By 1905, when the Niagara Movement began, fewer than one black man in ten could vote and none held a national elective office. Public education, where it existed for black southerners, was separate and grossly unequal. Many blacks were lynched: More than 1,000 blacks were lynched during the final decade of the nineteenth century. For most whites, America’s race problem was “solved” by de facto segregation in the North and legal racial segregation in the South.
Thus, blacks were totally subordinated within a white-dominated society. Booker T. Washington, the founder and president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, became the most prominent national black leader when he tacitly sanctioned this reality in his Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition speech in 1895. Washington advised blacks against agitation for political and civic equality, instead counseling cooperation with whites for economic opportunities in the so-called New South, as it was proclaimed to be a decade earlier by Henry W. Grady, an influential Georgia newspaper editor.
Contrary to its widespread acceptance by whites, Washington’s ascendancy to leadership status was challenged by younger urban and mostly northern-based, well-educated African Americans, including two Harvard alumni: W. E. B. Du Bois, a historian and sociologist, and William Monroe Trotter, a Harvard-trained militant black newspaper editor. Du Bois, Harvard’s first black Ph.D. graduate, initially refrained from public attacks on Washington, who actually invited him to join the Tuskegee faculty. Sensing that he and Washington had conflicting ideas on racial matters, Du Bois declined the invitation but accepted a position at Atlanta University as head of its sociology department. Trotter became a Realtor in Boston, and in 1901 he began publishing The Guardian, in which he called for full citizenship rights for blacks. In a 1901 review of Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery, Du Bois made a veiled attack on the deeper implications of Washington’s accommodationist philosophy. Du Bois openly criticized Washington himself in The Souls of Black Folk, a 1903 publication that instantly became a widely read classic. In a chapter titled “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” Du Bois decried Washington’s views, which he felt relegated practically all blacks to a politically impotent, servile existence.
Du Bois was fully aware of the anointing of Washington and his views by the white political and philanthropic elite. Among black Americans, Washington alone possessed delegated power, but for many he misused that power. In 1905, Du Bois called for an ideological leadership cadre composed of those in the African American community whom he referred to as “the Talented Tenth” with “sufficient ability and education to assume leadership among negroes” (Kellogg 1967, p. 23). Aware that Washington had the funds to control the black press, Du Bois said that conference was also to “to establish and support proper organs of new and public opinion.”
Some twenty-seven black male professionals from fourteen states responded by meeting with Du Bois and Trotter on July 11, 1905, near Niagara Falls at the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario, Canada, to plan for a national organization.
Among the attendees were Frederick McGhee, a practicing attorney; William Hart, a Howard University Law School professor; Charles E. Bentley, a physician; Harry Clay Smith, an editor; Freeman H. M. Murray, a print shop owner; and Jesse Max Barber, an educator and periodical publisher. After three days of intensive discussion and debate the Niagara conveners advocated the following goals, which were printed in Barber’s periodical, The Voice of the Negro:
- Freedom of speech and criticism
- An unfettered and unsubsidized press
- Manhood suffrage
- The abolition of all caste distinctions based simply on race and color
- The recognition of the principle of human brotherhood as a practical present creed
- The recognition of the highest and best human training as the monopoly of no class or race
- A belief in the dignity of labor
- United effort to realize these ideals under wise and courageous leadership
At the second meeting of the Niagara Movement, held at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in 1906, Du Bois made it clear in his address that their goals were distinct from Washington’s limited vocationalism:
And when we call for education, we mean real education. We believe in work. We ourselves are workers, but work is not necessarily education. Education is the development of power and ideal. [sic] We want our children trained as intelligent human beings should be, and we will fight for all time against any proposal to educate black boys and girls simply as servants and underlings, or simply for the use of other people. They have a right to know, to think, to aspire.
Thus, the line was drawn between the accommodationists and the integrationists.
Indeed, allegedly during the 1905 meeting itself, one participant, the attorney Clifford Plummer, secretly kept Washington informed of its details. It was later alleged that other Washington allies persuaded white-owned newspapers to not cover the conference.
