The Cotton States and International Exposition Speech was an address on the topic of race relations given by Booker T. Washington on September 18, 1895. The speech laid the foundation for the Atlanta compromise, an agreement between African-American leaders and Southern white leaders in which Southern blacks would work meekly and submit to white political rule, while Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic education and due process of law. One of the most memorable parts was a parable that Washington used:
A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal,“Water, water; we die of thirst!” The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time the signal, “Water, water; send us water!” ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River. To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”— cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.
“Cast down your bucket where you are” was a phrase that surfaced numerous times throughout Washington’s speech. Generally, the phrase had different meanings for whites and blacks. For whites, Washington seemed to be challenging their common misperceptions of black labor. The North had been experiencing labor troubles in the early 1890s (Homestead Strike, Pullman Strike, etc.) and Washington sought to capitalize on these issues by offering Southern black labor as an alternative, especially since his Tuskegee Institute was in the business of training such workers. For blacks, however, the “Bucket motif” represented a call to personal uplift and diligence, as the South needed them to rebuild following the Civil War.
The speech was often derided by opponents who said it was the cornerstone of Washington’s accommodationist philosophy. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute accomplished its task of training African Americans in trades that allowed them to be seen in a better light by southern whites. Washington’s opponent W.E.B. DuBois wanted to push African American equality through the courts and while ultimately this approach worked, it never really changed the hearts and minds of many whites in America. Washington predicted that this would be the case and so he kept his approach, even though it went out of fashion with many African Americans.
In today’s America, LGBT rights have been gained not through legislation, but through the courts. Those changes, however, would not have been possible without a major change in the hearts and minds of Americans. LGBT Americans have been come more common on television and in the media. “Will & Grace” changed a lot of perceptions about gay men, and Brokeback Mountain showed the plight and the horrors of forcing people to hide who they are. Matthew Shepherd’s death showed us the consequences of what attitudes of hatred toward gays can lead to. These events have helped he LGBT cause but there is still far to go.
Washington’s speech is something I’ve often thought about in the context of the issues I’ve discussed in the last week: moving, disappointment, and deceitful biblical interpretations. You see, for some of us, we have no choice but to cast down our bucket where we are. By staying, we will work in various different ways to change the hearts and minds of those against us, whether we remain closeted or come out. We each have a role to play in making the world a better place. At times, our efforts will lead to disappointments and people we trust will cause us disappointments, but we must persevere. We can not allow setbacks to deter us on our journey to equality. We have marriage equality nationwide, but we need non-discrimination laws nationwide as well.
Lastly, our greatest obstacle is the erroneous use of biblical texts to condemn homosexuality. As long as preachers stand in their pulpits and preach misleading sermons and as long as people use “religious freedom” as an excuse to discriminate, we will not achieve equality. African Americans achieved equality through the courts, but they have yet to achieve full equality in the minds of many Americans. Racism is alive and well, just look at the Charleston shooting. Which has led finally to the downfall of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racist heritage. I pray that it will not take the mass death of LGBT Americans before we see the same symbols of hatred in the clobber passages in the Bible that condemn homosexuality. We already see similar instances of religion used to defend hatred in the Middle East areas controlled by ISIS. As long as politicians and ministers spout hatred of homosexuality people will become even more bold in their hatred until they begin to retaliate against the LGBT community. This is why it is so important for us to work in areas where LGBT Americans are least accepted. If we leave these areas, hate wins and if will only grow, but if we stay and they must face us, whether they know our sexuality or not, we have not yet lost the fight.
To my fellow LGBT who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern Christians or evangelical Christians, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”— cast it down in making friends in every way of the people of all beliefs by whom we are surrounded.
We should not have to run and we should be able to cast down our bucket where we are because in areas like the American South the battle has just begun. To paraphrase the immortal retort of Captain John Paul Jones to a request to surrender as he and his crew engaged in a desperate battle with a British frigate off the northern coast of England during the American Revolution: We have not yet begun to fight!