Booker T. Washington Quotes

“Character, not circumstances, makes the man.” — BTW

Booker T. Washington. Public domain.

Last week I was reminded of how much American history I have yet to learn when I published a guest post at Ennyman’s Territory about a little girl’s dream. It’s a tale about a nine-year-old black girl who wonders what black people have accomplished besides picking cotton. God opens her eyes, revealing the many roles American Americans have played in our history.

The story prompted me to fill in some of the gaps in my own understanding of American history. We’re familiar with the names, but how well do we know their stories. Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas — these are just the beginning of a long list of names that deserve higher recognition for their courage and contributions.

I’ve often reflected on how lacking we are in courage today. Fear of being ostracized keeps many from being open about their feelings or opinions. In the Jim Crow south, speaking out against racial injustice could cost you your life.

Historically, there have been two approaches to the race issue, apart from silent resignation. In our own time (I am referring to the post-WW2 era Fifties and Sixties) these approaches are best exemplified by Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King. (Cf. Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting.) Or perhaps Dr. King and the Black Panthers.

At the turn of the last century, circa 1900, the polar positions were occupied by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Washington devoted himself to helping Blacks become educated, successful entrepreneurs. He did not feel that empowerment would come through handouts. Hence his lifetime commitment to Tuskegee University and making it a powerful force for Blacks.

His influence went far beyond the walls of Tuskegee Institute. As an orator, writer, spokesman he was a leading voice for Black empowerment. Behind the scenes he confronted the authorities and mounted legal challenges against segregation.

For a time he and W.E.B Du Bois were aligned in the battle to improve the circumstances for African Americans, though later Du Bois became critical of his “go slow” approach, which Washington preached because he believed a fast revolutionary approach would create a backlash.

To this day there is a divide in the African American community, in part along these lines.

Washington understood the nuances of the political arena in his time, which enabled his to gain support from the media, to raise money, distribute funds and punish those who opposed his plans to lift up blacks. His long-term goal was to end the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of African Americans, who then still lived in the South.

According to Wikipedia:

In addition to his contributions in education, Washington wrote 14 books; his autobiography, Up from Slavery, first published in 1901, is still widely read today. During a difficult period of transition, he did much to improve the working relationship between the races. His work greatly helped blacks to achieve education, financial power, and understanding of the U.S. legal system. This contributed to blacks’ attaining the skills to create and support the civil rights movement, leading to the passage in the later 20th century of important federal civil rights laws.

The distilled essence of Washington’s view can be succinctly stated like this:

“Commerce, entrepreneurial capitalism takes more people out of poverty than aid — of course, we know that.”

Though Capitalism has many opponents, this article from Reason magazine states that for the first time in human history, because of free market capitalism, more than half the people in the world are middle class or wealthier. This is quite an astonishing statement.

Booker T. Washington saw this more than a century ago, hence his efforts to help people of color become self-sufficient through hard work a creative application of their skills and talents.

What follows are some quotes from this influential and visionary leader.

“The world cares very little what you or I know, but it does care a great deal about what you or I do.”
Account of the Boston Riot

“I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”
Up From Slavery

“There is no power on earth, that can neutralize the influence of a high, pure, simple and useful life.”
The Virtue of Simplicity

“From some things that I have said one may get the idea that some of the slaves did not want freedom. This is not true. I have never seen one who did not want to be free, or one who would return to slavery.”
Up From Slavery

“I pity from the bottom of my heart any nation or body of people that is so unfortunate as to get entangled in the net of slavery.”
Up From Slavery

“There is no escape — man drags man down, or man lifts man up.”
The Great Quotations

“The unprecedented leap the Negro made when freed from the oppressing withes of bondage is more than deserving of a high place in history. It can never be chronicled. The world needs to know of what mettle these people are built.”
Introduction: The Progress of a Race

I learned the lesson that great men cultivate love, and that only little men cherish a spirit of hatred. I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak.
Making Their Beds Before They Could Lie On Them

“There is another class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.”
The Intellectuals and the Boston Mob

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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