CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- What we choose to remember or forget tells us much about who we are as a people. Almost none of us, African American or white, knows that this year marks the centennial of a turning point in African-American, and therefore, American history. One hundred years ago this week, on September 18, 1895, Booker T. Washington, the principal of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, made a famous speech that rocketed him out of obscurity into national prominence as white America's hand-picked leader of black America.
What did he say, and where are we now, 100 years later?
We all have good reason to want to forget this event. To the extent that anyone remembers Washington today, it is as the prototypical Uncle Tom, holding his hat in hand and accepting the white South's scheme of segregation and disfranchisement.
Recent historical judgment has been kinder to Washington and more harsh in delineating the world he inhabited. By 1895, civil rights had only a handful of white friends in the North, and none in the South. Washington, a skillful broker, recognized the ugly truth and tried to barter a faltering civil-rights movement for education and economic advancement.
His speech at the Atlanta Exposition was dramatic. In 1895 it was unheard of for a black man to speak on a platform with Southern whites. African Americans were under fierce attack. There had been 150 African-American victims of lynching in 1892. Mississippi disfranchised black voters in 1890, and South Carolina was doing so even as Washington spoke. The next year the Plessy case would make "separate but equal" segregation the law of the land.
Nevertheless the emerging businessmen of the South wanted to impress upon their northern counterparts that the region was racially stable enough to return profits on Yankee investment. They invited Washington to speak at their Exposition before an audience of whites, African Americans sitting in a Jim Crow section, and Northern businessmen, each of whom had a separate agenda.
As Washington entered the platform with the white speakers, there was an audible murmur of disapproval, and when he rose to speak there was a stony silence from the whites. By the time he was done, the entire crowd, black and white, was on its feet cheering, and the governor of Georgia was shaking his hand.
Central to his speech were two visual images. A ship lost at sea drifted until its water supply was gone. Finally another vessel appeared, and the distressed ship signaled for help and water. "Cast down your buckets where you are," replied the second ship, and lo, the sailors realized they had drifted into a fresh-water river. What did this mean to the divided audience? The South would get no salvation from outside. Black and white Southerners would have to work together to keep the ship of agriculture and industry afloat.
The second image indicated the terms of this working relationship. Spreading his fingers apart, and then closing them into a fist, Washington declared that, "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."
As biographer Louis R. Harlan recounts, "the whole audience leaped to its feet in delirious applause." Washington thus stole the show from the main speaker. Because President Grover Cleveland threw a switch from his Cape Cod, Mass., summer home miraculously to start the fair's fountains, the event was covered widely, and all accounts of it featured Washington's speech.
African-American opinion was generally favorable. The simple fact of his disarming a hostile white crowd -- or speaking at all -- swayed many. W.E.B. Du Bois, then an unknown professor, congratulated Washington, and a few years later the black nationalist Marcus Garvey took Washington as his role model. Some northern African-American editors denounced the speech, and in 1901 Boston's William Monroe Trotter launched a newspaper specifically to challenge Washington's ideas.
Whites North and South approved the speech, and Mary Stearns, whose deceased husband had conspired with John Brown to launch a slave rebellion, thought it would set the tone for the next hundred years.
The next hundred years
Has it? As with so much in contemporary race relations, the answer is yes and no. The real work of the next hundred years was done by Washington's growing body of opponents, who founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and took up the struggle that ultimately ended de jure segregation and disfranchisement. Washington himself was a maze of contradictions who waged a dirty war against his African-American opponents while secretly supporting civil-rights efforts. His personal journey reflected the schizophrenia of American racism.
I find his two visual images haunting. We are as a ship lost at sea, signaling for external rescue while fearing to cast down our buckets where we are. Whites externalize social problems by calling for more prisons and harsher punishment of disproportionately African-American criminals, and sacrificing on the altar of the balanced budget social policies that might fundamentally change our ghettoized nation.
But if we cast down our buckets where we are, among the disadvantaged youth, we will come up not with brine but with fresh water. If we begin a national conversation on race relations, we might collectively consider that investing in the education of minority youth now will pay off later. A social policy that promotes full employment, and regards the plague of guns and drugs as a public-health problem rather than the crimes of evil individuals, would be the modern equivalent of looking to ourselves for solutions.
As for Washington's second image, I profoundly doubt that "we can be as separate as the fingers," in any matters -- social, economic, educational or political -- and survive as a nation. Unfortunately, Booker T. Washington has here proved to be prophetic.
But if the civil-rights revolution has taught us anything, it is that problems that seem insurmountable can be overcome by long, hard struggle. We are living through the counter-revolution against that movement, just as Washington spoke during the reaction against the gains of the Reconstruction era. Yet, if we do cast down our buckets where we are, we can become a nation that lives not separately as the fingers of the hand, but as one nation, intermingled, friendly and equal.
Mark Schneider teaches American history at Lesley College.