At the dawn of the 20th century, black Americans were facing increasingly
precarious circumstances.  Throughout the South, state legislatures were
effectively stripping black men of their civil and voting rights.  A legal system
of Jim Crow racial segregation had taken root.  And, blacks were increasingly
confronting the ropes and pyres of white lynch mobs.  Correctly sensing the
mood of whites, both North and South, and of many blacks, Booker T.
Washington advanced a program that he believed would enable the two races
to exist in peace and prosperity.  Washington suggested that blacks should
cease struggling for integration and political advancement, and instead focus
on becoming economically self-sufficient.  
Although Washington stood as the preeminent voice in black America, some
blacks dismissed Washington’s program of accommodation—arguing that it
would do more to harm the race than it would do to uplift it.  W.E.B. Du Bois
and William Monroe Trotter (editor of Boston’s radical race paper the
Guardian) were among the most outspoken critics of Washington and his
robust Tuskegee Machine.  In 1905, Du Bois and Trotter organized a meeting
of militant black intellectuals and professionals at the Niagara Falls.  From
this meeting emerged a movement that—while short-lived—would have an
indelible impact on the pitch and paths of black protest throughout the 20th
century.  This meeting gave life to the NIAGARA MOVEMENT.
The 29 original members of the Niagara Movement approached the
contemporary struggles of black America with a far more militant bent than
did Washington and his followers.  Rather than entreating their black
countrymen to patiently endure their present oppression in the hope that a
change would come, the men of the Niagara Movement demanded that all
forms of racial discrimination end immediately.  They issued a “Declaration of
Principles” which asserted that, “We refuse to allow the impression to remain
that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under
oppression and apologetic before insults…. [T]he voice of protest of ten million
[black] Americans must never cease to assail the ears of their fellows, so long
as America is unjust.”
Despite the fact that Washington used his influence to compel most
publishers of black newspapers to ignore the movement, the membership of
the movement grew.  And, after some debate, women and a few whites were
permitted to become full members of the movement.  In commemoration of
the 100th birthday of John Brown, the Niagara Movement held its second
meeting at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.  Out of this 1906 gathering
emerged an “Address to the Country” which further distinguished the
Niagara Movement from policies of conciliation.  The address declared that
the members of the Niagara Movement “will not be satisfied to take one jot or
tittle 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.”
The members of the Niagara Movement continued to meet for three years
following the Harper’s Ferry conference.  However, internal conflicts,
financial instability, and harsh opposition from Washingtonian factions
prompted the early demise of the movement.  Nevertheless, Du Bois and
other members would carry over the tradition of direct action protest that the
Niagara Movement initiated to its successor organization—the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  Consciously and
unconsciously, black Americans continue to infuse the spirit of the Niagara
Movement in their struggles for racial justice.

by Korey Bowers Brown
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