booker t. washington portrait

The Survival of the Fittest

The Tuskegee Student
December 1905

A Sunday Evening Talk

A few evenings ago, I quoted the passage of Scripture which runs something like this:

"To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath."

Now, that suggests a principle which I am very anxious to have all of you seize hold upon, and not only get into your minds and hearts, but to have you as far as possible, carry with you into your actual, practical lives, after you leave Tuskegee.

You will have to realize, more and more, that neither our previous condition, attracting, as it may have, sympathy and pity in the past, nor our color, will help us forward in any appreciable degree. We must appreciate the fact that we must face real life, and that we are to rise or fall, succeed or fail, just in proportion as we show ourselves, worthy, and in life's contest sympathy is going to play a very minor part. Let us take an example in the physical world: you will learn as you go out into life that people must either develop the territory that they occupy or move on and let some other more thrifty portion of the human family enter into and occupy that territory.

I repeat that unless the people have within themselves the ability to get all there is out of the territory they are occupying; unless they have the ability to get out of the soil the most there is in it, they have got to move on and somebody else, more thrifty, more provident, will come forward to occupy their land, whether it happens to be large or small; and you will find that no law, whether passed by local, state, or Federal authority, can help any people that does not have within itself the power of self-help; the power to incorporate itself into the civilization and about it, and go forward.

Let me illustrate; you will find that owners (and you have seen it illustrated over and over again) have within themselves the power to get something out of that little piece of land; unless they have intelligence enough to keep up with the growth and progress of civilization about them, they will find that in a few months or years at the most, they will have to give up their land; will have to give up the town lot, for example, because they have not shown the ability to get enough out of the land to pay the increasing taxes, and compete with the life that is about them. The same truth will hold with regard to farm land, whether it be in Mississippi, Alabama, or elsewhere, the people - their color matters not who occupy the farm land of Alabama today, unless they are able to get the very most out of the land they may hold will have to yield to others, perhaps to people from foreign lands, who possess greater capacity and skill, and the land they have occupied will pass into the hands of those who have more ability to get out of the soil more than the people who held it formerly. Let me repeat, no part of the earth will remain idle: the present progressing, pushing stage of civilization demands that no part of the earth shall remain for any length of time idle, or only partially worked; it demands that every inch of land shall be brought to the very highest degree of development.

A few days ago a number of us were out in the Indian Territories, a country that a number of years ago was set aside for the Indians. All kinds of stringent laws were passed for the protection of the land and the tribes, and if it had been possible for law of any kind to protect people; if law could insure growth the Indians would have remained in possession of the rich territory, into possession of which they were placed some fifty or sixty years ago. They squatted upon that land, were given possession of it, but were not able to develop it; they did not appreciate its mineral or agricultural resources, or use the streams of water to any extent; the result was that civilization has forced these people to the rear. More enterprising spirits have gone into that rich but undeveloped country and the Indian has been left behind, notwithstanding the numerous laws that were passed for his protection.

And so it will always be: the people who own land must bring it to its highest development, or they must move on and let others possess themselves of their territory. We have the same truth illustrated in the case of San Domingo. If you have not studied the history and present condition of San Domingo, I wish very much you would do so as soon as possible. There is one of the richest countries in the world, rich in agricultural mineral and water resources; rich in everything that is essential to the maintenance of high degree of civilization.

Today San Domingo, with all its wealth, and the freedom that exists there - and we sometimes say that the colored man in this country is in his present condition because he has not freedom - with all the freedom any people can possess, all the political power that can be given to a people is, notwithstanding political and social freedom, in a deplorable condition today. That country is practically in the hands of the United States. The United States collects its revenues, pays out its revenues. The country has practically lost its civilization, because the people have failed to get anything out of the soil - have failed to develop its mineral resources: failed to work its iron and gold mines. The result is that the country has been spending every year more than it has been earning. It has been paying out more for imports than it has been receiving for exports, and the same is true with a nation as with an individual, when spending power exceeds earning power the individual or nation goes into bankruptcy. Unless the educated men of San Domingo are wise enough to put their education into agricultural, mining and other fundamental industries, you will find that San Domingo with all its wealth will lose its hold on its island just as the Indian's country has passed from the jurisdiction of the red man.

The same condition holds for Liberia. A number of colored people from the United States and numerous aborigines are occupying this Republic, that is not greater than the state of Alabama. Within the last few days, I have been reading the message of President Barclay of that country. It is a most informing document, but all through that message you will find the same truth which I am trying to bring to your minds tonight. A number of people have squatted on this territory, and you will find that unless there is a great change in the government, in the control and development of the natural resources of Liberia, it is a matter of a few months before that magnificent territory will pass from the hands of those black people, into the hands of European nations. I made a little comparative study of the revenues.

I find in the first place that most of their revenue comes from customs, and articles from which the money is drawn are mainly supplied by the natives in the black districts in what they called the hinterland. To give you some idea of the condition existing there (and this is taken from the report of the Postmaster General), you will find that the receipts for the past year were very much the same as the receipts of the post office here in our Institute last year. There is practically very little difference, and the resources from the entire development of Liberia were less than the receipts of this institution last year, and so, you will see that these people cannot longer be permitted to squat upon this big territory unless they are going to get out of it a much larger measure of the treasure which it is capable of yielding. The same thing is true in South Africa where millions of our people occupy land emboweled with diamonds and gold and have occupied these lands for centuries, but the time came when other peoples, alert, progressive, said, "you have not developed the proper intelligence and skill to get down into the soil and get out this—gold and diamond ore, civilization will no longer allow you to hold this territory". And so Englishmen and Germans and other nations are today in possession of the whole of South Africa.

I want you as students who are going out from Tuskegee, to have it firmly fixed in your minds that wherever you go, however small the piece of land you occupy: you have got to get the most out of the soil; or somebody else will crowd you out. The same is true in regard to labor, commercial business and education. If we do not develop the talents in these respects to the very highest degree, somebody else, some other nation will crowd in upon us and we shall not be able to hold our own. Civilization demands from every individual the very utmost that the Creator has placed at his command, and we must live up to its demands or go to the wall. I want you to spread these truths among every people wherever you may have an opportunity to exert an influence.

Booker T. Washington