Booker T. Washington and the Struggle Against White Supremacy

by David H. Jackson Jr.

Palgrave Macmillan, 260 pages, $58.46

Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington

by Robert J. Norrell

Belknap, 508 pages, $35

In the early twentieth century, Booker T. Washington was the most famous black man in the world. From Europe to Australia he was hailed as America’s foremost leader of his people. Presidents consulted him before making appointments, Harvard awarded him an honorary doctorate, and leading scholars regularly corresponded with him and visited his famous Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Andrew Carnegie called him the Moses of his people, which did not seem far-fetched at the time. Even before his death in 1915 his portrait was hanging in black classrooms, barbershops, and restaurants all over the South. Countless black babies were named after him, as were schools, parks, community centers, and libraries.

To most Americans today he is either unknown or, if recalled at all, associated with Uncle Tomism because of his promotion of vocational education for most blacks and his apparent willingness to tolerate racial segregation and disfranchisement of Southern blacks. In the view of a recent critic, “Booker T. Washington gave black uplift a bad name.”

Washington had earlier critics, especially among college-educated blacks in New England. As early as 1898, mention of his name at a gathering of black intellectuals in Boston brought hisses, and in The Souls of Black Folk , published in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois launched the first of his many well-publicized assaults on Washington’s reputation over the next sixty years. But these were minority voices within a minority community; they came from the black elite, “the talented tenth,” as Du Bois called them. Among ordinary blacks, especially in the South, Washington’s reputation remained largely intact through the end of the 1940s.

What finally undid it was the civil-rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Washington had eschewed overt attacks on racial segregation. Now, quite suddenly, a new generation of blacks was sitting in at all-white lunch counters, boldly defying city orders by freedom-marching, and, in dozens of other ways, assaulting the citadels of white supremacy. Challenges of this intensity would have been unthinkable in Washington’s day, and, compared to them, Washington’s approach seemed timid. Some critics called Washington’s approach a form of accommodationism that actually prolonged the Jim Crow era.

What was Washington’s approach? Aimed mainly at blacks in the rural South (where the vast majority lived at the time), it was to teach them the skills to succeed economically, whether in farming, factory, or business””and, no less important, to imbue them with an ethic of responsibility, integrity, and public service. “Character building,” he called it, and it was as much a part of the curriculum at the Tuskegee Institute as carpentry and brickmaking. The education of “head, hand, and heart,” as he put it, would yield a double benefit for African Americans, empowering them economically and helping to dispel the prevalent stereotype of blacks as shiftless and irresponsible. To achieve these goals he was willing to ignore other injustices, such as segregated public accommodations. “The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house,” he said in a famous speech delivered at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895. Du Bois later called it the “Atlanta Compromise . . . a willingness to suppress public criticism of segregation and disfranchisement in exchange for white support of vocational training.

By the end of the 1970s, however, historians were ready to take a fresh look at his life and work. The best known of these efforts was a dense two-volume work by historian Louis Harlan. Having delved deeply into the vast archive in the Library of Congress, Harlan concluded Washington was a far more complicated figure than the one commonly portrayed. He was a man who felt forced by the racial climate of his time “to wear a mask” of amiability and acceptance. But behind the mask Washington surreptitiously battled white supremacy”planting pseudonymous letters in newspapers critical of segregation, secretly funding legal challenges to it, tipping off friendly editors about civil-rights violations, and using his political contacts to derail racist legislation. At the same time, Washington hated criticism by black opponents, and he used some of the same tactics to discredit his critics.

Harlan, then, gave Washington a mixed review, and that seems to be the scholarly consensus today. In the last few years, however, some historians pushed beyond this qualified rehabilitation to paint a more benign portrait. Two of the latest books defending Washington and his legacy are Up from History , by the University of Tennessee historian Robert J. Norrell, and Booker T. Washington and the Struggle Against White Supremacy , by David T. Jackson of Florida A&M University. Their opinion is that Washington’s critics often commit the fallacy of presentism”judging someone who lived in different times by today’s standards.

Washington lived in horrendous times indeed. From the 1880s on, racial exclusion was on the rise, even in the North. In the South, Jim Crow laws and social pressures were reversing every gain blacks had won during Reconstruction. The ultimate sanction was terror; this was the peak of the lynching era. An average of 150 people, almost all of them black, were lynched every year, with a peak toll of 235 in 1892. Usually the victims were hanged; many were burned alive after being sexually mutilated. Families brought their children to these events, and body parts sometimes were distributed as souvenirs. As Norrell puts it, “anyone in the South in 1903 was living among insane people.”

These were the times of Booker T. Washington, Norrell and Jackson remind us. He was down South, in the belly of the beast, and any fair judgment of his work must take account of this terrible context. Both historians attempt this, albeit within different frameworks: Norrell employs the wide frame of a full biography, while Jackson focuses on a series of “educational tours” Washington took through the South in the first decade of the twentieth century to spread the news “of the progress the Negro is making in every part of the country,” as one of the lecture programs announced.

When Jackson started work on his book, one of his academic colleagues suggested that it might be entitled “Booker T. Washington and His Traveling Roadshow.” Although Jackson eventually rejected it, the title does seem to catch the spirit of these lectures. They were relentlessly upbeat, emphasizing not only the progress blacks were making but the cooperation they were getting from their white friends in the South. For each appearance Washington made sure that roughly half the audience was white. The good news about progress was especially important to Washington’s strategy because it countered the prevailing white narrative that the black race in America was suffering a gradual decline because they no longer enjoyed the protection of their former masters.

