W.E.B. Du Bois led the Niagara Movement, a group of Black intellectuals who advocated for complete political, civil, and social rights for African Americans. This approach contrasted sharply with Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist perspective presented in the Atlanta Compromise of 1895. The Niagara Movement was a forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In the summer of 1905, 29 prominent African Americans, including Du Bois, gathered privately in Fort Erie, Ontario, near Niagara Falls, and drafted a manifesto demanding full individual freedoms, the end of racial prejudice and the acknowledgment of human brotherhood. Subsequent yearly meetings were held in iconic settings such as Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Faneuil Hall in Boston.
Despite the establishment of 30 sections and a few scattered local civil rights triumphs, the society suffered from organizational weakness and a lack of funding, as well as a permanent headquarters or members. It was, therefore, never able to gain widespread support. However, following the Springfield (Illinois) Race Riot of 1908, white liberals banded together with the nucleus of Niagara “militants” to form the NAACP the following year. The Niagara Movement dissolved in 1910, with Du Bois’ leadership serving as the principal link between the two organizations.
Establishment of Niagara Movement
The promises of the 14th and 15th Amendments—civil rights for African Americans—had fallen far short as the twentieth century started. Revolution had failed, and in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court had endorsed Jim Crow segregationist practices (1896).
In the face of severe racial prejudice and segregation, Booker T. Washington rose to prominence as one of the era’s most important Black leaders. He believed that rather than relying on legal and political means to progress as a community, Black people should master skills such as farming and carpentry. “We shall not agitate for political or social equality,” Washington declared in 1895, in a speech known as the Atlanta Compromise. “Living separately, yet working together, both races will determine the future of our beloved South.”
In 1905, Du Bois, then an Atlanta University professor, and William Monroe Trotter, creator of the militant journal the Boston Guardian, made an appeal to a small group of Black men who rejected Washington’s accommodationist position. That summer, 29 men from 14 states met in Buffalo, New York, in answer to their appeal. The crew then crossed the border into Canada, where they stayed at the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario, near Niagara Falls, from July 11 to 14, 1905.
Historians have long thought that Du Bois’ party selected Erie Beach as a meeting location after being denied lodging in Buffalo owing to racial prejudice. However, a more recent study by local experts discovered that hotel management in Buffalo did, in fact, follow anti-discrimination laws at the time, rendering this explanation implausible. According to Du Bois’ own writings at the time, the group was looking for a “peaceful spot outside the city near the lake where we can be to ourselves, have conferences together, and have access to leisure,” and the Erie Beach Hotel appeared to meet these criteria.
Movement Goals and Growth
The Niagara Movement’s founding members established a constitution and by-laws, as well as a “Declaration of Principles” that committed the group to work for political and social equality for African Americans. “We refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults,” the declaration read in part. “Persistent manly agitation is the way to liberty, and toward this goal, the Niagara Movement has started and asks the cooperation of all men of all races.”
The Niagara Movement had expanded to 170 members in 34 states by 1906. That August, the group had its first public meeting on the grounds of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Its founders selected the meeting place because it was the location of John Brown’s anti-slavery raid in 1859; Storer was also formed as a Baptist school with a purpose to educate previously enslaved people.
Despite some state-level victories, such as campaigning against the establishment of segregated railroad cars in Massachusetts, the Niagara Movement failed to acquire national traction. The movement faced limited financial resources and fierce opposition from Washington and its followers, as well as ongoing arguments between Du Bois and Trotter over whether or not to accept women. Trotter, who was opposed to allowing women to join the movement, withdrew in 1908 to establish his own group, the Negro-American Political League.
Niagara Movement Speech
W.E.B. Du Bois, a Harvard graduate, and civil rights crusader, delivered his famous “Niagara Movement” address to preach the aspirations of African Americans.
“The men of the Niagara Movement coming from the toil of the year’s hard work and pausing a moment from the earning of their daily bread turn toward the nation and again ask in the name of ten million the privilege of a hearing. In the past year, the work of the Negro hater has flourished in the land. Step by step the defenders of the rights of American citizens have retreated. The work of stealing the black man’s ballot has progressed and the fifty and more representatives of stolen votes still sit in the nation’s capital.
