That Washington is so often invited to speak at events where no black has ever spoken before signals the acceptability of his social program for racial uplift to most whites. Chapters XIII-XV frame Washington’s most famous speech at the Atlanta Exposition and his attempt to subdue the speech’s controversy by describing the deliberative way that Washington prepared for the occasion. The chapters also emphasize the unprecedented nature of the event, stressing both the venue and the audience. In Chapter XIII, Washington pre-empts the criticism that will later dog his Atlanta Exposition speech by explaining that he holds no bitterness towards those who express racist attitudes towards black people. While Washington’s high-mindedness is laudable, many of Washington’s critics will later point out that it often comes at the expense of honestly describing the conditions of black life and the possibilities available for alleviating them. Washington’s emphasis on the necessity of the development of the black race before the achievement of full equality and rights fails to consider that most educational institutions still disbar blacks from attendance at this time. This, in part, accounts for the popularity of the Tuskegee Institute, one of the few institutions in the nation where blacks could receive education or training.
Nevertheless, Washington’s numerous speeches before his Atlanta Exposition speech establish his credibility as a speaker and thinker and the great anticipation for his speech, as indicated by the widespread coverage in national newspapers, further indicate the significance of the event. The actual speech that Washington delivers at the Atlanta Exposition is his most famous. It contains many quotable lines that sum up Washington’s social philosophy and social program for racial uplift. The first is “cast down your bucket where you are,” a line taken from a parable that Washington tells to demonstrate the wisdom of developing useful skills rather than agitating for political rights. The second famous line from Washington’s speech is “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Here Washington elaborates an idea he first introduced in the brick-making chapter where he described the possibility of racial cooperation in the intermingling of business. Washington clarifies that this intermingling need not extend beyond business.
Critics of Washington point to these lines as signs of Washington’s capitulation to a racist social order and decry his speech. The praise far outweighs the criticism. That the praise mostly comes from white newspapers and the criticism from black newspapers is not an issue that Washington addresses. Instead, he includes the full text of multiple favorable reviews of his speech, while only paraphrasing the criticism of his detractors. In addition, he tells a parable that suggests that even his detractors will eventually be won over. Washington uses the account of an earlier moment in his career, when he spoke out honestly against black ministers and the black press retracted their criticisms, to suggest that the same thing will happen in this scenario. The sheer number of praiseworthy, full clips Washington includes in his text suggests, however, that he has lasting concerns about how his Atlanta Exposition speech was perceived and how it will be perceived in the future.
Washington briefly alludes to another moment of controversy, this time with the white Southern press, in Chapter XV. Though Washington noticeably does not include the full text of his speech at the University of Chicago, he does briefly refer to the mild reception of the speech by Southern newspapers who disliked his unclear use of the term “social recognition.” While Washington does not elaborate on their criticisms or his own use of the term, his formal response to newspapers that his views have not changed from the content of his Atlanta Exposition speech suggests that his comments somehow strayed from his usual conservative approach to racial uplift.