Atlanta Exposition Speech

The Cotton States and International Exposition Speech was an address on the topic of race relations given by Booker T. Washington on September 18, 1895. The speech laid the foundation for the Atlanta compromise, an agreement between African-American leaders and Southern white leaders in which Southern blacks would work meekly and submit to white political rule, while Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic education and due process of law.

The speech,[1] presented before a predominantly white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition (the site of today's Piedmont Park) in Atlanta, Georgia, has been recognized as one of the most important and influential speeches in American history.[2] The speech was preceded by the reading of a dedicatory ode written by Frank Lebby Stanton.[3]

Washington began with a call to the blacks, who composed one third of the Southern population, to join the world of work. He declared that the South was where blacks were given their chance, as opposed to the North, especially in the worlds of commerce and industry. He told the white audience that rather than relying on the immigrant population arriving at the rate of a million people a year, they should hire some of the nation's eight million blacks. He praised blacks' loyalty, fidelity and love in service to the white population, but warned that they could be a great burden on society if oppression continued, stating that the progress of the South was inherently tied to the treatment of blacks and protection of their liberties.

He addressed the inequality between commercial legality and social acceptance, proclaiming that "The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house." Washington also suggested toleration of segregation by claiming that blacks and whites could exist as separate fingers of a hand.

The title "Atlanta Compromise" was given to the speech by W. E. B. Du Bois, who believed it was insufficiently committed to the pursuit of social and political equality for blacks.

Major Motifs/Similes

Cast down your bucket where you are

This phrase surfaced numerous times throughout Washington's speech.[4] Generally, the phrase had different meanings for whites and blacks. For whites, Washington seemed to be challenging their common misperceptions of black labor. The North had been experiencing labor troubles in the early 1890s (Homestead Strike, Pullman Strike, etc.) and Washington sought to capitalize on these issues by offering Southern black labor as an alternative, especially since his Tuskegee Institute was in the business of training such workers. For blacks, however, the "Bucket motif" represented a call to personal uplift and diligence, as the South needed them to rebuild following the Civil War.

Separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand

This phrase appeared at the end of the speech's fifth paragraph.[5] It is commonly referred to as the "Hand simile." Certain historians, like Louis Harlan, saw this simile as Washington's personal embrace of racial segregation.[6] The entire simile reads as follows:

In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.[5]

Ultimately, many Southern whites (Porter King, William Yates Atkinson, etc.) praised Washington for including such a simile, because it effectively disarmed any immediate threat posed by blacks toward segregation (accommodationism).


  1. Text of Atlanta Compromise Speech
  2. "Atlanta Compromise Speech". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 8 July 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-08.
  3. Stanton's ode began with "Behold To-Day the Meeting of the Lands" (see "South's New Epoch" article from the New York World, 1895 September 18, in the Papers of Booker T. Washington 1895-1898, pp. 3-15). Archived 2011-06-04 at the Wayback Machine
  4. Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (Lexington: Tribeca Books, 2013), p. 106.
  5. Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (Lexington: Tribeca Books, 2013), p. 107.
  6. Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972)
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