The Spirit of Booker T.

With current scuffles over who gets to be in charge next, writing about Newt Gingrich’s second-place finishes in two Republican primaries in Alabama and Mississippi after he won the primaries in South Carolina and Georgia would be kind of pointless— Santorum prayed louder so he won, and the news media moved right along to some place else. Roy Moore, the “Ten Commandments Judge,” might have made a somewhat compelling subject since he won Alabama’s recent Republican primary for state Supreme Court Chief Justice and now moves one step closer to getting back the job that a federal judge took away from him for refusing to move his intrepidly placed monument back in 2003. But that’s like shooting fish in a barrel, too. The South’s “one-party system,” as V.O. Key, Jr. called it in his 1949 book Southern Politics: In State and Nation, has done little more than shift in recent decades from a Democratic “Solid South” to a Republican same-darn-thing.  Boring. There’s almost nothing more boring than conservative political domination— I guess, unless you’re one of the conservative people doing the dominating. Beyond that, neither Newt nor “Sanctorum” will be the GOP’s national nominee, and Roy Moore’s brand of in-your-face Southern evangelism has been overly documented in infinitesimal sources ranging from texts of hell-fire-and-brimstone sermons to John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible— now, that zealotry just wanders around in the cultural limbo between stereotype and punchline. So let’s talk about something else instead . . .

To start with, if he were still alive, Booker T. Washington would be turning 156 years old today. Washington was an intensely dedicated hard-worker whose contributions to the lives of African Americans in the South is undeniable. His best-known project, Tuskegee Institute, is still in operation – now called Tuskegee University – and some of the buildings that Washington and his earliest students built (with bricks they made on-site) are still standing and in use. Founded in 1881 with an original appropriation of $2000, Tuskegee Institute began in a “one-room shanty” and grew through communal hard work, shrewd administrative leadership, and a great deal of didactic fervor. Washington led the school from its inception until his death in 1915. The Institute later grew to include a VA hospital, where a black staff served black soldiers, and the training facilities for the now-famous Tuskegee Airmen.

I’ve been over to Tuskegee a few times and seen that beautiful campus nestled right in the heart of an otherwise severely depressed town. The contrast between the school and its host city is sharp and unable to be ignored. The last time I went, I took my little white Echo off of I-65 at the Shorter exit, and got onto US Highway 82, which threads through rural Macon County, one of the poorest counties in the nation. Once you get near the campus, winding pot-holed streets lead the way through numerous abandoned buildings, and then the beautifully clean and classically squared-off buildings of Tuskegee University couldn’t offer a better comparison-contrast model for what education and resources can allow versus what a lack of education resources can cause.

The now-abandoned Thomas Reed’s Chit’lin House Chicken Coop near the gates of Tuskegee University

Yet, for all of the back-and-forth politicized banter that I hear these days, I suggest reading Up from Slavery, one of the great books of the South, to get a sense of what a person can accomplish if dignity and determination are truly held paramount. Born into slavery in 1856 and freed at a young age, Booker T. Washington began working in salt furnaces and coal mines at age 9; later, after very little formal schooling, he walked to Hampton Institute in Virginia with no money, volunteered to earn his tuition and board by working as a janitor and groundskeeper, graduated at age 19, and became one the most important Americans of the late 19th century. To get a better sense of his ideas, you can also read his Atlanta Exposition Address, in which “Cast your bucket down where you are!” was his version of our modern “Think Global, Act Local.” Booker T. Washington was a man who didn’t just talk about improving life, his own or other people’s— he actually did it.

Though his ideas about how best to improve the lives of African Americans can be controversial, even today, Booker T. Washington’s real impact on Southern life can’t be understated. WJ Cash mentions him twice toward the end of The Mind of the South, first referencing the recognition of the value of his ideas and the failed attempts to implement them across racial lines, and second, in this short discussion about one assessment of his importance:

Again, the very next year [in 1903], John Spencer Bassett, then serving as a professor of history in Trinity College, a Methodist institution at Durham, North Carolina, which has since become Duke University, published an article in the South Atlantic Quarterly, issuing from Trinity and edited by himself, wherein he carried iconoclasm to the point of asserting that, after General Lee, Booker T. Washington, the Negro, was the greatest man born in the South in a century. (323)

