Freedom’s Just Another Word: The “Atlanta Compromise”

Monday Oct. 9 6-8 pm

Harold Washington Library

6th Floor North Study Room

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At this Critical Theory Chicago event, we will discuss the “Atlanta Exposition Speech” through Booker T. Washington’s reflections and W.E.B. DuBois’ rebuttal.

The readings for this Meetup are: 

1. Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, Chapter XIV: The Atlanta Exposition Address (text here –>BTW)

2. W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter III: Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others (text here –>WEBD)

Following the end of legal slavery in the United States and the era of Reconstruction, African Americans were confronted with a variety of strategies for attaining full equality with their compatriots. Among these were two particular strategies that are often thought to be diametrically opposed in virtually every respect: Booker T. Washington’s “bottom-up” strategy and W.E.B. DuBois’ “top-down” strategy.

We will analyze their competing strategies on civil rights and race relations by focusing on Washington’s address to the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition (Atlanta Exposition), a widely-circulated speech that foreshadowed and preceded by one year the US Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision establishing the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’. Despite his contemporaneous approval, DuBois later scorned the speech’s strategy, dubbing it the “Atlanta Compromise”.

Along the way, we will savor an all-too-rare civil discourse on a matter of the utmost gravity. Who do you find the most persuasive? What would you have recommended?


Some optional background on the authors:

Booker T. Washington, born a slave in Virginia in 1856, rose in true Horatio Alger fashion to the pinnacle of African-American leadership until his death in 1915. Educated at Hampton and Wayland Seminary, both historically black institutions, Washington was named the first head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His address to the mostly white audience of business folks at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895 rocketed Washington to national prominence, as newspapers across the US reprinted his speech.

Following publication of his wildly popular 1901 autobiography Up from Slavery, Washington was invited to dine at the White House, prompting a vicious backlash from Southern politicians. “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n***** will necessitate our killing a thousand n*****s in the South before they will learn their place again.”

Born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the sociologist and author W.E.B. DuBois had a very different upbringing than Washington and other Southern African Americans. DuBois’ first encounter with Southern racism while studying at Tennessee’s Fisk University (HBU) changed him. “A new loyalty and allegiance replaced my Americanism: henceforward I was a Negro.” DuBois did graduate work at the University of Berlin and became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, studying under William James.

As a professor at Atlanta University (HBU), DuBois published “The Philadelphia Negro”, a landmark scientific sociological study. His 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk begins with a bold assertion: “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”. He spoke of the “double consciousness” of African Americans: “One ever feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

A co-founder of the NAACP, DuBois was highly influenced by Marx and embraced Pan-Africanism, spending his final years in Ghana. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed a year after his death.

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