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The Niagara Movement was a black civil rights organization founded in 1905 by a group led by W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter. It was named for the "mighty current" of change the group wanted to effect and Niagara Falls, the Canadian side of which was where the first meeting took place in July 1905. The Niagara Movement was a call for opposition to racial segregation and disenfranchisement, and it was opposed to policies of accommodation and conciliation promoted by African-American leaders such as Booker T. Washington.
During the Reconstruction Era that followed the American Civil War, African Americans had an unprecedented level of civil freedom and civic participation, especially in the Southern United States. With the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s this began to change. By the 1890s many of the Southern states introduced racist laws that significantly restricted the political and civil rights of African Americans. All of them passed laws restricting voting rights, or making them significantly more difficult to exercise, and also passed laws requiring racially segregated facilities. These racist policies became entrenched when the United States Supreme Court in 1896 ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that law requiring "separate but equal" facilities were constitutional.
The most prominent African-American spokesman during the 1890s was Booker T. Washington, leader of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute. Washington outlined a response to these policies in an 1895 speech in Atlanta, Georgia that became known as the Atlanta Compromise. The basic thrust of his approach was that Southern African-Americans should not agitate for political rights (such as the right to vote and equal treatment under the law) as long as they were provided economic opportunities and basic rights of due process. Washington also politically dominated the National Afro-American Council, the first nationwide African-American civil rights organization.
By the turn of the 20th century voices began to rise with in the African-American community demanding a more active opposition to racist government policies than the type advocated by Washington. Early opponents of Washington's "accommodationist" policies included W. E. B. Du Bois, then a professor at Atlanta University, and William Monroe Trotter, a Boston activist who in 1901 founded the Boston Guardian newspaper as a platform for radical activism. In 1902 and 1903 groups of activists sought to gain a larger voice in the debate at the conventions of the National Afro-American Council, but were procedurally marginalized because the conventions were dominated by Washington supporters (also known as Bookerites). Trotter in July 1903 orchestrated a confrontation with Washington in Boston, a stronghold of activism, that resulted in a minor melee and the arrest of Trotter and others; the event garnered national headlines.
In January 1904 Washington, with funding assistance from Andrew Carnegie, organized a meeting in New York to unite African American and civil rights spokesmen. Trotter was not invited, but Du Bois and a few other were. Du Bois was then sympathetic to the cause and suspicious of Washington's motives, and noted that the number of activist invited was small relative to the number of Bookerites. The meeting laid the foundation for a committee that included both Washington and Du Bois, but quickly fractured, and dissolved when Du Bois resigned in July 1905. By this time both Du Bois and Trotter recognized the need for a well-organized anti-Washington activist group.
In addition to Du Bois and Trotter, Fredrick L. McGhee of St. Paul, Minnesota and Charles Edwin Bentley of Chicago had also come to recognize the need for a nationwide activist group. These four men organized a conference to be held in the Buffalo, New York area in the summer of 1905, inviting 59 carefully selected anti-Bookerites to attend. In July 1905 twenty nine men met at the Erie Beach Hotel in Fort Erie, Ontario, opposite Buffalo. Differing explanations exist for why the group met in southern Ontario and not Buffalo. A commonly given reason, which has not been substantiated by primary sources, is that they had originally planned to meet in Buffalo, but were refused accommodation. Du Bois' writings of the time, however, show that his original plan was to find a quiet, out of the way location for the event, and that the Erie Beach Hotel satisfied his requirements. Researcher Cynthia Van Ness has further located contemporary evidence of Buffalo hotels complying with a statewide anti-discrimination law passed in 1895. Bookerites had been alerted to the planned conference, but one who traveled to Buffalo to investigate the conference found no activity there.
The organization founded at this meeting had Du Bois as its general secretary, Cincinnati lawyer George Jackson as treasurer, and a number of committees to oversee progress on the organization's goals. State chapters would advance local agendas and disseminate information about the organization and its goals. Its name was chosen to reflect the site of its first meeting and to be representative of a "mighty current" of change its leaders sought to bring about.
