Booker T. Washington as Ambassador and Spokesman

by Kelly Miller
Excerpts from Roosevelt and the Negro by Kelly Miller

The Booker Washington Dinner

A simple act of civility on part of the President towards an eminent colored American, culled down upon his head the fires of wrath of his white brethren in the South. Dr. Booker T. Washington the consulting statesman for the Negro race, was invited to dinner at the White House. There is, perhaps, no other person in America of like standing and relation to public questions, who has not received such semi-official courtesy. But immediately a mighty storm arose. Had the President suddenly turned traitor and flagrantly violated our most sacred religious or moral code he could not have been more bitterly or blatantly denounced. That two gentlemen of world-wide reputation and of congenial temperament should occasionally sit together at meat might naturally be expected anywhere outside of the Brahmin caste. Mr. Washington is our only domestic ambassador.

He has been picked out and set up as the representative of an overshadowed nation surrounded by an overshadowing one. An ambassador usually has immediate access to the presence of the chief ruler to whom he is accredited without the intermeddling of official understrappers. Nice courtesies and high civilities usually accompany diplomatic procedure. Should the representative from Corea or Hayti or Turkey be invited to dine alone with the president at the White House the act would hardly be construed into one of social intimacy, but it would be regarded merely as a convenient opportunity to consult over some weighty matters of state. Indeed, only a few days after the famous Washington dinner a red Indian chief who had not passed beyond the blanket and feather stage of civilization was received by the president and the incident only excited curious pleasantry. Mr. Washington has mingled in close pleasant personal touch with princes and potentates of the old world and with merchant princes and money barons of the new. He is entirely familiar with high social favors. The colored race has not the slightest concern with whom Mr. Washington, in his personal capacity, may or may not be invited to dine. A man's dinner list is his private affair. It is the prerogative of every citizen to extend, accept or decline such invitation, according to the dictates of his own taste and pleasure. But to affirm as a principle that the man who is looked upon as the chiefest among ten million, in his ambassadorial capacity, is not eligible to the established modes of courtesy, at the high court of the nation, cannot be accepted with satisfaction by any manly man of the blood thus held in despite.

These acts on the part of the president evoked the highest plaudits from the colored race. It was felt that his views were broad, based upon the fundamental principle of our institutions which accord to all classes of citizens the same official consideration and courtesy. Indeed, these laudations became so loud and fulsome that they must have proved embarrassing to one who did not pose as the special champion of an unpopular class.

Booker Washington as a Spokesman

Dr. Booker T. Washington has been chosen as [referee] at large and as the sole spokesman for the entire Negro race. His selection was not due to his political activity or experience, for the whole tenor of his teaching has been to persuade his race to place less proportional stress on politics and to concentrate its energies upon things economic and material. But by reason of his general prominence and the world-wide esteem he has put in command of political forces, to the relegation of war scarred veterans who had borne the heat and burden of the day. Othello naturally objects to his loss of occupation. Most of them have yielded, but only after they learned that the only road to official favor was the straight and narrow path that leads to Tuskegee. No Negro, whether in Vermont or Texas, whatever has been his service to the party, can expect to receive consideration at the hands of the president unless he gets the approval of the great educator. It should, in all fairness, be said that this position was not of Mr. Washington's own seeking. It has on more than one occasion caused him serious embarrassment. It might seem that active participation in politics would impair his usefulness along other lines to which he has devoted the chief energies of his life. It is needless to say, as some are wont to aver, that Mr. Washington's function as adviser to the president does not make him a practical political participant. The procurement of office and the manipulations incident thereto are the chief concern of the typical politician. Mr. Washington was impressed into this service on the demand of the president which no patriotic citizen feels inclined to refuse. Indeed there is no prominent Negro who would not have accepted the assignment upon the slightest intimation that he might be the presidential choice. That Mr. Washington has filled the assignment with an eye single to the best interest of his race is wholly aside from the merits of the question. Mr. Roosevelt would readily assent to the proposition that the political boss is an undesirable person. And yet he has set up Mr. Washington as the boss of ten millions, and commanded the rest to obey him on penalty of political disfavor. He has put at his disposal the means by which all bosses retain their influence - the persuasive power of public patronage. For where the patronage is, there the subserviency of the politician will be also. This policy is not calculated to teach the Negro the needed lesson in self-government and manly political activity.

Should succeeding administrations follow Mr. Roosevelt's example in this regard the Negro would remain in perpetual thraldom to an intermediary boss set up at the whim or caprice of whoever happens to be president. We cannot hope that every administration will be as fortunate in its selection as Mr. Roosevelt has been. Contemplation of the continuance of such conditions is repugnant to every principle of manly American polities. |