Remembering the Niagra Movement

Radicals in their day pushed for equal rights

Radicals in their day pushed for equal rights

August 13, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Think of iconic moments in the history of black civil rights in the U.S. - Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat for a white passenger and Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Another key moment came about 50 years earlier, when black leaders who called themselves the Niagara Movement took a stand for civil rights. They held their first meeting on U.S. soil in Harpers Ferry in 1906.

The Niagara Movement formed the "backbone of the modern civil rights movement in this country," says George Rutherford, who has been president of the Jefferson County branch of the NAACP for 32 years.

"You could hardly imagine things coming to a head in the effective way they do in the '50s and '60s without the impact years ago, decades earlier, of the Niagara Movement," says David Levering Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who will give the keynote address during the Niagara Movement Centennial celebration in Harpers Ferry. The four-day celebration Thursday through Sunday includes dramatic re-enactments, entertainment and panel discussions.


In the early 20th century and long before television was born, the Niagara Movement received little media attention when compared with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Many people at the time weren't even aware a group of black leaders had convened to discuss equal rights and had issued a manifesto of their demands. Few newspapers carried the news, Lewis says.

The group would go on to meet annually for five years - including its second meeting in 1906 in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. - each time issuing new demands. By 1910 the group stopped meeting, but its work helped lead to the formation of the NAACP in 1909 and laid the groundwork for the coming progress in the civil rights movement, says Todd Bolton, the National Park Service's project director for the centennial celebration.

By the end of the 19th century, Reconstruction following the Civil War had failed to bring the promise of equality home to freed slaves in the South. The Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson ruling made segregation the law of the land, Bolton says.

"All of the hopes, the dreams, the aspirations that African-Americans felt following the Civil War, that things might change throughout the latter part of the 19th century - it was like pulling the stopper out of the bathtub. It was like all this optimism going down the drain," Bolton says.

The Niagara Movement, led by college professor and author W.E.B. Du Bois, took a stand, issuing a manifesto of demands for equal rights for blacks.

"Here was the group that finally put the stopper back in the tub. They stopped the hemorrhage, and ever so slowly things began to change," Bolton says.

People can't put the 1950s and '60s into context without thinking of the Niagara Movement members stopping the hemorrhage and allowing a slow progression toward a positive outcome, he says.

The Setting

After the Civil War, there was a period of considerable optimism and genuine progress in regards to blacks' voting rights and participation in society, Lewis says.

By the 1870s, Southern whites began trying to regain much of the leverage they'd lost and used race as a red flag to end the Reconstruction experiment, he says.

From about 1880 to 1910 was an intense period of consternation and violence with many blacks being lynched, mostly in the South, Lewis says.

Jim Crow laws, prohibiting blacks from using the same public facilities as whites, sprouted up, he says.

The U.S. Supreme Court legalized this segregation as "separate but equal" in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case.

And the most famous black man in America at the time, educator and author Booker T. Washington, supported separate but equal as a compromise, Lewis says. "Here it is, let's be realistic. Let's not be too noisy about rights," was Washington's approach, according to Lewis.

Du Bois disagreed, wanting full, equal rights, says Lewis, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of Du Bois.

It wasn't until one of his colleagues, William Monroe Trotter, was sent to jail after heckling Washington at a Boston church speech that Du Bois took action.

Taking Action

In a June 1905 letter to black leaders, Du Bois called "for organized determination and aggressive action on the part of men who believe in Negro freedom and growth," according to park service historical accounts.

The group was to meet in Buffalo, N.Y., but was turned away from the hotel due to skin color and crossed into Canada and met in Fort Erie, Ontario. The group called itself the Niagara Movement after the unstoppable force of Niagara Falls, according to the park service history.

Washington's influence kept news of the Niagara Movement out of many newspapers, Lewis says.

The group's second meeting, in 1906, was held in Harpers Ferry.

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