Booker T. Washington – Civil Rights Activist

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Booker T. Washington: once a slave, beat down and told he could do nothing, accomplish nothing; now an example to all men, white and colored, raised above others. Why? Hard work and a desire to do good in this world.

Booker T. Washington was a young African American male born into the restrained life of Southern slavery. With the Union victory in the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Washington’s family and African Americans in the United States found hope in a new opportunity, freedom from the shackles that held them back. Washington saw this freedom as an opportunity to pursue an education. Washington persevered this idea of an education with high hopes and ultimately landed himself a spot at Hampton National Institute. At Hampton, his experiences and beliefs in industrial education contributed to his successful foundation at the Tuskegee Institute. The institute went on to become the main influence for African American education in the South. Booker T. Washington was an authoritative voice in the African American community following the Civil War.

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In his autobiography, Up from Slavery, Washington presents his personal accounts of his life, his achievements, and struggles. Washington overcame many obstacles throughout his life and became perhaps the most prominent African American leader of his time. In this autobiography, Washington argues that African Americans should attain a trade skill that enables them to find employment through meeting the economic needs of the South. By doing so, that would also lead to gaining morals, character and overall gaining more knowledge. His arguments are supported through his personal accounts as a student at Hampton Institute and as an administrator at the Tuskegee Institute.

Throughout the book, Up From Slavery, Washington presents a reoccurring theme of the value of education. He emphasizes this idea throughout his autobiography, because as a slave, he had been denied the right to learn and once he was free, like nearly every one of his race, he soaked up learning like a sponge. That is not the only thing Booker focuses on. Also, in the autobiography he introduces the nobility of work. Booker firmly believed that no education was complete without learning a trade. He believed that there was tremendous value in work and that his race would never rise up without being able to work a trade in their communities that was needed by every race. Booker believed that success is measured by the obstacles we have to overcome to reach it and not what we have attained. Mr. Washington felt that a man’s character was built by how many walls he had to climb over before he reached his goal. It was the process of achievement that was more important than the finished product.

Washington is writing to an audience that consisted of white Southerners and white Northerners, many of which had very little understanding of African American life outside of theatrical or newspaper accounts, and African American themselves. Washington manages to mock the south and its peculiar institution by employing the device of signification yet does so by using his own race as a device, almost like a double-edged sword.

Another aspect of Washington’s work is the biblical quality of his writing. This is a work about movement, a journey, and an underdog rising from the ashes. Washington’s life moves through the American landscape like Moses moved through the desert to his promised land. Moses educated the Israelites and took them the religious land of the Lord. Washington is similar to Moses because he brings education to the African Americas which allows them to gain access to new jobs and land in America. Washington then writes of his unselfishness between himself and former slaves who do not harbor any bitterness toward Southern whites.

It is hard for individuals to consider how hard it must have been to raise the mindset of an enslaved person once they had freedom. While the human soul craves independence, it does not automatically know how to use that liberty to the highest ends. Booker T. Washington’s approach to education of ex-slaves was extensive. He wanted to teach them everything about how to live civilized, useful lives of service and industry. Along with book learning, he taught them the simplest of skills that people today overlook like use a toothbrush, sleeping between the sheets of a bed, bathing daily, keeping their clothing clean, loving labor and avoiding indolence, learning marketable life-skills such as carpentry and brick-making, acquiring property, voting sensibly, worshiping and praying to God, and how to live moral lives.

This book was practical, hard-working, selfless, always hopeful and optimistic. He was also a sought-after public speaker with an ability to sway many to his cause and bring an audience into complete accord with him. There’s so much to learn from this work and not just about it. There is so much to discover in a life like Washington’s. While reading this book it was hard not to be thankful for everything in life that is often overlooked. People today in America are born with many luxuries that are given to them. Booker T. Washington started out with the clothes on his back and a dirt floor to sleep on. Education was a piece of paradise to him; food was a luxury beyond all comparison. Whereas today, people expect those items to be given to them without hesitation.

Up From Slavery is organized by topic which made it easy to understand and find specific content. Each chapter was a different topic and a new way to learn from Washington’s personal experiences. Up From Slavery begins with the story of Mr. Washington as a kid growing up a slave and his daily struggles. The first chapter gives an overall setting for what life was like for African Americans in the 1800s-1900s and how they were treated differently from the whites. The next few chapters are his story of growing up into a young man and when he realized his passion for education. Through the education it landed him in his early days at Tuskegee. The book continues focusing on the big and little moments of Booker T. Washington’s life all the way up until Europe and his last words. There is a total of 17 chapters and every single one is just as impactful as the next. There is an index that allows the reader to view key terms and information by simply looking in the back of the book which was extremely useful to find quick information and back up quotes about a main idea.

One of the weaknesses found in this book was that it reads more like a how to manual than the life story about a former slave. It was almost like Washington was sharing his experience as a way to show other slaves how to get through all the deep valleys he faced. This is debatable however, considering many individuals could view that as a strength instead of a weakness.

Washington closes Up From Slavery by reflecting on his legacy. The last chapter, titled Last Words, is a long celebration of his achievements and he expresses his hope for an end to the idea that the whites are more superior than the African Americans. Washington grounds his achievements within the lessons and teachings upon which Tuskegee was founded. This chapter Washington spends a majority of it quoting people who praise him and have looked up to him throughout the whole discriminatory actions against him. Wrapping up, he uses himself as proof that the race can advance. His story is definitely an unlikely one, but it shows how one can press on from the dark times of slavery to being one of the most respected and admired black leaders in all of American history. According to Washington himself;

I believe that any man’s life will be filled with constant, unexpected encouragements of this kind if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day of his lifethat is, tries to make each day reach as nearly as possible the high-water mark of pure, unselfish, useful living. I pity the man, black or white, who has never experienced the joy and satisfaction that come to one by reason of an effort to assist in making some one else more useful and more happy (143).

Not only does Washington recognize the impact he has made on many others, but he wishes the same thing for others and feels bad for those who never get to experience the joy he has received.

Up From Slavery should be viewed as a thinly disguised and subtly crafted literary masterpiece. All though this book was written in the 19th century, Washington’s views are still valid today. America can still learn from them. This book is a rollercoaster of setbacks interspersed with high points of success and optimism. Washington emphasizes the optimism and believes that people from both races living together in harmony is not only possible, but probable in spite of the negative history of slavery. One should love this book because Washington never communicates feeling sorry for himself and only his responsibility to help other African Americans succeed in a time when everything was against them. All Americans should read this book. Booker T. Washington is one of the nation’s greatest men, in which everyone no matter what race and ethnic background should learn from. No matter how modestly Washington tries to tell his story, the facts of his life shine with the brilliance of greatness.

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