Celebrating Booker T. Washington (and a Challenge to Our Readers)

Washington Promoted Education, Entrepreneurship, and Integrity

Today marks the 160th birthday of a truly remarkable American, Booker T. Washington.

The message of Washington, who was born into slavery, was what he called “self-help” through education, employment, and entrepreneurship. He also stressed personal integrity. “Character,” he said, “not circumstances, make the man.”

He founded the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama to educate blacks and help them develop their talents in America’s industrial society. He felt business enterprise would be the ticket to progress. “More and more thoughtful students of the race problem,” he said, “are beginning to see that business and industry constitute what we may call the strategic points in its solution.”

It would be fitting, given today’s anniversary of his birth, for me to write much more about him here, but I’d like to take this in a different direction. However, the interested reader will benefit enormously by reading Washington’s famous autobiography, Up From Slavery or reading this article about him in the August 1988 issue of the Freeman.

Consider this well-known and cogent observation of Washington’s: “The world cares very little what you or I know, but it does care a great deal about what you or I do.” He had a bias for action, but it was not for politics. He wrote,

The temptations to enter political life were so alluring that I came very near yielding to them at one time, but I was kept from doing so by the feeling that I would be helping in a more substantial way by assisting in the laying of the foundation of the race through a generous education of the hand, head, and heart. I saw colored men who were members of the state legislature, and county officers, who, in some cases, could not read or write, and whose morals were as weak as their education.

Washington’s bias for action wasn’t simply to talk about it but to do it. He gave plenty of speeches in his life, but he was most proud of his work to educate and inspire young black men and women. He worked closely with them, founded and managed a college, and helped untold thousands escape poverty by focusing on self-improvement and entrepreneurship.

If you believe in Booker T. Washington’s powerful message — which is very much in sync with our message here at FEE — I’d like to acquaint you with an organization that bears his name, the Booker T. Washington Society. Its core program employs Washington’s words and deeds to inspire the creation of Booker T. Clubs, primarily for students in middle schools who stand to benefit the most from the club’s positive emphasis on character, education, and opportunity to assure a successful life.

The founder of the Society, Mr. Ron Court, is a friend of mine. Over drinks last month in Atlanta, I told him,

Ron, we need to help you get the word out about your important work! Wouldn’t it be terrific if hundreds of individuals or service clubs or other organizations all over this country were to start or adopt local Booker T. Clubs in schools?

I’m going to write a few words about this for FEE on Washington’s 160th birthday. I’d like to challenge our readers to develop the very bias for action that he had and get involved with the Society.

Well, reader, you have hereby been challenged.

What are your next steps? Here they are, in proper order:

  • Read up on the Society by visiting its web site, btwsociety.org.
  • Sign up on their site to receive a free copy of the Society’s signature booklet, “Booker T. Washington: American Hero.” When you read it, imagine what could happen if a million students were given a copy to read.
  • Drop Ron an email at [email protected] and ask him how you can either support an existing Booker T. Club in a public or private school, or how to get a new one going in a school in your community. If you’re a member of a service club such as Rotary or Kiwanis, consider making the sponsorship of a BTW Club at a local school one of your organization’s projects.

If you have even the slightest interest in motivating young students to appreciate the values that Booker T. Washington represented, this is your chance to do more than talk about it. I hope you’ll get involved!

More by Lawrence W. Reed