Civil Rights Near the Turn of the Century

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Booker T. Washington and other black leaders disagreed about what would constitute racial progress. Why was it difficult for black constituencies to unite on one strategy?

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There were two prevailing thoughts about how to best achieve racial equality. Booker T. Washington promoted the notion of accommodation, or the idea that African Americans should accept racial discrimination for a time and work towards building a robust middle class. Washington believed the path to racial equality began with wealth or material prosperity. Washington de-emphasized political rights and emphasized economic parity as the primary objective. He preached the need for self-reliance, hard work, and creating an African American middle class by way of vocational training. Vocational training included the ownership of farms, machine shops, and other craft-related occupations that were in demand. Washington believed that once white America observed the economic progress of African Americans, they would be more likely to accept racial parity.

The second notion countered Booker T. Washington's view that economic parity would ultimately lead to racial equality. This view was promoted by African American leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Their view was that accommodation would serve only to perpetuate racial inequality as the status quo, where the white power structure controlled the majority of wealth and the political structure had no incentive for changing society. Rejecting the notion of accommodation, Du Bois and other African American leaders called for a strategy of agitation and protest. Unlike Washington, Du Bois believed that African Americans needed to build a highly educated group of African Americans called the "Talented Tenth" to agitate and promote change through the legal system by targeting specific issues of inequality.

An ideological split occurred among African American leaders as to which approach would lead to change quickest. The objective of both camps was the same: racial and economic parity with whites. The conflict was in tactic: accommodation or agitation. Uniting the two tactically was made difficult by the generational differences of the leaders and by regional challenges between the racially segregated South and the more tolerant North. Segregation in the North was present, but in the large Northern cities, pockets of racially progressive leaders and ideas allowed for a more racially tolerant attitude toward civil and economic rights for African Americans.

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The difference in strategies of African American leaders in the early twentieth century had to do with a difference in philosophies. Some, such as Booker T. Washington, advocated for an approach in which African Americans would eventually be fully welcomed into society by whites. He sought to do this with conciliatory measures to appease whites and prove African Americans' worth. He, and others like him, promoted education for African Americans which would lead to economic independence. They wanted to show white Americans that African Americans were just as intelligent and capable as them while not taking any extreme actions that might alarm white society.

Others, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, thought this strategy would lead nowhere. They thought it would take too long to achieve the type of justice and inclusion in society that they were after. They wanted to take direct and decisive action to fight for their civil rights. They felt that passively waiting for white people to bestow it upon them was a waste of time.

Clearly, these two approaches were contradictory. This led to periodic divisions within the civil rights movement during this period. Often the division fell along geographic lines. African Americans in the southern states were much warier of antagonizing white racists. Those in the North felt that there were more opportunities available to African Americans if they took them through decisive action.

In short, those in Booker T. Washington's camp believed that racial progress would come through incremental changes in which they were gradually accepted by white society. W.E.B. Du Bois and his followers felt that racial progress would involve decisive change by which African Americans were the agents of their own advancement.

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