Booker T. Washington on “Cast Down Your Bucket” Booker T. Washington’s widely repeated adage, “Cast down your bucket where you are” is often wrongly used by critics to suggest that Washington was an appeaser of white racism who believed blacks should not protest their oppression during the post-Civil War years. But if Washington actually believed that blacks should not protest white supremacy, why did he devote his life to teaching the virtues of education in recognition of Francis Bacon’s wisdom that knowledge is power, and its corollary, “character is power”? Why did he sacrifice his well being to build the legacy named Tuskegee University?
What did this former slave, whom steel magnate Andrew Carnegie called “the Moses of his people,” mean by his exhortation?
He meant that between them, black and white Southerners possessed the resources with which to create prosperity in the region. “Each of you have resources,” he told them. “You make up the bucket, cast it down within each other.” He also meant that discrimination, racism, and poverty were no excuse to absolve ourselves of the responsibility of cultivating our character.
“Cast down your bucket” was a methodology of self-reliant action and progress, not of passivity and stagnation. At the 1922 unveiling of the Booker T. Washington memorial, Dr. George Cleveland Hall said of Washington in this regard, “He changed a crying race to a trying race and put in their hands the wonderful crafts of the age. He instilled in their minds the dignity of labor and urged them to stop marking time, but keep pace with the grand march of civilization.”
Washington believed the responsibility that accompanies freedom entails the responsibility to accept facts. And one fact that he refused to evade was that despite the difficulties created by racism, there was no better place to invest one’s sweat and toil than in the United States. In Up from Slavery, he explicitly states this conviction. “When we look at the facts, we must acknowledge that notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the 10 million Negroes inhabiting this country who themselves or whose ancestors went through the slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously than is true of any equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe. This I say not to justify slavery, but to call attention to a fact and to show how Providence so often uses men and institutions to accomplish a purpose.”
On this 100th anniversary of Washington’s untimely death, let us draw from the bucket of knowledge and character that he meant Tuskegee to be, and rededicate ourselves to his mission of racial uplift and contribution to the progress of the nation.