Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington literally pulled himself up by his own bootstraps to become one of the most articulate and influential educators in the nation. Founder of the Tuskegee Institute, author of a number of books, and popular speaker, he always emphasized the importance of education, hard work, and self-discipline for the advancement of African-Americans.
Washington became a celebrity, much in demand as a speaker and lecturer around the country and as a consultant and confidante to powerful politicians and community leaders. Though he was criticized by some because he refused to use his influence for direct political agitation, he had obviously begun the long process toward the reconciliation of long sundered communities and races.
He was asked to deliver an address at the Cotton States’ Exposition on this day in 1895. The invitation was noteworthy in and of itself since his audience would include both white and black Southerners. As a result, his speech received enormous attention throughout the country—it helped galvanize public opinion in favor of black self-improvement.
Thus, he argued in that famous speech, “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. There is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all. If anywhere there are efforts tending to curtail the fullest growth of the Negro, let these efforts be turned into stimulating, encouraging, and making him the most useful and intelligent citizen. Effort or means so invested will pay a thousand percent interest. These efforts will be twice blessed—blessing him that gives and him that takes. There is no escape through law of man or God from the inevitable: The laws of changeless justice bind oppressor with oppressed; And close as sin and suffering joined, we march to fate abreast.”
Washington had already instilled his philosophy of hard work, competence, and community-mindedness in thousands of students all across the country who were making a substantive difference in the welfare of African-American families, churches, neighborhoods, and businesses. And now, that message was going out to the entire nation, thus ushering in a new era of civil rights for all Americans.