Booker T. Washington

Up from History, Part 5

02.04.13 4:45 PM ET

So was Booker T. Washington a failure?

It would be easy to say so, and perhaps Washington himself died thinking so. And yet … think again.

Washington urged these lessons upon black Americans:

* To think of themselves as Americans first and foremost, not to succumb to the racial illusions that distorted the minds of their white fellow-citizens - or to follow future false messiahs into some mystical back-to-Africa fantasy.

* Not to allow bitterness over the past to distract them from their prospects for the future.

* To emphasize education, work, and capital accumulation as their path to success.

* To seize the opportunities provided by a free, competitive economy.

* To believe the best of their country - and of their place in it. Despite living at the moment when race hatred came to its fiercest boil in all American history, fiercer than anything expressed even under slavery, Washington remained serenely convinced. His ideas remain potent today. Hear Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

It was a message that an oppressed and despised black America welcomed in 1900. It was a message rejected as too plaintive and apologetic by the black America of 1950. But it's a message that is looking truer and truer in the post-racial America of the 21st century.