The Niagara Movement, which was organized in 1905, was the first significant organized black protest campaign in the twentieth century. The movement represented the attempt of a small but articulate group of radicals to challenge the then-dominant accommodationist ideas of Booker T. Washington.
The Niagara Movement developed after failed attempts at reconciling the two factions in African-American political life: the accommodationists, led by Washington, and the more militant faction, led by W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter. A closed-door meeting of representatives of the two groups at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1904 led to an organization, the Committee of Twelve for the Advancement of the Interests of the Negro Race, but the committee fell apart due to the belief of Du Bois and Trotter that Washington was controlling the organization.
In February 1905 Du Bois and Trotter devised a plan for a "strategy board" that would fight for civil rights and serve as a counterpoint to Washington's ideas. Since they knew Washington was most popular among whites, they resolved to form an all-black organization. Along with two allies, F. L. McGhee and C. E. Bentley, they scheduled a meeting for that summer in western New York, to which they invited fifty-nine businessmen and professionals who were known to be anti-Washingtonites.
In mid-July 1905 Du Bois went to Buffalo. He had difficulty arranging hotel reservations, so he crossed to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Fearing reprisals by Washington, who had sent spies to Buffalo, the radicals kept their conference secret. On July 11–14, 1905, twenty-nine men met and formed a group they called the Niagara Movement, both for the conference location and for the "mighty current" of protest they wished to unleash. Du Bois was named general secretary, and the group split into various committees, of which the most important was Trotter's Press and Public Opinion Committee. The founders agreed to divide the work among state chapters, which would "cooperate with congressmen and legislators to secure just legislation for the colored people," and pursue educational and informational programs. Movement members would meet annually.
The Niagara Movement's "Declaration of Principles," drafted by Du Bois and Trotter and adopted at the close of the conference, was a powerful and clear statement of the rights of African Americans: "We believe that this class of American citizens should protest emphatically and continually against the curtailment of their political rights." The declaration went on to urge African Americans to protest the curtailment of civil rights, the denial of equal economic opportunity, and denial of education; and the authors decried unhealthy living conditions, discrimination in the military, discrimination in the justice system, Jim Crow railroad cars, and other injustices. "Of the above grievances we do not hesitate to complain, and to complain loudly and insistently," they stated. "Persistent manly agitation is the way to liberty, and toward this goal the Niagara Movement has started."
At the end of its first year, the organization had only 170 members and was poorly funded. Nevertheless, the Niagarites pursued their activities, distributing pamphlets, lobbying against Jim Crow, and sending a circular protest letter to President Theodore Roosevelt after the Brownsville Incident in 1906. That summer the movement had its second annual conference, at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. This was an open meeting, and the conference speeches and the tribute to John Brown aroused much publicity.
The Niagara Movement, despite its impressive start, did not enjoy a long life. There was from the start determined opposition by Booker T. Washington—he prevented sympathetic white newspapers, and even many black ones, from printing the declaration—which dissuaded many blacks from joining or contributing funds. The loose organization, with only token communication between state chapters, and the radical nature for the time of such forthright protest also contributed to the movement's decline. Not long after the Harpers Ferry conference, factional struggles broke out between Du Bois and Trotter, as well as disagreements over the role of women in the movement. By the end of the summer of 1907 Trotter had been replaced as head of the Press Committee, and his supporters grew disenchanted with the movement. Du Bois tried to keep it going, guiding the movement through annual conferences in 1908 and 1909, after which it largely ceased to exist.
Even in its decline, however, the movement left a lasting legacy. In 1908 Du Bois invited Mary White Ovington, a settlement worker and socialist, to be the movement's first white member; by 1910 he had turned to the search for white allies by joining the newly organized NAACP. Despite its predominantly white leadership and centralized structure, the NAACP was really the successor to the Niagara Movement, whose remaining members Du Bois urged to join the NAACP. (However, William Monroe Trotter and his faction of the Niagara Movement never affiliated with the new organization.) The NAACP inherited many of the goals and tactics of the Niagara Movement, including the cultivation of a black elite that would defend the rights of African Americans through protest and lobbying against oppression and the publicizing of injustice.
Aptheker, Herbert. A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, vol. 2. New York: Citadel Press, 1951.
Fox, Stephen R. The Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter. New York: Atheneum, 1970.
Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
greg robinson (1996)
"Niagara Movement." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/niagara-movement
"Niagara Movement." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved July 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/niagara-movement
NIAGARA MOVEMENT, a short-lived but influential civil rights group primarily organized by W. E. B. DuBois. The founding of the Niagara movement in 1905 marked DuBois's definitive split with Booker T. Washington, principal of the black Tuskegee Institute and considered by many the leader of black America. While Washington advocated gradual economic advancement at the expense of political rights for African Americans, DuBois agitated for total racial equality. After they quarreled repeatedly in 1904, DuBois called like-minded activists to a meeting in Buffalo, New York, to create a new organization dedicated to "Negro freedom and growth" and open dialogue, both withering attacks on Washington.
Thirty black intellectuals and professionals attended the first meeting, which was moved to Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada, because the Buffalo hotel refused to accommodate blacks. A "Declaration of Principles, " composed at the first meeting, affirmed that "the voice of protest of ten million Americans must never cease to assail the ears of their fellows, so long as America is unjust." The Niagara movement was officially incorporated in January 1906. It would survive until 1910, publishing thousands of pamphlets that, along with the tightening Jim Crow regime in the South, undermined Washington's primacy and established DuBois's approach as the dominant civil rights philosophy for decades to come.
The second meeting of Niagarites took place at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. Conceived as a celebration of abolitionist and insurrectionary leader John Brown, the event cemented the movement's reputation for radicalism. The 1907 meeting in Boston's Faneuil Hall marked the height of the Niagara movement. Women sat in on sessions for the first time (though some men, led by the out-spoken newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter, resisted), and 800 Niagarites representing thirty-four state chapters were in attendance.
Internal strife, however, had started to take its toll on the organization. Trotter and Clement Morgan, both friends of DuBois from Harvard University, fought bitterly in 1907 over the Massachusetts gubernatorial election, and Trotter eventually left the Niagara movement to form his own Negro-American Political League, and later, the National Equal Rights League. The Niagara movement conferences in 1908 and 1909 were poorly attended.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), formed over the course of 1909 and 1910, never formally absorbed the Niagara movement, but it informally adopted most of its points of view. At first, the NAACP's white founders clashed over how interracial and radical the organization should be, but when DuBois was hired for a salaried position, it was clear that the conservatives had lost. DuBois sent a circular to members of the sagging Niagara movement in 1911, announcing that the annual meeting was cancelled and asking them to join the new organization. Most of them did. In his career as editor of the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis, DuBois built on the propaganda work begun by the Niagara movement.
DuBois, W. E. B. The Autobiography of W. E. B. DuBois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life From the Last Decade of its First Century. New York: International Publishers, 1968.
Fox, Stephen R. The Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter. New York: Atheneum, 1970.
Lewis, David L. W. E. B. DuBois: Biography of a Race. New York: Holt, 1993.
"Niagara Movement." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/niagara-movement
"Niagara Movement." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved July 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/niagara-movement