for now. When black families are secure, when black capital is indispensable, when black labor is in demand, then will come the time for political action.
There is no better message for young Americans today, especially young black men. If we ramp up Washington’s curriculum to include the professions, his self-reliance, work ethic, and thick skin when it comes to race relations are a welcome alternative to the cynicism and despair that characterizes racial talk today. It is also more in line with the realities of American life. As the 2000 Census demonstrated, more African Americans are moving into the middle-class, and the political/social revolution of the Civil Rights Movement is one of the glories of our history.
Too many young black men are not sharing in the progress of American society, though. It is estimated that only 48 percent of black males earn a high school diploma. In 2003, the illegitimacy rate for African Americans was 68 percent. The prisons and unemployment rolls show similar patterns.
These problems stem less from racism and politics than from prevailing attitudes toward family, school, and work. The solution comes from a change in culture, a different ethos: Washington’s ethos.
Damaging and unrealistic images and poses surround young people: the hip-hop posture that turns anger and incivility into justified conditions, the press conference that sees racism behind every calamity, the school curriculum that emphasizes past injustice. Washington counters with an affirmative recipe for life, a plan of economic behavior that envisions a better future, not an adverse past.
Let’s have fewer assignments of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the classroom and more of Up from Slavery. Alongside the entertainment figures and professional athletes, let’s include among our heroes figures of hard work, diligent study, and free enterprise. Washington firmly believed: “The great human law that in the end recognizes and rewards merit is everlasting and universal.” The United States is closer to abiding by that law than ever before, and with Washington’s inspiration, we should pass along that faith to those who most need it.
Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, was in Chicago on June 4-6 to speak at a symposium hosted by The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change and The Heartland Institute. For more information, please call 312/377-4000 or visit http://www.newcoalition.org.