Discrimination in travel and public accommodation has so spread that some of our weaker brethren are actually afraid to thunder against color discrimination as such and are simply whispering for ordinary decencies.
Against this, the Niagara Movement eternally protests. We will not be satisfied to take one jot or title less than our full manhood rights. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil, and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans. It is a fight for ideals, lest this, our common fatherland, false to its founding, become in truth the land of the thief and the home of the Slave – a by-word and a hissing among the nations for its sounding pretensions and pitiful accomplishment.
Never before in the modern age has a great and civilized folk threatened to adopt such a cowardly creed in the treatment of its fellow citizens born and bred on its soil. Stripped of verbiage and subterfuge and in its naked nastiness, the new American creed says: Fear to let black men even try to rise lest they become the equals of the white. And this is the land that pro- fesses to follow Jesus Christ. The blasphemy of such a course is only matched by its cowardice.
In detail, our demands are clear and unequivocal. First, we would vote; with the right to vote goes everything: freedom, manhood, the honor of your wives, the chastity of your daughters, the right to work, and the chance to rise, and let no man listen to those who deny this.
We want full manhood suffrage, and we want it now, henceforth, and forever.
Second. We want discrimination in public accommodation to cease. Separation in railway and streetcars, based simply on race and color, is un-American, un-democratic, and silly. We protest against all such discrimination.
Third, We claim the right of freemen to walk, talk, and be with them that to be with us. No man has a right to choose another man’s friends, and to attempt to do so is an impudent interference with the most fundamental human privilege.
Fourth. We want the laws enforced against rich as well as poor; against Capitalist as well as Laborer; against white as well as black. 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. We want the Constitution of the country enforced. We want Congress to take charge of Congressional elections. We want the Fourteenth amendment carried out to the letter and every State disfranchised in Congress which attempts to disenfranchise its rightful voters. We want the Fifteenth Amendment enforced and no State allowed to base its franchise simply on color.
The failure of the Republican Party in Congress at the session just closed to redeem its pledge of 1904 with reference to suffrage conditions at the South seems a plain, deliberate, and premeditated breach of promise and stamps that party as guilty of obtaining votes under false pretense.
Fifth. We want our children educated. The school system in the country districts of the South is a disgrace and in few towns and cities are the Negro schools what they ought to be. We want the national government to step in and wipe out illiteracy in the South. Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.
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. 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 under- lings, or simply for the use of other people. They have a right to know, to think, to aspire.
These are some of the chief things which we want. How shall we get them? By voting where we may vote, by persistent, unceasing agitation; by hammering at the truth, by sacrifice and work.
We do not believe in violence, neither in the despised violence of the raid nor the lauded violence of the soldier, nor the barbarous violence of the mob, but we do believe in John Brown, in that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right. And here on the scene of John Brown’s martyrdom, we reconsecrate ourselves, our honor, our property to the final emancipation of the race which John Brown died to make free.
Our enemies; triumphant for the present, are fighting the stars in their courses. Justice and humanity must prevail. We live to tell these dark brothers of ours–scattered in counsel, waver- ing and weak – that no bribe of money or notoriety, no promise of wealth or fame, is worth the surrender of a people’s manhood or the loss of a man’s self-respect. We refuse to surrender the leadership of this race to cowards and bucklers. We are men; we will be treated as men. On this rock, we have planted our banners. We will never give up, though the trump of doom finds us still fighting.
And we shall win. The past promised it, the present foretells it. Thank God for John Brown! Thank God for Garrison and Douglass! Sumner and Phillips, Nat Turner and Robert Gould Shaw, and all the hallowed dead who died for freedom! Thank God for all those today, few though their voices are, who have not forgotten the divine brotherhood of all men white and black, rich and poor, fortunate and unfortunate.
