I’ve been (slowly) making my way through this Booker T. Washington biography. It really is a great read. But that aside, I think that it also highlights a great tragedy in race relations in this country. Washington is arguably the most effective and powerful black conservative in this country's history. (I maintain that Malcolm X was, for much of his public life, a black conservative.) Unlike today, Washington lived in a time when there actually was a credible black conservative tradition. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” is remembered as a betrayal and a sell-out because it accepted segregation, and argued against black political agitation. But in fact, at the time, the response from black America to the “Compromise” was at worst mixed, and at best quite positive. No less than W.E.B. Du Bois called the speech, “the basis for a real settlement between whites and black in the South.”
It makes sense, when you think about it. Washington basically said to the white South in 1895,“You win. We don’t want the right to vote. We just want to till our farms, better ourselves, and be left alone. Leave us in peace, and you’ll hear no more of this voting or integration business.” You have to remember the state of mind of black people, at that time. Reconstruction had been rolled back. The South was wracked by race riots. Three years after Washington’s speech, the only coup in American history was orchestrated in Wilmington, North Carolina by racist thugs. Washington was basically conceding what he'd already lost. In return he hoped to simply secure the right of good Christian blacks to work the land in peace.