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Time knits together these giants of Black history

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Booker T. Washington

In 1895, in Atlanta, the Cotton States and International Exposition put a spotlight on the New South to showcase an American future. People from all over attended this world’s fair, where the latest innovations in textiles and agriculture were on exhibit, along with electrical appliances, imported whiskies and more. Societal improvements were on display, too. An editorial in Scientific American declared the event would be “the day of reconciliation between the Whites and the Negroes”.

W.E.B. du Bois

But the New South was up to its old tricks. States were sidestepping the post-Civil War constitutional amendments mandating equal justice and barring racial discrimination in voting. So, at the opening ceremony, esteemed educator Booker T. Washington laid out his vision for how Black people could resist the backsliding, telling the rapt audience, “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracised.” Honest work and economic self-sufficiency were the way forward; social equality would wait. This was the Atlanta Compromise.

Renowned sociologist and author W.E.B. du Bois had other ideas, believing that political action and enforcement of civil rights protections would make the South and the nation anew. He suggested this work be led by a “Talented Tenth”, a select few college-educated men who would embody “the ideals of the community”, directing “its thoughts and head[ing] its social movements”. Equality would not wait. The exceptional Black men would see to that.

The Washington-Du Bois debate captures the essence of a nation in a way that is particularly American and particularly Black. It is a shared history. Washington chastised Du Bois’s approach as elitist, scoffing that it is better to “earn a dollar in a factory” than “spend a dollar in an opera house”. Du Bois responded that a people not educated in the systems of democracy and justice would never get much of either, no matter how much they sweat. How can Black people best find the America that others enjoy? It was a question to the people as much as to a country.

And not just a question. This debate offers a peek into the nation’s tendencies, at its nature and character. A core tension exists in the United States between an economic prosperity in which everyone is paid their fair share and a democracy where everyone has a voice. We are a people who can’t agree on which is more important. Or where we should put more energy. Or who’s allowed to participate and how. There’s always compromise; sometimes it’s the only way. But someone must tell the others that they don’t get to benefit this time, that they don’t get democracy just yet.

The Atlanta expo offered a snapshot of a New South where economic growth might make space for everyone, even for the people democracy excluded. Prosperity, the editorial declared, means that “political, economic and racial problems have been solved”. But this was fool’s gold to Du Bois. Better that the Talented Tenth venture out from the Black community as collegiate emissaries, advocating in the halls of power and returning with knowledge and rights. A people so equipped could succeed in any market they choose. They will just need to make a living until the heroes come home, if they return at all.

This was more than an intellectual exercise. Exploitive sharecropping arrangements made Black prosperity impossibly difficult at the time, even in a thriving economy. Poll taxes and literacy tests pried away the vote earned in the Civil War and more than one million American casualties. Violence, and the threat of it, were ever-present. Some of the Talented Tenth ventured off and were lynched. Some of Washington’s earnest labourers were, too.

So the New South modelled at the expo failed to materialise. The Old South refused to die, finding redemption instead. Over the next 70 years, transformational legislation, executive action and judicial rulings arrived. The history of those decades suggests that a people denied their equal rights will not give up until they have them. And if Black history has taught the United States nothing else, it’s that equality gets tired of waiting. The civil rights movement brought the long-overdue national correction, a prized win belonging in equal measure to Washington’s workers and Du Bois’s Tenth’ers. A win for the country as much as for the people.

The men never reconciled their views, but the goal of making the United States truer to its ideals was always shared. Washington spent his later years manoeuvring with the political elite to direct resources to the Black South. Du Bois abandoned the Talented Tenth idea, coming to believe that democratic equality was nearly impossible because the nation’s economic practices often leave the worker behind, especially a Black one. Atlanta today proves the value of their disparate approaches, as well as the insufficiency of each. It has become a place where it’s nothing to see Black people earn with their hands in the day and enjoy the theatre by night. The same is true elsewhere, in the South and in the United States. But they still must work harder for prosperity, and fight more for inclusion.

Washington finished his exposition speech with optimism that America could address its race problem and make justice accessible to all. “This, coupled with our material prosperity,” he vowed, “will bring into our beloved South a new heaven and a new earth.” It’s a dream particularly American, and particularly Black. And unavailable for compromise.

Theodore R. Johnson, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and retired naval officer, writes on issues of race, democracy and American identity

• Theodore R. Johnson, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and retired naval officer, writes on issues of race, democracy and American identity. He is the author of the forthcoming book “If We Are Brave" and 2021’s "When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America."

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Published February 29, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated February 29, 2024 at 7:16 am)

Time knits together these giants of Black history

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