No Compromise: The Other Most Important Speech of 1895: “An Appeal to the King,” by JWE Bowen
Aside from being credited with introducing the early New Negro Movement, activist, educator and writer Booker T. Washington is arguably the most controversial African-American figure in history, due to his strong accommodationist approach to combatting racism and oppression for the some 8 million African Americans, many of whom who were living as a free person for the first time, following post Civil War Reconstruction. On opening day of the Cotton States Exposition, Washington addressed a black and white audience, and delivered what would later be known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” a speech that would win the respect of whites while causing many in the black community to oppose his leadership. According to Washington, social, racial and economic progress for black people would only come through self-sufficiency. This philosophy, that African Americans “pull themselves up from their bootstraps,” suggests that the best way for the community to elevate themselves out of lower class status is through hard work, self-help and a vocational education in industrial fields such as farming or carpentry. He advocated political neutrality, so as not to “rock the boat,” an idea that no doubt comforted whites.
“No race can prosper until it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top,” he says.
Washington believed that in time, African-Americans would help solve the so called “Negro problem,” by proving they were self sufficient, overlooking the centuries of slavery and continuous racial oppression and disenfranchisement. In time, Washington believed their subordination would reap them full civil rights. His speech must of rattled many bones in the black section of the audience, as they listened to the Tuskegee Institute founder speak of equality as a privilege to be earned, rather than an alienable right, as understood under the law of the nation. For his most vocal opponent, scholar and cofounder of the NAACP, W.E.B Du Bois, Washington’s address was a slap in the face. Du Bois accused Washington of overlooking racism and civil inequality for the sake of white approval. Du Bois believed the speech undervalued the power of higher education and political participation for the advancement of the black race. And for that, he vocally denounced Washington in what would soon become one of the greatest intellectual debates of our history.
But besides Du Bois, there was another important opponent of Washington’s ideals that delivered his own address just a month after the “Atlanta Compromise.” J.W.E Bowen, the first African-American to receive a Ph D, from Boston University and later President of the Gammon Theologian Seminary in Atlanta, spoke on "Negro Day," on December 26, 1895. His speech, “An Appeal to the King,” demanded for “equality of opportunity,” for blacks where “Under it, each will produce according to his ability for the good of mankind, and that good will not be a passive uniformity cast into the stereotyped mold of racial capacity, but will be complex in its essentials and divinely human.” Like Du Bois, Bowen supported black advancement through higher education and full civil rights. Both activists were part of the foundation of the Niagara Movement in 1905. While their beliefs were similar Bowen’s upbringing was similar to Washington’s. Like him, Bowen was also born into slavery and faced many uphill battles before becoming a successful scholar. The same year he became President of Gammon, he was beaten and arrested during the Atlanta race riots.
In his speech, Bowen highlights that “all man are created equal,” to emphasize the importance of measuring a man by what he can achieve not by his skin color. But to measure such a man, he must be given the same inalienable rights as anyone else. This “equality of opportunity,” according to Bowen, “must be reached before human society shall prosper under the normal laws of true development.” Unlike Washington who did not want to scare whites with the idea of equality especially at the heel of the legitimization of Jim Crow, Bowen saw that “the education of the Negro must be on par with the education of the white man,” insisting that “anything short of this would be unfair to… humanity.” As an important part of the New Negro movement and its focus on black aesthetics and agency, Bowen cites W.C Hill’s statue, “A Negro with Chains Broken But Not Off,” as an important symbol of black progress that is neither submissive nor dormant. “This statue,” he says, “ is muscular and powerful; his eye fixed upon his broken but hanging chain. This is the Negro… He is thinking! And by the power of though, he will think off those chains… When educated in all of the disciplines of civilization and thoroughly trained in the arts of civil and moral life, [he] cannot fail.”
Bowen saw that African-Americans needed to be fully engaged in political, educational and economic endeavors if they were ever to be uplifted. But the opportunities to do so must be made available to them. The New Negro movement would go on to deconstruct the racial stereotypes that were used to represent black people. Mixing politics and art, African Americans would expand the Negro Building’s representation of a black counterpublic into their own communities, and eventually win full civil rights for African-Americans, only through activism and ongoing protests during the Civil Rights Movement. Aside from the known players and events: Rosa Parks, Dr. King, Selma, the march on Washington and so on, there was 1895, inside the Negro Building and “An Appeal to the King and J.W.E Bowen.
Daring to refute Washington, whose philosophies of self-help, accommodation and racial solidarity gained him the support of the white elite, Bowen fiercely sought to make his unpopular but rightful demands of black life in America known. It’s no mystery why Bowen’s speech remains buried in history, the search for it in its entirety even proving difficult, while the Atlanta Compromise has its place as one of the most important speeches in American history. No doubt, New South leaders would consider Bowen combative for delivering such a diatribe that dared challenge the system of white supremacy. But Bowen would not have it any other way. Surrounded by the progress and achievements of his people: the inventions of Granville Woods and the paintings by Henry O. Tanner, and the first members of the National Medical Association, Bowen understood that he was not just standing in a building, but at the heels of what would later become the Civil Rights Movement.
“There can be but one answer… equality of opportunity.” –JWE Bowen