While Washington’s critics were numerous, perhaps the people who hated him most also understood with the greatest clarity, the fearful power of Washington’s work. Thomas Dixon, whose novel “The Clansman” was adapted into one of the most notoriously racists films in American history, “The Birth of a Nation“, perfectly understood Washington’s goal.
Dixon knew these methods would teach African Americans “to be masters of men, to be independent, to own and operate their own industries,” concluding that blacks would “in every shape and form destroy the last vestige of dependence on the white man for anything.”
Others such as Paul Barringer, an opponent of black educational efforts, also feared Washington’s mission, concluding that “any education will be used by the negro politically, for politics, once successful, is now an instinctive form of warfare.”
Washington’s work, though not radical enough for some, struck fear into the hearts of those who understood his philosophy’s true power. Critics strongly objected to what they saw as Washington’s abandonment of political rights for economic accommodation. But his understanding of the realities of Southern life for people of African descent was deeper than most others’ – there were no political rights left to abandon.
The South, after the collapse of the Reconstruction Era, was hardening once more. Jim Crow was emerging as the harsh reality of the land. His gospel of work, self-sufficiency and peaceful co-existence was needed now. Political equality would come once this work was on its way. Washington knew this instinctively and his dinner with Roosevelt proved him to be right. If a simple dinner between a black man and the President could spark panic, what terrible ills would political agitation unleash upon those most vulnerable?