DR. PAYTON SPEECH
Speech at the Centennial Celebration
of the Monument to Robert Gould Shaw
and the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment
Benjamin F. Payton, President Tuskegee University May 31, 1997
At The Monument
In Front of the State House
Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Members of the Platform, Honored Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen: As the current President of Tuskegee University, I consider it a high privilege to have been invited to speak here today. It was exactly 100 years ago that the Founding President of our great institution, Booker T. Washington, gave the major address at the original installation and dedication of this monument. My task today is to help perpetuate the memory and the significance of that occasion by sharing with you the major themes of Dr. Washington's speech, its historical and cultural context, and its pertinence to challenges we continue to face as we approach the 21st century.
Great public celebrations, such as the one in which we engage today, offer desperately needed opportunities to educate and to nurture the hearts and minds of Americans about who we are as a people and the shape of the future into which we are headed. While I hope my remarks will, in some small way, advance the effective use of this moment in history, it is not my intent to address these issues extensively. My task is to briefly use the tools of cultural, historical and even theological analysis to help produce a deeper understanding of the man, Booker T. Washington, why he was asked to speak, and what he said. The goal is historical preservation for future generations and increased national understanding of what remains America's greatest dilemma - the treatment of black people in this country.
Just as it is crystal clear that General Colin Powell is the right person to have been invited to give the major address at this centennial rededication of this historic monument in 1997, so there was little debate about Booker T. Washington's invitation to give the address at the original dedication in 1897. On him had passed the mantle of leadership of African American people following the death of Frederick Douglas on February 20, 1895. Following the absolutely stunning success of his address at the Atlanta International Cotton Exposition a few months after Douglas' death, Washington, despite his detractors, became the new spokesman for the Negro people. His influence among Blacks and Whites during the time of his leadership, from 1895 to his death in 1915, has been described by the famous historian, John Hope Franklin, as
"so great that there is considerable justification
in calling the period the Age of Booker T. Washington." (From Slavery to Freedom, p. 290)
This magnificent monument, which Booker T. Washington dedicated, was the artistic creation of a gifted sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It does what all great art does, i.e, to gather up the powerful passions, pains and joys of our lives and re-present them to us in creative forms that have the capacity to awaken, stir and transform the human spirit. This monument pulsates with meaning. Through it Saint-Gaudens captures with grace and eloquence the essence and most vital purpose of the Civil War.
Often described as "The War Between the States," or "The Great Secession...(or)...Rebellion," that bloodiest of American wars embraced all these elements but always had far profounder meanings. Its fundamental motives and causes lay deeper than a mere quarrel among white men about the formal character of the relations that should obtain among the States which comprised the Union. Many knew this in their hearts, but few could depict it for all to see with clarity and with power. That the sculptor of this monument could and did, places all Americans, White and Black, perpetually in his debt.
If the challenge of great art is to illuminate the complexities of the human condition, to lay bare its dimensions of tragedy and joy, promise and peril, it must work with the concrete realities of our lives, not with fantasies or fictionalized cartoons. Stereotyped characters bereft of depth, seldom form compositions of great art. Saint-Gaudens' masterful and sensitive rendition of the images of African American soldiers in this monument is truly historic! It is the first public monument in America to depict African Americas as real human beings with worth and dignity! By applying honestly the criteria of great art to black people as well as to white people, by refusing to drain black images of human form, by giving depth and individuality to the black soldiers depicted in this monument, the sculptor struck an artistic blow for black liberation from the crippling stereotypes of American and European literature and art. In the process, the sculptor also provided White Americ ans with a powerful resource to free their hearts, minds and imaginations from the grip of fear and fantasy about Black Americans, and to grasp with emotions as well as with intellect what the Civil War was really about - to rid the nation of slavery and of slavemasters, and to usher in a new day of freedom, justice and dignity for Black as well as for White Americans.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a great sculpture is worth ten thousand! Accustomed to seeing black Americans as lazy, dumb, grinning, shuffling clowns, what a mighty transforming experience this monument made available to the American people and the world! Look carefully at the faces, the posture, the rifles and bayonets carried by these soldiers, most of whom were former slaves but a few months or years earlier. Is there any room for wonder why laws were passed to keep Blacks from fighting?
Nothing strips a people so drastically and totally of recognition as members of a human community as does denial of the right to do battle in defense of the nation. And nothing symbolizes so effectively the potential for full and complete membership in a community as does the freedom - whether exercised or not - to take up arms and to die, if necessary, to protect as legitimate members of the armed forces of his country his hearth, home and nation.
So the imagery of this monument does far more than to merely present African American men in handsome military dress; it shows black men - whom many in this country believed incapable of fighting with steel-eyed bravery - armed, disciplined, with a look of courage and fierce but quiet determination on their faces, empowered and ready to wage strong and fierce battle for freedom and for union. This monument clothes them with uniforms of dignity - the Union blue - which portend their capacity not only to show bravery in battle, but also to lay full claim to the fruits of freedom for themselves and their people when victory on the battlefield was won.
And victory was won, largely, according to President Abraham Lincoln, because of the valor and sacrifice of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment and the 180,000 of their black brothers, whom they inspired by their action at Fort Wagener, S.C., to join the Union Army. At war's end, African Americans were less than one (1) percent of the general population of the North, but comprised more than ten (10) percent of the Union's armed forces. These men - together with their families, their mothers, wives, sweethearts and children - had absorbed the message articulated so ably by Frederick Douglas in his widely disseminated appeal to Black Americans in March 1863, and entitled with the rousing words, "MEN OF COLOR, TO ARMS!"
