The excellent White House speechwriters swung and missed at an easy one last week when President Bush spoke at Atlanta's Booker T. Washington Comprehensive High School. They did well to have the president recognize that Martin Luther King Jr. went there, but he didn't even mention the man the school was named after, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915).
Washington was the leading role model for two generations of American blacks, but these days he doesn't even get mentioned much in Black History Month, perhaps because his Christian values are not considered politically correct. As Washington's daughter Portia remembered: "We never at home began the day without prayer, and we closed the day with prayer in the evening. He read the Bible to us each day at breakfast and prayed; that was never missed. Really he prayed all the time."
Washington's biblical understanding led him to believe that lasting progress came through personal, rather than political, change. He told both blacks and whites that they could best advance "by keeping your bodies and your surroundings clean, by staying in one place, by getting a good teacher and a good preacher, by building a good school and church."
Religion was vital to Washington, but not just any kind. He regularly criticized churches that did not relate the Bible to the problems of this world, as well as to the hopes of the next. He fought a two-front war: against atheism and its practical outworking of hopelessness, but also against "sentimental Christianity, which banks everything in the future and nothing in the present."
Washington startled some listeners by stating that "the bulk of our people are as much in need of Christian teaching as any people to be found in Africa or Japan." He taught that faith in Christ would not eliminate sin but should restrain it, and he sometimes despaired at the number of churches, both white and black, that emphasized faith without works and soon became dead.
What Washington wanted was tough-minded Christianity throughout the week: "Our religion must not alone be the concern of the emotions, but must be woven into the warp and woof of our every-day life." The road to racial progress, Washington insisted, was not by gaining sympathy for past enslavement, nor by ignoring life on earth and merely waiting for heaven, but by gaining a good education in Bible-based schools, settling down in marriage and then working hard.
Washington did not believe that upwardly mobile blacks should gravitate to the government sector. Instead, he emphasized entrepreneurial activity, noting that "with the exception of preaching the Gospel of Christ, there is no work that will contribute more largely to the elevation of the race in the South than a first-class business enterprise."
Religious and economic progress would lead to political progress, Washington argued. Political power that was based on fear or pity, rather than a foundation of respect, would be fleeting. Almost a century ago, he was optimistic as he saw success among blacks who learned and put into practice biblical principles. But Washington worried about those who "have gained the idea at some point in their career that, because they are Negroes, they are entitled to the special sympathy of the world."
Washington's concern about those who have "got into the habit of relying on this sympathy rather than on their own efforts to make their way" is relevant now. Most black voters remain tied to the Democrats' offers of that "special sympathy" known as affirmative action.
When Bush spoke in Atlanta last week, he won applause and cheers for his war leadership. But in November 2000, he received the votes of only 16 of the 607 citizens who cast ballots in the precinct surrounding Booker T. Washington Comprehensive High School. He won only percent of the black vote nationwide.
To do better than that down the road, Republicans need a comprehensive plan that goes beyond Bush's current war popularity. To develop that plan, students, speechwriters and the president himself should read a book written a century ago: Booker T. Washington's superb autobiography, "Up From Slavery." Washington's emphasis on the way to true progress -- faith, family, freedom and hard work -- is exactly the message Republicans need to bring.