(1916) Robert R. Moton, “A Life of Achievement“

Robert Moton
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Robert Russa Moton is best known as the successor to Booker T. Washington as president of Tuskegee Institute. He assumed the presidency of the institution shortly after Washington’s death in 1915. Moton’s life reflects striking parallels to his predecessor. Like Washington, he was born on a Virginia plantation, although two years after the Civil War. Like Washington, he was an exceptional student at Hampton Institute. Like Washington, Moton used his access to Republican Presidents such as Warren G. Harding to wield influence far beyond the campus of Tuskegee. Moton served as President of the Institute until his retirement in 1935. In a speech in New York City on February 11, 1916, Moton paid tribute to Booker T. Washington. That speech appears below.

It is entirely fitting that on the eve of the birthday of the great Emancipator we should gather here to reverently pay our respects to the memory of the one who stands so preeminently as the most unique product of Emancipation. Booker T. Washington’s life and work would have alone justified Abraham Lincoln’s ideas and actions regarding Emancipation.

The remarks which I shall make this evening are in no sense intended as a eulogy, for that would be absolutely out of harmony with the life and teachings, and, I believe, with the wish of our great leader. My hope is rather to call attention, inadequately, of course, to a few of the great principles which controlled and guided his life, enabling him to perform so great and so beautiful a service for the Negro and for the nation, with the desire that we may therefrom learn lessons and gain inspiration that may help and encourage us for the great work which he left to us all to carry on.

Dr. Washington found a mass of unorganized, unconnected people; untrained in self-direction, with little knowledge of self-support and citizenship; as yet more or less ignorant and poverty stricken, but with a strong desire for education and the possession of property; more or less demoralized and discouraged; as suspicious and distrustful of their own race as of the white race; and, in the main, following no especially constructive leadership; with the relations between the races, to all appearance, growing daily less cordial and friendly, and more cold and businesslike. He found his people, like their more progressive white exemplars, looking with grave suspicion upon any system of education not in accordance with what had previously been in vogue, having the feeling that a farm, or a shop, or a kitchen should have no place in a well-regulated institution, and believing that the pupil should be adjusted to the school, not the school to the pupil.

Few men in the world’s history have been able to accomplish in so short a period for so large a mass of people what Dr. Washington was able to accomplish. He organized and enheartened a race, giving them a new idea of education and of life, teaching the dignity, grandeur, beauty, and absolute necessity of industry and morality as fundamental things in the development of any people, leading them to a belief in and a respect for their own race, deepening their race pride, their race consciousness, and their race integrity—giving the Negro a definite place in the though and life of the times. It was a difficult, embarrassing, foreboding race problem which he found; he left a clear, definite, hopeful race program, the letter and spirit of which, if wisely and unselfishly followed, will, without doubt, bring, in the long run, a happy, wholesome, and satisfactory solution, and an adjustment mutually acceptable to all vitally concerned.

He often said: “No man, either white or black, from North or from South, shall drag me down so low as to make me hate him.” This, my friends, was his life motto, and yet few men were more sensitive to unfairness or injustice. Misunderstanding and prejudice are apt to affect most people strongly, especially those who are keenly stung, but with Dr. Washington the underlying cause of prejudice and unfairness was of far more interest, and he set himself with all energy and with all patience to dispel ignorance, poverty, inefficiency, and immorality wherever found, not by force and violence of words or of conduct, but by an affectionate, though persistent, courageous, and indomitable common sense, or, rather, uncommon sense.

The press and the platform have emphasized, and justly so, Dr. Washington’s great wisdom, his rare tact, his remarkable poise, diplomacy, and self-control. The world has known few men with greater poise and self-control than he possessed. These were very important elements in his character.

But the underlying, fundamental, dominating, controlling principle and characteristic of Dr. Washington’s life, that which enabled him to render such a great service to this nation, was his belief in and his love for mankind. All his other qualities, important as they were, were secondary to the great principle which always guided him. He believed in and respected and loved humanity, and this faith was not circumscribed by race, or limited by section, or bounded by color lines. North and South, black and white, were on his heart and in his program. Where ignorance and poverty were greatest, where a human need was most apparent, there his interest was deepest, his words strongest, his great eloquence most convincing, and his energy and force most deeply vitalized and spiritualized. Because he believed in, respected, and loved the Southern white man, he interpreted to his own people with wisdom, with patience, and with kindness the feelings and sentiments of the white South.

Because of Dr. Washington’s absolute faith in the possibilities of his own race, because of his pride in his race, because he loved his race, he analyzed and frankly interpreted the Negro to himself, telling him his shortcomings and failings in unvarnished fashion, teaching him what right education means and what it should do for the individual and the race, working out in concrete form in Tuskegee Institute, as well as outside of the institution, his ideas of education. Both in the North and in the South he linked education in a very definite, practical, and necessary way to life, not as life ought to be—the ideal life—but as life really is, in the cabin, on the farm, in the church, in the school, in the alley, in disease, in crime; he taught men that education, whether professional, academic, technical, or industrial, should touch and influence the common, everyday vocations by which men live and move and have their existence.

He interpreted, with kindness and patience and wisdom, the North to the South, the South to the North, the Negro to both, and both to the Negro. He helped tremendously in making peace between races and between sections. He used every opportunity to allay factional strife and bickerings between groups of Negroes. He was truly a peacemaker. He caused the lion and the lamb to lie down together, and a little child—an honest and simple and unselfish Negro—was leading them to real peace on earth and that good-will which the great Nazarene came to bring among men of all races and all nations.