Du Bois, the guiding figure of the gathering, was named general secretary to coordinate the work among several committees. He proposed the creation of local branches in every state. Conspicuously absent that first year were women, but several were invited the next year. Few members lived south of the Potomac, and none had much daily contact with the black masses. Later, Du Bois admitted his own failings as a popular leader who could make small talk with those from humbler backgrounds. In addition to their social distance from the masses, the Niagara Movement adherents, by and large, were geographically separated from the southern rural masses who were bearing the brunt of direct and unremitting racial oppression.
Nevertheless, in 1906 Du Bois tried to broaden the movement’s base and increase its support through a weekly publication, The Moon Illustrated, which ceased publication after only a year. Beginning in 1907, yet another periodical, The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line, partially subsidized by Du Bois, was published monthly until 1910, when it was folded into the NAACP’s The Crisis, which has appeared monthly ever since.
In 1906, the movement’s adherents met in Harper’s Ferry, made famous by John Brown’s raid there in 1859. The delegates made a bare-footed pilgrimage to the site consecrated by the martyred Brown, and they called again for the right of black men to vote, an end to discrimination in public accommodations, equal justice before the law, equal educational opportunities, and the right to travel freely. Three years later, these became the goals of the Niagara Movement’s successor organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The 1907 Niagara Movement meeting was held at Fanueil Hall in Boston, and its report to the public called for “freedom from labor peonage, a fair and free ballot, the denial of representation to states who deny rights of citizens” and a demand for federal legislation “forbidding the exclusion of any person from interstate carriers on account of race or color.” Less than fifty people showed up at the 1908 meeting, held at Oberlin College in Ohio. At this meeting, McGhee reported that the group had filed a suit against the Pullman Company for denying sleeping-car service to one of its members, and that local units of the group had met in a half dozen cities. It proudly reported that black voters in the South were being advised to vote against presidential candidate William Howard Taft because of his approval, as secretary of war, of the dishonorable discharge of 167 black soldiers for failing to identify one of their comrades as the person guilty of fatally wounding a white civilian in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906.
The Niagara Movement expanded into more than half the states, although its membership never exceeded 300 individuals. It had no white members until 1908, when Mary W. Ovington, a social worker, was invited to join. The 1908 Springfield Race Riot spurred white reformers into action. Some descendants of white abolitionists, such as Oswald Garrison Villard, the grandson of the great abolitionist editor William L. Garrison, called for concerted action for social justice by black and white leaders of all philosophical views. The target date to convene the meeting in New York City was February 12, 1909, the centennial of Lincoln’s birthday. “The Call,” as it was known, went out, urging “all believers in democracy to join in a national conference for discussion of present evils, the voicing of protests and the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.” This was the birth of the NAACP, which was backed by white and black luminaries and had a broader membership base than the Niagara Movement.
The initiative now passed from the black-controlled Niagara Movement to a white-dominated steering committee, which included Du Bois. Washington was invited, and initially expressed support, but he declined to attend. He promised to send a representative but never did, and he secretly opposed the new organization. This caused other black leaders to withhold support until after Washington’s death in 1915. Trotter refused to follow Du Bois into a white-dominated organization, which he protested could not speak effectively for black people. He continued his protests in a newly formed Equal Rights League.
While the Niagara Movement formally disbanded, its stated goals became the NAACP’s agenda for nearly a century. The movement lacked a secure financial base and broad appeal, but the NAACP quickly became the nation’s premier civil rights organization, largely through the efforts of Du Bois, its first director of research and publicity. Du Bois also successfully launched The Crisis, which popularized the association to both black and white Americans.
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk, Chicago: A. C. McClurg.
_____. 1968. The Autobiography of W. E. Burghardt DuBois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century, New York: International Publishers.
Franklin, John H., and Alfred A. Moss Jr. 2000. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.
Harlan, Louis. 1972. Booker T. Washington, the Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kellogg, Charles F. 1967. NAACP: A History of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lewis, David Levering, 1993. W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race. New York: Henry Holt.
Medley, Keith W. 2003. We as Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing.
Raphael Cassimere Jr.
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, 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.