The attendees of the inaugural meeting drafted a "Declaration of Principles", which was primarily the work of Du Bois and Trotter. The philosophies of the group were in direct contrast to more conciliatory philosophies of Booker T. Washington that proposed patience over militancy. The declaration clearly outlined the group's philosophy and its demands; politically, socially and economically. It began by first describing the progress that the "Negro-Americans" had made "particularly the increase of intelligence, the buy-in of property, the checking of crime, the uplift in home life, the advance in literature and art, and the demonstration of constructive and executive ability in the conduct of great religious, economic and educational institutions". It called for blacks to be granted manhood suffrage. It called for equal treatment for all American citizens alike. Very specifically, it demanded equal economic opportunities, in the rural districts of south, which amounted for many blacks indebted to whites and resulted in "virtual slavery", or in terms of all of south so that they had the ability to "earn a decent living".
On the subject of education the authors declared that not only should it be made free, it should be made compulsory. Higher education, they declared, should be governed independently of class or race, and they demanded action to be taken to improve "high school facilities". This Du Bois thought was most important because "either the United States will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the United States". The document also demanded that judges be selected independently of their race and that the criminals, white or black should be given equal punishments for their respective crime. In his address to the nation W. E. B. Du Bois stated, "We are not more lawless than the white race; we [are] more often arrested, convicted and mobbed. We want justice, even for criminals and outlaws." It called for the outright abolition of the convict lease system. In this system, during times when there wasn't enough space in the prisons, convicts were leased out to work as cheap laborers for "railway contractors, mining companies and those who farm large plantations". Urging others to return to the faith of "our fathers", it appealed for everyone to be considered equal and free.
The declaration also targeted the treatment blacks received from labor unions, often oppressed and not fully protected by their employers nor granted a permanent employment. It validated the already announced affirmation that such protest against outright injustice would not cease until such discrimination did. Secondly, Du Bois and Trotter stated the irrationality of discriminating based on one's "physical peculiarities" whether it be place of birth or color of skin. Perhaps one's ignorance, or immorality, poverty or even diseases are legitimate excuses, but not the matters that we have no control over. Near its end, the document goes on to condemn the Jim Crow laws, the rejection of blacks by the Navy and by the military academies, the non-enforcement of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments protecting the rights of blacks, and the "unchristian" behaviors of churches that segregate and show prejudice to their black brothers. The Declaration of Principles of 1905 ended by thanking those who "stand for equality" and the advancement of this cause.
Booker T. Washington and his supporters moved to oppose the growth of the organization. Washington, Thomas Fortune, and Charles Anderson met after learning of the Movement's formation, and agreed to suppress news of it in the black press. They acquired supporters in Archibald Grimké and Kelly Miller, two moderates who had been friendly with Trotter, but had not been invited by Du Bois to the convention (Grimké was hired by Fortune's New York Age). The Age editorialized that the Movement was little more than an attempt to tear down the house that Washington had labored to set up. A Boston supporter of Washington convinced the printer of Trotter's Guardian to withdraw his services, but Trotter managed to continue printing anyway. Prominent white activists, including Francis Jackson Garrison and Oswald Garrison Villard (sons of Trotter idol William Lloyd Garrison), refused to attend Trotter-organized commemorations of their father's birth centennial, preferring instead a celebration organized by Bookerites.
Despite Washington's attempts to suppress the organization's message, Du Bois reported at the end of 1905 that a number of black publications had published accounts of its activities, and it received further publicity as a consequence of Bookerite press attacks against it. Washington's attacks extended to the Constitution League, a multi-racial civil rights group also opposed to Washington's policies, with whom the Movement made common cause.
After the initial meeting, delegates returned to their home territories to establish local chapters. By mid-September 1905, they had established chapters in 21 states and the organization had 170 members by year's end. Du Bois founded a magazine, the Moon, in an attempt to establish an official mouthpiece for the organization. It failed due to a lack of funding after only a few months of publication. A second publication, The Horizon, was started in 1907 and survived until 1910.
The movement's second meeting, the first to be held on U.S. soil, took place at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the site of abolitionist John Brown's 1859 raid. The three-day gathering, from August 15 to 18, 1906, took place at the campus of Storer College (now part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park). Convention attendees discussed how to secure civil rights for African Americans, and the meeting was later described by Du Bois as "one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held." Attendees walked from Storer College to the nearby Murphy Family farm, relocation site of the historic fort where John Brown's quest to end slavery reached its bloody climax. Once there they removed their shoes and socks to honor the hallowed ground and participated in a ceremony of remembrance.
