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The Niagara Movement: Organizing for Social Change

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The Niagara Movement: Organizing for Social Change

Niagara Movement Leaders

Public Domain. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Establishment of the Niagara Movement:

The Niagara Movement was founded in 1905 by scholar and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois and journalist William Monroe Trotter. Originally, Du Bois and Trotter were assembling more than 50 African-American men who did not agree with the philosophy of accommodation that was supported by Booker T. Washington and wanted to develop a more militant approach to fighting inequality.

The conference was to be held in an upstate New York hotel but white hotel owners refused to allow Trotter and Du Bois to reserve a room for their meeting. As a result, the men met on the Canada side of Niagara Falls. From this first meeting of almost thirty African-American business owners, teachers and other professionals, the Niagara Movement was formed.

Key Achievements:

  • First national African-American organization which aggressively petitioned for the civil rights of African-Americans.
  • Published the newspaper Voice of the Negro.
  • Several successful local efforts to end discrimination in United States society.
  • Led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Philosophy:

Invitations were originally sent to more than sixty African-American men who were interested in “organized, determined and aggressive action on the part of men who believe in Negro freedom and growth.” As an assembled group, the men cultivated a “Declaration of Principles” which declared that the Niagara Movement’s focus would be on fighting for political and social equality in the United States. Specifically, the Niagara Movement was interested in the criminal and judicial process as well as improving the quality of education, health and living standards of African-Americans. The organization’s belief of directly combating racism and segregation in the United States was in great opposition to Washington’s position that African-Americans should focus on building “industry, thrift, intelligence and property” before demanding an end to segregation. However, educated and skilled African-American members argued that “persistent manly agitation is the way to liberty” remained strongly in their beliefs in peaceful protests and organized resistance to laws that disenfranchised African-Americans.

Actions of the Niagara Movement:

Following its first meeting on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, members of the organization met annually at sites that were symbolic to African-Americans. For instance, in 1906, the organization met at Harpers Ferry and in 1907, in Boston.

Local chapters of the Niagara Movement were vital to carrying out the organization's manifesto. Initiatives include:

  • The Chicago Chapter demanded that an African-American representation on the New Chicago Charter Committee. This initiative helped avoid segregation in Chicago public schools.
  • The Massachusetts Chapter fought against legalizing segregated railroad cars in the state.
  • Members of the Massachusetts Chapter also lobbied for all Virginians to be admitted to the Jamestown Exposition.
  • Various chapters also protested viewings of Clansmen in their respective towns.

Division within the Movement:

From the outset, the Niagara Movement faced a number of organizational issues including:

  • Du Bois desired the acceptance of women's membership in the organization while Trotter believed it was best managed by men.
  • As a result, Trotter left the organization in 1908 to form the Negro-American Political League.
  • With more political clout and financial backing, Washington successfully weakened the organization's ability to appeal to the African-American press.
  • As a result of little publicity in the press, the Niagara Movement was unable to gain the support of African-Americans of varying social classes.

Disbanding of the Niagara Movement:

Plagued by internal differences and financial difficulties, the Niagara Movement held its final meeting in 1908. That same year, the Springfield Race Riots erupted. Eight African-Americans were killed and more than 2,000 left the town. Following the riots African-American as well as white activists agreed that integration was the key to fighting racism. As a result, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was established in 1910. Du Bois and white social activist Mary White Ovington were founding members of the organization.

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