We appeal to the young men and women of this nation, to those whose nostrils are not yet befouled by greed and snobbery and racial narrowness: Stand up for the right, prove your- selves worthy of your heritage, and whether born north or south dare to treat men as men. Cannot the nation that has absorbed ten million foreigners into its political life without catastrophe absorb ten million Negro Americans into that same political life at less cost than their unjust and illegal exclusion will involve?
Courage brothers! The battle for humanity is not lost or losing. All across the skies sit signs of promise. The Slave is rising in his might, the yellow millions are tasting liberty, the black Africans are writhing toward the light, and everywhere the laborer, with ballot in his hand, is voting to open the gates of Opportunity and Peace.
The morning breaks over blood-stained hills. We must not falter, we may not shrink. Above are the everlasting stars.
Booker T. Washington and his followers attempted to suppress the formation of this competing movement. After learning of the Movement’s creation, Washington, Thomas Fortune and Charles Anderson met and resolved to hide information about it in the Black press.
They were helped by Archibald Grimké and Kelly Miller, two moderates who were close to Trotter but were not allowed to the convention by Du Bois (Grimké was recruited by Fortune’s New York Age). The Age editorialized that the Movement was little more than an effort to demolish the house that Washington had worked so hard to build.
A Washington supporter in Boston persuaded the printer of Trotter’s Guardian to stop printing, but Trotter managed to keep the paper going. Prominent white activists, like Francis Jackson Garrison and Oswald Garrison Villard (family of Trotter hero abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison), declined to attend Trotter-organized commemorations of their father’s birth anniversary. They selected a Bookerites-organized party.
Despite Washington’s efforts to stifle it, Du Bois reported towards the end of 1905 that a number of black newspapers had published reports of the Movement’s activities, and it had gained further attention as a result of Bookerite press assaults on it. Washington also targeted the Constitution League, a multiracial civil rights organization that disagreed with his accommodating policies. This organization became a common cause for the Movement.
End of the Movement
The resignation of William Monroe Trotter following the 1907 conference, as well as disputes about which party to support in the 1908 election, had a severe negative influence on the organization. With reluctance, Du Bois supported Democratic Party nominee William Jennings Bryan, but many African-Americans couldn’t bring themselves to abandon the Republicans, and William Howard Taft won the election with considerable African-American support. The 1908 annual conference, held at Oberlin, Ohio, was significantly smaller, revealing division and disinterest within the group on both the local and national levels.
Mary White Ovington, a settlement worker and communist whom Du Bois had met in 1904, was asked to speak to the group. She was the only white lady to get such an honor. By 1908, Washington and his supporters had made major gains with the press (both white and black), and the Oberlin meeting garnered little coverage.
Believing that the Movement was “practically gone,” Washington wrote an obituary for the New York Age to publish.
In 1909, chapter activities continued to decrease, membership declined, and the 1910 annual conference (held in Sea Isle City, New Jersey) was a modest event with little newspaper coverage. It was the organization’s final meeting.
Following the August 1908 Springfield Race Riot, a significant race riot in Springfield, Illinois, a number of notable white civil rights advocates called for a large conference on race relations. The meeting, held in New York City in early 1909, set the foundation for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was formally formed in 1910. In 1911, Du Bois (who had been appointed as the NAACP’s director of publications) suggested that the Niagara Movement’s surviving members support the NAACP’s operations.
William Monroe Trotter attended the meeting in 1909 but decided not to join the NAACP; instead, he led a couple of small active civil rights organizations and published the Guardian until his death in 1934.
The Niagara Movement did not appear to be popular among the majority of African-Americans, particularly in the South. At the height of the Movement’s activity in 1905 and 1906, Booker T. Washington spoke to huge and appreciative crowds across much of the country. The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot harmed Washington’s popularity, providing fuel for the Niagarans’ assaults against him.
Furthermore, because Washington and the Niagarans agreed on theory (resistance to Jim Crow laws and favor for equal protection and civil rights) but disagreed on means after Washington died in 1915, the organizations began to reconcile. The NAACP would go on to become the most powerful African-American civil rights organization of the twentieth century.