In Erie, Ontario, near Niagara Falls, in 1905, a group of notable Black intellectuals led by W.E.B. Du Bois met to form an organization advocating for African Americans’ civil and political rights. The Niagara Movement was a predecessor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the civil rights movement because of its comparatively strong approach to battling racial discrimination and segregation.
The Niagara Movement Is Founded
As the twentieth century began, the 14th and 15th Amendments’ promises of civil rights for African Americans had fallen far short. Reconstruction had failed, and in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court had sanctioned Jim Crow segregationist rules (1896).
In the face of pervasive racial discrimination and segregation, Booker T. Washington rose to prominence as one of the most significant Black leaders of the time. He believed that rather than relying on legal and political means to advance as a community, Black people should develop skills such as farming and carpentry. In 1895, in a speech known as the Atlanta Compromise, Washington proclaimed, “We shall not agitate for political or social equality.” “Both races will determine the future of our beloved South by living independently but working together.”
In 1905, Du Bois, then an Atlanta University professor, and William Monroe Trotter, the creator of the activist newspaper the Boston Guardian, made a summons to a limited group of Black men who opposed Washington’s accommodationist approach. 29 men from 14 states met in Buffalo, New York that summer in answer to their invitation. The group then crossed the border into Canada, where they met from July 11 to 14, 1905, at the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario, near Niagara Falls.
Historians have long speculated that Du Bois’ party chose Erie Beach as a meeting location after being denied lodging in Buffalo owing to racial prejudice. However, local scholars have recently discovered that hotel management in Buffalo did, in fact, follow anti-discrimination rules at the time, rendering this argument improbable. The group sought a “quiet area outside the city near the lake where we can be alone, hold conferences together, and have access to recreation,” according to Du Bois’ own writings at the time; the Erie Beach Hotel appears to have fitted these conditions.
Movement’s Objectives And Expansion
The Niagara Movement’s founding members approved a constitution and by-laws at their first meeting, as well as a “Declaration of Principles” committing the group to working for political and social equality for African Americans. In part, the declaration stated, “We refuse to allow the idea that the Negro-American accepts inferiority, is meek under oppression and is remorseful in the face of insults.” “Persistent manly agitation is the path to liberty, and the Niagara Movement has begun in this direction, requesting the support of all men of all races.”
The Niagara Movement had expanded to 170 members in 34 states by 1906. In August of that year, the organization conducted its first public meeting on the Storer College campus in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Storer was created as a Baptist school with a mission to educate previously enslaved people, and its members chose the meeting place because of its historical significance as the site of John Brown’s anti-slavery raid in 1859.
Despite some success on a state level, such as campaigning against the legalization of segregated railroad cars in Massachusetts, the Niagara Movement did not garner much national traction. Limited financial resources, as well as fierce opposition from Washington and his allies, as well as an internal conflict between Du Bois and Trotter over whether or not to accept women, hampered the organization. Trotter, who was against allowing women to join the movement, departed in 1908 to create the Negro-American Political League.
The Niagara Movement Comes To An End, And The NAACP Is Founded
Though a 1907 meeting at Boston’s Faneuil Hall drew as many as 800 people, the Niagara Movement’s popularity waned quickly. Then, in August 1908, in the aftermath of a significant racial riot in Springfield, Illinois, Du Bois joined other famous activists, notably Mary White Ovington, in pushing for a new civil rights organization that would include both Black and white members.
The NAACP, which was created in February 1909 in New York City, was the outcome. Despite the fact that the Niagara Movement conducted its final conference in 1908 and legally disbanded in 1911, the majority of its members continued to struggle for African Americans’ civil and political rights through the NAACP.