"Liberty won by white men would lack half its luste. Who
would be free themselves must strike the first blow. Better even to die free than to live slaves...I urge you to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the
Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave."
In his speech on this day 100 years ago, Booker T. Washington did not dwell on any theory of art, aesthetics, or rebellion, but he seemed to intuitively sense their significance. In the opening lines of his speech, he drove directly to the moral and spiritual heart of the dedication. Starting with the death of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the white leader of the 54th Regiment, who is depicted on horseback in the foreground of the monument's imagery, and who died with almost half of the Regiment on July 18, 1863 attacking Fort Wagener, Washington placed the entire conflict in the perspective of a theology of incarnation. Said Washington on May 31, 1897 at this dedication program:
"on this sacred and memorable day, in the deeds and
death of our hero, we recall the old, old story, ever old, yet ever new, that when it was the will of the Father to lift humanity out of wretchedness and bondage, the precious task was delegated to Him who, among ten thousand, was altogether lovely, and was willing to make himself of no reputation that he might save and lift up others."
Through these words, Booker T. Washington revealed himself as not only a political spokesman and educational leader of power and vision, but also as theologian - one versed in the disciplines of that high and complex profession which, among other things, attempts to clarify and to justify the ways of God to humankind and the way to God for His creation. Lifting up the person farthest down, service to others in distress, reaching out to find gems of humanity often clothed in rejected garments...these were major motifs in Booker T. Washington's incarnational theology. So, animating the entire speech was a faith in a God who reaches down, suffers with, and lifts up His creation, demanding repentance, and accepting and transforming us where we are and how we are.
In this spirit, Washington viewed the original dedication of this monument as
"an occasion...too great, too sacred for mere individual eulogy."
He reminded those assembled here of the great cloud of witnesses whose labor and sacrifices made that day possible. And he did it in the conviction that the late Colonel Shaw, and those brave men of the 54th Regiment who died with him in battle, would have wanted him to do so. He called the name of that great Governor of the State of Massachusetts, John A. Andrews, whose vision and determination helped make this monument possible, and in whose memory the first hospital to admit African Americans in the State of Alabama was constructed on the Tuskegee campus and named for him. He also called the name of George L. Stearnes, who gave so freely of his time, energy and resources to the work of recruiting the men and officers of the 54th Regiment. And, then he spoke directly to the gray-haired remnants of the 54th who were there - the first African American battle troops to be formed in the Northern Union Army - some, as Washington described them in his speech,
"With empty sleeve and wanting leg."
He reminded them and the audience that even if Boston had not erected a monument, and even if history had not recorded their story, no greater monument could have been built than the lives which they and their descendants had already created, lives of strength, purpose and power
"which time could not wear away."
Then he reminded the audience of how easy it was for black people and white people to be physically emancipated from the master-slave relationship and yet for both to remain "but half free." For in Washington's view,
"there is a higher and deeper sense in which both races
must be free than that represented by the bill of sale"
of the slave. In this larger sense, neither Black nor Whites, according to Washington, would be free until they could mutually share love, respect and sympathy, end discrimination against Blacks in employment, and provide the masses of black people both the opportunity and the resources to grow to their fullest potential like any other group of citizens. Until that happens, our emancipation shall remain incomplete. Said Washington:
"Until that time comes this monument will stand for effort, not victory
complete. What these heroic souls of the 54th Regiment began, we must
complete...In this battle of peace the rich and poor, the black and white
may have a part."
So, while the dedication of this monument was a good and noble thing, Booker T. Washington did not accord this ceremony an intrinsic value. The work of greatest value lies in completing the work for which these brave men died, and it is work to which we are all called.
Yet, like Frederick Douglas, Washington believed that African Americans must lead the way, and, indeed, most of the vision and effort
"Must be completed in the effort of the Negro himself, in
his effort to withstand temptation, to economize, to exercise thrift, to disregard the superficial for the real-the shadow for the substance...in his effort to be patient in the laying of a firm foundation, to so grow in skill and knowledge that he shall place his services in demand by reason of his intrinsic and superior worth."
Finally, toward the close of his speech, Booker T. Washington raised the question regarding the implications for the future of these events. In reply to his own query, he provides a grand and eloquent peroration:
"If...(I)...might be permitted to send a message to
Massachusetts, to the survivors of the 54th Regiment, to the committee whose untiring energy has made this memorial possible, to the family who gave their only boy that we might have life more abundantly, the message would be, 'Tell them that the sacrifice was not in vain, that up from the depth of ignorance and poverty, we are coming, and if we come through oppression out of the struggle, we are gaining strength ...Tell them that we are learning...Tell them that we are coming'..."
As the current president of Tuskegee University, I say - and I believe Dr. Washington would agree - 'Tell them that the victory is still not complete, but tell them that we are here! Tell them that the 54th Regiment helped get us here! Tell them that the first black 4-Star General in the U. S. Armed Forces, General Daniel "Chappie" James, a Tuskegee graduate, helped get us here! Tell them that the Tuskegee Airmen helped get us here! Tell them that General Colin Powell, the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , helped get us here! Yes, tell them we are still coming, still getting stronger, but that we are here and do not intend to go anywhere except up!'