Several of the organization's chapters made substantive contributions to the advance of civil rights in 1906. The Massachusetts chapter successfully lobbied against state legislation for the segregation of railroad cars, but was unable to stop the state from helping to fund the Jamestown Exposition, a commemoration of the founding of racially motivated Jamestown, Virginia in which Virginia sought to limit black admission. The Illinois chapter convinced Chicago theater critics to ignore a production of The Clansman.
During the early months of 1906 friction began to develop between Du Bois and Trotter over the admission of women to the organization. Du Bois supported the idea, and Trotter opposed it, but eventually relented, and the matter was smoothed over during the 1906 meeting. Their division became more significant when Trotter split with longtime supporter and Movement member Clement Morgan over Massachusetts politics and control of the local Movement chapter, with Du Bois siding with the latter. When the Movement met in Boston in 1907 Du Bois not only admitted Grimké and Miller to the organization, he reappointed Morgan to a leading position in the organization. Further attempts to heal the rift failed, and Trotter then resigned from the Movement.
In 1906 there were several proposals floated in the black press that the Movement be merged with other organizations. None of these proposals got off the ground, with the only substance being a meeting between the Movement's Washington, DC chapter and members of the Bookerite National Afro-American Council.
The Movement, in conjunction with the Constitution League (which took Du Bois on as a director), began organizing legal challenges to segregationist laws in early 1907. For an organization with a limited budget, this was an expensive proposition: the single case they mounted challenging Virginia's railroad segregation law put the organization into debt.
Du Bois had sought to return to Harpers Ferry for the 1907 annual meeting, but Storer College refused to grant them permission, claiming the group's presence in 1906 had been followed by financial and political pressure from its supporters to distance itself from them. The 1907 meeting was held in Boston, with conflicting attendance reports. Du Bois claimed 800 attendees, while the Bookerite Washington Bee claimed only about 100 had attended. The convention published an "Address to the World" in which it called on African-Americans not to vote for Republican Party candidates in the 1908 presidential election, citing President Theodore Roosevelt's support for Jim Crow laws.
William Monroe Trotter's departure after the 1907 meeting had a serious negative impact on the organization, as did disagreements about which party to support in the 1908 election. Du Bois, with some reluctance, endorsed Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan, but many African-Americans could not bring themselves to break from the Republicans, and William Howard Taft won the election, receiving significant African-American support. The 1908 annual meeting, held in Oberlin, Ohio, was a much smaller affair, and exposed disunity and apathy within the group at both local and national levels. Du Bois invited Mary White Ovington, a settlement worker and socialist he had met in 1904, to address the organization. She was the only white woman to be so honored. By 1908 Washington and his supporters successfully made serious inroads with the press (both white and black), and the Oberlin meeting received almost no coverage. Believing the Movement to be "practically dead", Washington also prepared an obituary of the organization for the New York Age to publish.
In 1909 chapter activities continued to dwindle, membership dropped, and the annual meeting (held at Sea Isle City, New Jersey) was a small affair that again received no significant press. It was to be the organization's last meeting.
In the wake of a major race riot in Springfield, Illinois in August 1908, a number of prominent white civil rights activists called for a major conference on race relations. Held in New York in early 1909, the conference laid the foundation for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was formally established in 1910. In 1911, Du Bois (who was appointed the NAACP's director of publications) recommended that the remaining membership of the Niagara Movement support the NAACP's activities. William Monroe Trotter attended the 1909 conference, but did not join the NAACP; he instead led other small activist civil rights organizations and continued to publish the Guardian until his death in 1934.
The Niagara Movement did not appear to be very popular with the majority of the African-American population, especially in the South. Booker T. Washington, at the height of the Movement's activities in 1905 and 1906, spoke to large and approving crowds across much of the country. The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot hurt Washington's popularity, giving the Niagarans fuel for their attacks on him. However, given that Washington and the Niagarans agreed on strategy (opposition to Jim Crow laws and support of equal protection and civil rights) but disagreed on tactics, a reconciliation between the factions began after Washington died in 1915. The NAACP went on to become the leading African-American civil rights organization of the 20th century.
Nahal, Anita, and Lopez D. Matthews Jr, "African American Women and the Niagara Movement, 1905-1909", Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol. 32, No. 2, July 2008.