“My dear Dr. Grimke: You cannot realize how much satisfaction your kind words of congratulation bring to me. I know that no utterance comes from your lips that are not sincere. The reception given my words at Atlanta has been a revelation to me. I had no idea that a Southern audience would treat a black man’s utterances in the way that it did. The heart of the whole South now seems to be turned in a different direction. You can easily see that I had rather a difficult task. First I wanted to be very sure to state the exact truth and of not compromising the race. Then there were some things that I felt should be said to the colored people and some others to the white people; and aside from these considerations I wanted to so deport myself as not to make such an impression as would prevent a similar opportunity being offered to some other colored man in the south.” September 24, 1895, Booker T. Washington
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
In the days and weeks following Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address (1895),” he received several commendations and congratulatory messages from a host of well wishers for this now historic address. In addition to remarks received from Francis James Grimke who was instrumental in the founding of the NAACP, W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois-his noted rival-remarked, “My Dear Mr. Washington: Let me heartily congratulate you upon your phenomenal success at Atlanta-it was a word fitly spoken.” In deed and in truth, the founding principal and president of Tuskegee Institute (University) “had rather a difficult task” in delivering such an address that has profound reverberations, even in this present century. Mr. Washington’s detractors-including many who praised him in private-decried against the address calling it the “Atlanta Compromise” because of its emphasis upon industrial education and developing economic independence for African-Americans as opposed to pressing for social justice during that volatile period. Yet, what many failed to appreciate then about Washington-and fail to appreciate now about men and women in leadership situated similar to Washington-is that such men and women have multiple constituencies and audiences to appeal to. In 1895, in the Deep South, where Mr. Washington had spent 15 years building an institution of higher learning for formerly enslaved African-Americans, he needed to be especially keen, prudent and cautious about enflaming the fires of lynching, unprovoked beatings and murder, and the burning down of his facilities during a dark and infamous period in American history that is all too well documented. (For this man, unlike many of his detractors was in a position of leadership over students whose parents entrusted them to him, and if the institution were burned to the ground with several casualties because he spoke what others thought he should speak, one need only have a rudimentary historical imagination to understand the consequences of this.) On the other hand, he could hardly deny that the racial atrocities and social injustices committed against African-Americans solely based upon their ancestry and skin color could go unnoticed or unspoken on such a prominent platform. Thus, he-like most persons who have ever successfully led or spoken to diverse and multiple constituencies-followed a three-prong approach in his address: 1. “First [he] wanted to be very sure to state the exact truth…” (One will never go awry in speaking a plain statement of facts to audiences without regard to how such facts are received. As J.K. Miller wrote: “It is not the truth that people cannot handle. It is the consequences that stem from that truth.”) 2. Second, “there were some things that I felt should be said to the colored people and some others to the white people;”(It is a poor, paltry and partial speaker or leader indeed who makes one-dimensional arguments and directs messages of truth to one racial, socioeconomic, ethnic or cultural group or another.) The greatest speakers and leaders transcend such categorizations and will inevitably share truth that falls wherever it may. Third, “aside from these considerations [he] wanted to so deport [himself] as not to make such an impression as would prevent a similar opportunity being offered to some other colored man in the south.” (Make no mistake, one’s words and actions in leadership always set precedents for those who come afterward. While one’s conscience and sense of “speaking one’s mind” may lead one to offer a torrent of remarks without regard to one’s constituency, the prudent leader exercises restraint for he or she knows that his words and leadership impacts someone other than himself.) And this final regard is the hallmark of Booker T. Washington’s leadership at the helm of Tuskegee Institute (University). Possessing real and actual responsibility with respect to others deepens one’s commitment and capacity for serving others and lessens one’s commitment and capacity for serving one’s self.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University