General Armstrong, through Hampton Institute, responded as best he could—and he was a wise, far-seeing man—to the earnest, urgent appeal of this untrained, poverty-stricken, black boy for a chance. He gave him, not money, not even charity as such, but he did give Booker Washington what every American, in the last analysis, believes, deep down in his heart, that every human should have, an opportunity to make the most of himself—a chance equal to that of any other man. Booker Washington use this chance in developing every possible way opportunities, chances, for other people, whether in Alabama and the South, the Isles of the Sea, or Africa. He struggled that men might have a chance through the great Tuskegee Normal and Industrial institute which he founded, for which he labored and sacrificed, and for which he gave his life. He struggled that they might have a chance, not only through Tuskegee Institute, but through other educational institutions of a different character as well. He pleaded for them with rare eloquence, as well as rare earnestness and devotion, in the North and in the South, in city and in country, through the press, from the platform, and through the National Negro Business League. In season and out of season, often in much discomfort, and frequently against the advice of his best friends and his physician, he pleaded for his people, than whom there is no more loyal group of American citizens, loyal to the flag and all for which it stands. And they, my friends, would die for that flag if necessary.

I hope I may be forgiven if I say a few words more directly to my own people, inasmuch as they form so large a part of the audience. I hope no one will believe that I, for a moment, think I can fill Dr. Washington’s place. I am earnestly and humbly aware that this is impossible. It would require the combined energy and effort of all the Negroes in America, and, in addition, the cooperation and backing of all the white people, to carry on Dr. Washington’s work, and I doubt whether, even then, it would be done as effectively as he did it.

If any of us, because of weaknesses and failings within our race, or because of unfairness, injustice, and inconvenience without, or because of the color of our faces and the texture of our hair, have been hitherto lacking in appreciation of our race, or have been afraid to be unmistakably identified with the Negro race, let us, in the name of the God who made us, forever dispel any such foolish, childish, disastrous notions. Let us remember, once and for always, that no race that is ashamed of itself, no race that despises itself, that tries to get away from itself, no race that does not respect, honor, and love itself, can gain the confidence and respect of other races, or will ever be truly great and useful.

Let us remember, also, that we are not an accursed people; that races with whiter faces have, and are still going through,, difficulties infinitely more trying and embarrassing than much that faces us; that we have n this country vast opportunities for growth and development, as well as for usefulness and service. We are creatures of God’s most perfect handiwork, and any lack of appreciation on our part is a reflection on the great Creator. Though we Negroes are black, and though we are living under hampering difficulties and inconveniences, God meant that we should be just as honest, just as industrious, just as skillful, just as pure, just as intelligent, just as Godlike, as any human beings that walk on the face of God’s earth. I hope and I believe that because of the life that has so recently gone out from among us, we, as a people, will henceforward, as never before, unselfishly work together, not always thinking, feeling, or acting alike, but always in perfect harmony and mutual helpfulness for a great cause, for a great need, for a great race, and for a great nation. This is the most important lesson we can learn from the life and teachings of our great leader and benefactor.

At the very simple but impressive funeral service at Tuskegee, in November, more than eight thousand people—rich and poor, from city and country, educated and uneducated, from North and South, black and white—gathered to pay reverently their last tribute of respect and devotion to the man they loved. The beautiful city of Tuskegee, by special request of its honored Mayor, ceased all business during the funeral hour. Practically every white business house and organization, together with hundreds of individuals in Tuskegee and Macon County, as well as throughout the great State of Alabama (to say nothing about the colored people), sent floral offerings, and to a Negro, mind you! And this, my friends, was in the shadow, almost, of the old Confederate capitol in Montgomery. Alabama and the South loved Booker Washington; Booker Washington loved Alabama and the South, where he lived, labored, and died, and where he wanted to be buried.

The Principal of Hampton Institute, Dr. Hollis B. Frissell, a lifelong friend of Dr. Washington, and his teacher at Hampton (as well as mine), began a very beautiful and impressive prayer at the funeral service at Tuskegee with these fitting words from the Apostle Paul: “Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory.” Booker Washington’s life, Booker Washington’s work, Booker Washington’s death, were truly victories—a victory in unselfishness, a victory in patience, a victory in simplicity, a victory in faith, a victory in a love that suffered long and was kind, was not puffed up, and rejoiced in truth and in service.

I congratulate the Negro race most heartily and earnestly, I congratulate myself, and I congratulate the nation, too, for we are all prouder, richer, happier, and better because this man lived and labored. Though he died a poor man, as far as this world’s goods are concerned, he died rich in achievement and in service. As I said before, he found a most trying, embarrassing, discouraging race problem, and left us a clear, definite, hopeful, unselfish race program. Whether this program is being worked out through Edwards at Snow Hill, or Cornelia Bowen at Mount Meigs, Ala., through Long at Chrstiansburg, Va., through Hotzclaw at Utica, Miss., through Jeanes School or a Rosenwald School, through Baldwin Farms or the Negro Business League, or through the lives and characters and earnest work of thousands of unnamed graduates and former students of Tuskegee Institute, it matters little. It is the same vitalizing, courageous, unselfish spirit of Booker T. Washington, in the same wise, unselfish program, working earnestly for the good of men and to the glory of God.

I believe, my friends, that you who are heirs of the opportunities, the culture, and the wealth of the ages, you who love humanity and justice, you who love our glorious country, I truly believe that you will see to it that the great institution through which Booker Washington worked, and for which he died, will be maintained and operated to its full capacity, and with the greatest possible efficiency. I believe that you will see to it that these black boys and girls, sometimes called despised and rejected children, may continue to have a chance—a chance to be trained, a chance to be educated, a chance to be efficient, a chance to be useful to their race and country, a chance to be decent, a chance to serve.