James Lee Dickey: An Analysis of One African-American's Leadership in Jim Crow Texas

The Speech

The Atlanta Cotton States Exposition in 1895 propelled Booker T. Washington into the national prominence. Since the exposition was a forum to spotlight the New South, the organizers believed a black speaker would impress the world with the South's progressivism. Booker T. Washington was their natural choice because he advised his people to own their own land, stay out of debt, and to support conservative government. While he wasn't too radical, his participation was unique enough to show how progressive the South had become.
Washington realized he faced a minefield. In the past he had addressed Northern whites in one appearance, Southern whites at another, and fellow blacks separately.  At the Cotton States Exposition, all would comprise his audience. His life goal was racial uplift for his people but circumstances demanded extreme delicacy. Sensing hostility from the predominantly white crowd at the Exposition, Washington sought to ease tension by thanking the organizers for generously permitting Negroes to exhibit at the fair. He acknowledged that Negroes had mistakenly sought political equality during Reconstruction; they had started at the top instead of at the bottom. He instructed his black audience that considered relocation as a solution to the Negro problem to "cast down their buckets where you are" for work and homes. Since 90% of African Americans lived in the South, he urged them to remain and make friends with Southern whites. He reassured Southern whites that most Negroes would "live by the productions of our hands.“ He continued, "there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” He also encouraged the white audience to cast down their buckets locally to hire their black neighbors rather than the numerous European immigrants that had recently arrived in the United States. He assured his audience that Negroes did not want social equality. “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,” he said. Washington stood firm that the rights and privileges of American citizens were due African Americans, but for now, it was more important for Negroes to prepare for those responsibilities through economic progress. With this speech, Booker T. Washington introduced a new direction for race relations.

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