Accommodationist Approaches to Civil Rights 

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Many historians have debated whether accommodationist approaches to civil rights worked to achieve any progress for African Americans. There have been many different accommodationist tactics taken by different leaders throughout the civil rights movement. Booker T Washington was a prominent figure who advocated a well-educated and economically prosperous lifestyle for African Americans, as he believed this would allow them to change the current situation and persuade the majority that they deserved equal rights. Accommodationist tactics, such as those used by leader Booker T Washington, did achieve some progress for African Americans, as his continuous efforts to help others achieve the skills needed to be accepted into society allowed for a sense of pride to be felt by a majority of their community. However, his techniques did not meet the changing requirements of society, as the shift in industry resulted in his education methods becoming substandard. 

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Accommodationist tactics contrast with more radical tactics pursued by those who criticised Washington’s approach, such as Web Du Bois. These often consisted of individuals wanting to directly tackle and change the current social standing and treatment of African Americans within society. However, these radical tactics also often deterred a majority of supporters of civil rights due to their more direct protests. Leaders such as Martin Luther King took a more diverse approach to his tactics concerning his work towards civil rights, as he often used peaceful methods but still directly confronted the issues at hand, causing many to question whether his protests were more radical than they originally seemed. This therefore shows that accommodationist tactics did prove to achieve some progress, when the societal conditions were correct.

Accommodationist tactics that advanced economic progression have been frequently debated by historians due to the varying views on the success of Booker T Washington’s work. Washington’s use of accommodationist tactics came at a time when the economic conditions for many African Americans were very poor, due to the societal prevalence of segregation, which resulted in their exclusion from many jobs and also the presence of lower wages. His belief, outlined by his speech known as the Atlanta Compromise, suggested that the previous policy of Radical Reconstruction had been a mistake and that African Americans should focus on developing their economic responsibility. This principle relied upon the assumption that political and social equality would follow, if African Americans were able to become skilled and well-educated citizens. This did produce some progress, as Washington’s views and speeches allowed him to become “the only black leader of his age who could consistently attract large and enthusiastic audiences”, allowing him to spread his message with very little opposition. Many White Americans did not interfere with Washington’s plans, as it supported their view of white supremacy, allowing African Americans the opportunity to successfully gain skills and education through his programs, such as the Tuskegee Institute. This provided them with an economic output which did not agitate others by forcefully advocating for their rights. 

However, by 1905 many critics began to emerge, such as W.E.B Du Bois, who believed that Washington’s approach to gaining equality was too narrow to achieve status for African Americans. These criticisms are supported by the lack of great progression at this time, as seen in the IPUMS 1900 Census, where only 37.8% of black boys aged 6 to 13 were attending school, compared to the 72.2% of white boys, meaning that Washington still failed to achieve a greater education for some African Americans. This shows that although Washington’s principles did help to unify the African American protests and beliefs, no real progress was made towards a greater education for African Americans or towards economic equality. This may have been due to the criticisms which appeared at that time, as few African Americans actually witnessed any economic improvements made due to these tactics, consequently resulting in many views changing to more radical ones in hope of a more successful approach towards economic progression. 

One leader at this time was Marcus Garvey, who developed and grew his organisation, the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association), within America in 1916. He placed a heavy importance on the economic welfare and employment of African Americans, and dedicated some of his work towards developing the Negro Factories Corporation, which created businesses within African communities which would employ and pay black men and women to work. His creation of the Black Star Line also aimed to push African Americans into trading among themselves and Africa by creating their own trading ships, which would allow many members of the ships and the UNIA a paying wage in hopes of improving their economic situation. However, Garvey was criticised greatly at this time, as his investment into the Back Star Line became insignificant after its collapse. By 1922, Garvey’s BSL “was in a state of economic ruin with virtually no reasonable assets” and had not actually achieved any main trading that would provide members of the UNIA with a continuous payment scheme.