Less plausible was Washington’s repeated claim that his work at Tuskegee was getting great cooperation from Southern whites. The Tuskegee Institute was financed almost entirely by Northern philanthropy; at best it was grudgingly tolerated by Southern whites. So why the happy talk? Jackson calls it a “black survival strategy.” It was “a coded but tactful way of placing demands on whites without breaching the line of racial etiquette and insulting them outright by telling them what to do.” Each section of Washington’s segregated audience listened to it differently. The whites basked in his praise, while the blacks understood the coded message.

Jackson’s Booker T. Washington and the Struggle Against White Supremacy is awkwardly written, repetitious, and full of details that should have been put in endnotes or omitted. But it offers one valuable insight that seems to have eluded other biographers. They dismiss the mask Washington wore””the amiable exterior that hid his true thoughts and feelings””as a personal idiosyncrasy. Jackson recognizes it as a social device frequently employed by Southern blacks. The available strategies were not limited to “protest” or “accommodation,” Jackson writes. There was a third alternative, namely “manipulation,” and that was Washington’s way.

Meanwhile, Norrell’s Up from History disputes the claim that Washington neglected the civil-rights issues that concerned Du Bois’ NAACP. Washington, Norrell insists, “had anticipated almost all of the NAACP’s civil-rights agenda.” He had protested “discrimination on railroads, lynching, unfair voting qualification, and discriminatory funding of education,” and he financed “court challenges to disfranchisement, jury discrimination, and peonage.” Nor was the personal clash with W.E.B. Du Bois as simple as it is usually portrayed. Du Bois’ harsh criticisms of Washington’s 1895 Atlanta address are often quoted, but at the time Du Bois had written to him approvingly about it, “and they had corresponded periodically after 1895 about an appointment to Tuskegee.”

Norrell’s presentation of the facts is accurate but requires qualification. Yes, Washington protested against some aspects of Jim Crow, but in language so balanced and irenic that it lacked rhetorical force. He financed lawsuits against white-supremacist policies, but only in secret, while the NAACP did so openly. And while it is true that Du Bois congratulated Washington immediately after his Atlanta speech, that was in 1895, when Du Bois was twenty-seven. By 1903 he was in full cry against it, a position he maintained until his death sixty years later.

Norrell’s defense of Washington finds a better footing when he recalls how difficult it was to be a black leader at the turn of the twentieth century, especially in the rural South. Lynching was a constant threat, and it enforced the day-to-day etiquette of racial humiliation, the least violation of which could unleash a torrent of abuse. Norrell’s absorbing account of Washington’s life is at its best in showing us how relentless and brutal was the maintenance of white supremacy by the Southern white leaders of the time.

Washington’s strategy was not to offer a direct challenge to racist demagogues but to appeal to what was left of Southern gentility, telling the “better whites” about the progress blacks were making”progress not only in acquiring skills and land but also in “character building”: learning to be responsible, punctual, and frugal; learning good manners, correct grammar, personal cleanliness, and what he called “the gospel of the toothbrush”; above all, learning to carry themselves with dignity. Unlike the liberals in the NAACP, Washington never hesitated to speak approvingly of “race pride,” by which he meant collective self-respect.

So, what in the end did Booker T. Washington achieve? Did his strategy of economic self-sufficiency pave the way to political rights? Did the later civil-rights revolution owe a debt to him? Jackson’s book does not raise these questions, though his references to Washington’s “assault” and subversion of white supremacy suggest an affirmative answer.

Norrell instead ends his sympathetic biography on a somber note: Washington was “a heroic failure.” He gambled that rising black prosperity, fostered by the kind of education available at Tuskegee and similar institutions, would gradually help blacks achieve the rights enjoyed by other Americans. But he failed to understand that prosperity and rights go along different tracks. Despite a marginal rise in prosperity, Southern blacks had no more rights in 1945 than they had in 1900. It took a civil-rights revolution, relying on not an economic but a political strategy of agitation and confrontation, to secure those rights.

Norrell’s conclusion, though, seems to fall back on the dichotomy he set out to refute. Washington’s strategy was not purely economic any more than the civil-rights revolution was purely agitation. Common to both was what Washington tried to instill in the hearts of young Southern blacks. Culturally, the civil-rights pioneers were the grandchildren of Booker T. Washington. They were brought up in neighborhoods and country districts where pictures of Washington were everywhere, and in their growing years they absorbed the culture he promoted. Washington was admired by Rosa Parks, the young Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others who pushed back against Jim Crow. Washington’s teaching of what he called “high upright character” had become ingrained in them. When the news-camera crews went down South in the 1960s to film the demonstrators, it was their own quiet forbearance in the face of insults and violence that helped win Americans over to their cause. No movement led by an Al Sharpton or a Huey Newton could have done that.

Measured by its original intentions”securing the right to vote and abolishing state-imposed racial segregation”the civil-rights revolution was a glorious success. What it failed to do can be read today in the statistics on income, employment, education, and nearly every other measure of social well-being for a large portion of the black community.

What Washington kept hammering at in his writings and public appearances, but which seems to have been largely forgotten today, is the link between character and social condition. It is not a perfect link: A person can get educated, work hard, live frugally, act decently, and still fail. But the likelihood is far less if the person is prepared. Many blacks, especially in the North, were outraged by Washington’s assertion that “it is more important that we be prepared to vote than that we vote.” Today, with voting rights secure, we can hear the deepest meaning of those words.

As early as 1899 Washington predicted that a black would someday become president, but he must have realized that, whoever that person was, he would be the product of, or at least shaped by, an elite culture. Washington wanted more than that. His dream was that, when full civil rights finally arrived, every African American, not just those of the talented tenth, would have mastered the skill of living in a free country.

George McKenna is professor emeritus of political science at City College of New York. His latest book is The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism.