As anticipated on September 18, 1895 Washington delivered the most important public
address of his life, known to future commentators as the Atlanta Compromise Speech, a
speech in which he called on fellow Blacks to a) remain among those who knew them best,
"the Southern white man, who is their next door neighbor," b) focus educational
efforts on developing immediately marketable skills, and focus on relevant and
"practical" marketable education instead of foreign languages and non-productive
information, c) understand that Blacks and
whites could be united in economics and separated in politics. Hence the oft'
quoted line: "In all things that are purely social (i.e., political) we can be as
separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual
progress." The basic subtext
of this speech was that if Black political activism had not been aggravating white
leadership, lynching would not have reached a historic high point, in 1892, of one
lynch-mob murder every 48 hours, nor would Black emigration conferences have led to the
March 19, 1895 departure of the seagoing vessel "Horsa" for Liberia with 200
Black passengers. The use of the borrowed
ocean metaphor in the "cast down your buckets where you are" portions of his
speech doubtless was inspired by the Liberian exodus fever.
The impact of the speech exceeded everyone's expectation. Whites were jubilant; Blacks were non-plussed, many angry. Georgia's Governor Bullock dashed across the platform and violated a Southern taboo by profusely shaking Washington's hand, leading a horde of other whites to do the same. Throughout the auditorium, white men nearly went berserk. Harlan writes that "white Southern women ecstatically pulled flowers from the bosoms of their dresses and rained them upon the Black man on the stage." Newspapers from coast to coast carried news of the speech and soon copies of it were everywhere. Washington returned to Tuskegee in a triumphant daze, and soon faced an avalanche of requests for additional speaking engagements. He more than satisfied the white North and South; for whites his ideas represented a simple but powerful formula for moral closure on the issue of race relations in the ex-Confederate states. Clark Howell, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Georgia's leading newspaper, spoke for many whites when he declared that "That man's speech is the beginning of a moral revolution in America."