Many leaders, such as Du Bois, became suspicious of Garvey’s aims, as evidence emerged that the BSL had faced the disappearance of many ships and their cargo. Shortly after this event Garvey claimed that his ships had been damaged and even “accuses his associates and employees of dishonesty”. This shows that while Garvey’s aims for the UNIA and the Black Star Line may have attempted to improve African Americans economic conditions, he never achieved any real progress due to the introduction of many critics and allegations against him at this time. The beginning of the ‘Garvey must go’ campaign alongside his obvious lack of funding for the UNIA led his organisations into failure, ultimately meaning he could no longer achieve any other progress than his minimal reputation allowed him to. By the 1930s the economic situation had greatly deteriorated, due to the Great Depression. This resulted in a change of perspectives for many Socialist African American supporters, many of which previously “blamed the oppression of blacks on Capitalism rather than white people”.

After the rejection of Washington’s accommodationist tactics in the early 1900s, many strong black leaders turned to more radical plans to end the era of segregation. One of these leaders was W.E.B Du Bois, who later founded the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) and began to work alongside other more radical leaders to fight white supremacy and white violence. Du Bois believed that in order to become economically wealthy, African Americans must have political protection, something that was not readily available during this time. This period of poverty however, did bring some progress from more radical supporters, as it allowed for organisations such as the NAACP to attempt to unite both social groups and call for a “new labour movement” within America. The aim of this was to bring about unity among black and white workers, all of which were suffering greatly through the economic downfall. 

However, W.E.B. Du Bois dismissed “the politically fashionable argument that black advancement should come about through a union of black and white workers” and instead took steps towards achieving economic progress through the already developed segregated communities set up in the South. This led to many groups creating their own black unions and organisations, which helped create progress as when part of a union, many black workers found that they had higher autonomy when working as a collective group, leading to more work and opportunities to gain economic assets within their own communities that could not be challenged by other white supremacists. This means that Du Bois did manage to achieve some economic progress for many African Americans within the South during the Great Depression, as his use of already established communities and his encouragement towards the unions they created helped workers to establish paid work and gain some economic benefits within a time of great economic trouble. 

The start of World War Two began a new campaign for equality at home and work for civil rights activists, as leaders such as Asa Phillip Randolph began to appear. Randolph’s work towards civil rights began through his assistance in the ‘Double-V’ campaign, which was originally started by a group of editors in the Pittsburgh newspaper. This campaign strived to achieve a double victory, both “abroad against dictatorship, and at home against racial inequality and segregation” using tactics that directly affected the war effort. This campaign did achieve some progress, as the threats Randolph made towards marching 50,000 troops into Washington led President Roosevelt towards the signing of Executive order 8802, which made it obligatory that “all departments […] concerned with vocational and training programs for defense production […] are administered without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin”. This allowed many African Americans to gain paid work within the military and war production, through industry routes and military conscription, as the amount of African Americans receiving respect and recognition wildly increased. This is evidenced by individuals such as the Tuskegee airmen, who received a wide amount of credit for the airstrikes they completed over Europe and North Africa. This shows that African Americans did achieve some economic progress during this time, as the legislation passed during this time allowed them to gain better paying jobs. This was an obvious difference to their prior jobs which consisted of mostly farming and low paying industrial work, as the Executive order 8802 now allowed them to take up any government jobs and war-related industrial work with little to no discrimination.

These conditions made within and after World War Two may have helped Martin Luther King’s protests as the newfound respect that some African Americans were presented with allowed them to freely advocate for their rights with a wider amount of both black and white supporters. While radical protests and leaders did achieve some progress, they never achieved the positive reception that Martin Luther King Jr. and his peaceful but direct methods received after the war. Although most of King’s Protests were politically based towards ending segregation and working towards a united society, he also preached for economic justice throughout many of his speeches and events. 

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Accommodationist Approaches To Civil Rights . (2021, Dec 29). Retrieved September 28, 2022 , from
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