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.
-Booker T. Washington, Cotton States International Exhibition, Atlanta, September 18, 1895
Few speeches of any merit can easily be distilled down into just one line and, indeed, it is worth reading this one in full and listening to the surviving recording of Washington himself delivering an excerpt from it.
That said, the preceding quotation is one of Washington’s most-cited phrases from a speech that became widely known as the “Atlanta Compromise”, and it is most often quoted by those who characterize Washington as a racial “accommodationist”. More than any other single word, this one encapsulates the enduring controversy surrounding Washington’s character and significance as the undisputed, though not uncontested, leader of his race at the turn of the century.
This controversy itself is so significant when it comes to thinking about History as to make the question “Was Booker T. Washington a great leader?” insufficient. The mere mention of Washington – particularly in light of more recent biographies, most notably Robert J. Norrell’s Up from History – begs essential questions: What is a great leader? For any particular time? For all times? Can anyone truly claim to be “a man for all seasons”?
Images: Original poster for the Cotton States International Exhibition (left), Booker T. Washington delivering the Atlanta speech