Booker T. Washington and the “Atlanta Compromise”

Words have meaning. Unscrupulous and tyrannical forces use them to persuade the happily ignorant. From “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy” to “The Principles of Newspeak” Orwell warned that language can be used to change minds. Without this truism totalitarianism in whatever form would not be possible. Calling Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address the Atlanta Compromise does exactly what Orwell described. The effect is that it diminishes the range of thought meant to be associated with the speech.

The 1990 Oxford Dictionary defines compromise as “the settlement of a dispute by mutual concession”. So what dispute was settled in Atlanta? The following is often pointed out as part of the compromise.

“In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”

Britannica claims that Washington is asking whites to improve economic conditions for all in exchange for separateness and not allowing things to devolve into “ignorance and crime” from a lack of help. This is what they say is the compromise. Again, words have meaning. Washington is pointing out the likely consequence of inaction. As well the left is lying or is historically ignorant about what Washington meant.

After the speech Mr. Washington received a letter from a famous Northerner named Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney. In it she expressed concern about his socially separate statement. Here is Washington’s response.

“I understand that there are a great many things in the south which southern white people class as social intercourse that is not really so. If anybody understood me as meaning that riding in the same railroad car or sitting in the same room at a railroad station is social intercourse they certainly got a wrong idea of my position.”

Washington was showing adult leadership and describing a hopeful way out of the mess the South was in. He ends his speech with a call “to administer absolute justice, in a willing obedience among all classes to the mandates of law and a spirit that will tolerate nothing but the highest equity in the enforcement of law.” There was no compromise.

Career consultant turned substitute teacher and writer. I enjoy the outdoors and poker.

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