And Cash wasn’t alone in tipping his hat to Washington. In his 1971 book The New South Creed, historian Paul Gaston wrote about Washington’s standing as a “new prophet of the New South movement” (212), then goes on to explain the significance of his being invited in 1895 to give his “Atlanta Exposition Address” and of his “masterly presentation” for a vision of the way life in the South could be.  So what did Washington actually do that was so great? In the introduction to an article titled  “The Educational Contributions of Booker T. Washington,” published in 1975 in The Journal of Negro Education, a researcher named – no kidding – Booker T. Gardner describes:

Under his leadership, Tuskegee became an outstanding educational institution in the field of teacher education, nursing and hospital education, industrial and household arts, and agriculture. Washington excelled in the art of teaching, writing and public speaking, through which avenues he influenced countless numbers of people. (502)

When we talk about Booker T. Washington, we have to recognize that these ideas we’re throwing around nowadays aren’t new— Washington had a pragmatic DIY ethic and local consciousness more than a hundred years ago! He elaborated his beliefs in the interconnectedness of communities, in the value of working for social and economic advancement, and in the possibilities for real equality. So why do we have the same old problems, if this guy had it figured out a hundred years ago?

So Happy Birthday, Booker T.! And thank-you for providing real leadership in the Deep South during your life, for working your way up from the worst possible circumstances and remaining insistent that other people could too, for stating the difficult truths that people needed to hear in a way that anyone could understand, and for making your best efforts to alleviate and reduce some of the obvious suffering you saw around you.

Speaking of people who gave their best efforts to alleviate and reduce obvious suffering, this coming Sunday is Easter, and in the Bible Belt that means a lot. Many Southerners will be making their semi-annual trip to church this weekend, and those of us who are there a little more often will just have to find some place else to sit when we find our regular pew occupied. (Truthfully, I can’t be too mean about this, because I was a C&E Christian for most of my life.) This Sunday, many of us will celebrate how glad we are that Jesus saved us from our sins by gluttonously devouring ham and potato salad, greedily hunting for the most Easter eggs, and covetously assessing the family members we only see around this time of year. It should be a good time! And by next week, we’ll all get our regular pews back, and everything will go back to normal.

In our compellingly religious region, this holiday marks the cornerstone of something that Republican political candidates exploit: our Christian faith that Jesus came to Earth, preached and taught, died and was resurrected to save us from our sins. Our stunningly impoverished and backwards section of the most prosperous nation in the world clings to the notion that true salvation is waiting on those who suffer through this life patiently and righteously, especially because of the lack of viable solutions being offered to us in this world. Since the states of the Deep South, with the often-exception of Georgia, populate some of the lowest wrungs on the social-ills rankings, in areas like infant mortality, preventable diseases, hunger and educational attainment, the unsurprising nature of a deeply rooted Christian faith can easily be reduced down into a nickname – The Bible Belt – that is convenient for lump-summing us into something half-understood and often mocked. But all kidding aside, I saw a statistic recently that 24.3% of Alabamians can’t afford food for their families— for “the least of these” among us throughout the Deep South, issues raised in political campaigns barely matter, opportunities like those created by Booker T. Washington would be mighty welcome, and the promise offered by the resurrection of Jesus Christ seems like a fine path to tread. Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you” and in the Deep South, we understand that all too well.

For all of the grandstanding and posturing of the Deep South’s modern “leaders,” with their plans that will supposedly solve all our ills, many of them will also be showing their faces in church this Sunday. But instead of worrying about primaries and polls and photo opportunities, we’d be a whole lot better off if those men and women were taking an approach like that of Booker T. Washington, who encouraged regular church attendance himself. And if we stop talking about good Christian values and start working a little harder on practicing them . . . we might just get somewhere.

And make no mistakes, Booker T. Washington isn’t the only historical example of putting Christian values to work in the Deep South. There are plenty. Consider Clarence Jordan founding Koinonia Farm in 1942. Or the ladies in the 1920s and 1930s who formed Southern chapters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to stop “demon alcohol” from plaguing society. (Man, if we had something like the WCTU trying to stop crack or meth, those terrible drugs would have been gone years ago!) This election season in the Deep South, we hear a good bit about Christian values, but I think we all know that there’s more to being Christian than decrying abortion and gay marriage and praying from the podium at big public gatherings. We’re just down here waiting on somebody who’s working in the spirit of Booker T.


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