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The Niagara Movement: the Early Battle for Civil Rights

The Continued Legacies of the Niagara Movement

by Aldon Morris
Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, Northwestern University
President, American Sociological Association

The Niagara Movement (NM) was organized in 1905 during a time African Americans were severely exploited economically and oppressed socially and politically. This subjugation was sustained through brutal force and violent terrorism. By the turn of the twentieth century, Jim Crow oppression across the southern United States had triumphed in law and customs. So bleak was this racial oppression that W. E. B. Du Bois declared that it had replaced chattel slavery as a new form of slavery. The new slavery persisted in keeping Blacks near starvation and beholden to their former masters for meager resources necessary to merely exist.

Oppressed people throughout history have faced a nearly intractable problem: through what means can they seize freedom given their relative powerlessness. This problem confronted Black people following the collapse of Reconstruction and the implementation of an entrenched caste system that had become dominant by the dawn of the twentieth century. Blacks, therefore, had to develop strategic and tactical measures to address stifling economic conditions and political oppression backed by violence, including lynching. Violent revolt appeared impossible given Blacks were a minority without means to launch effective armed conflict. Neither could Blacks gain freedom through the political process given their disenfranchisement rendered them voteless. Moreover, Blacks could not pursue remedy through the judicial system because courts and juries were completely controlled by whites. Moral suasion was without value because whites viewed Blacks as subhuman unfit for citizenship and human dignity. Thus, under Jim Crow, Blacks appeared powerless to change their wretched position and to progress as a people. 

Booker T. Washington developed an approach which he believed would empower Blacks over the long term and garner the support of white power holders. He proposed that Blacks make themselves useful to whites by becoming valuable manual and industrial laborers. In so doing, Blacks could assist whites in industry and generate huge amounts of wealth. Blacks could become proficient in these endeavors by acquiring industrial education and developing a disciplined work ethic enabling them to produce at unprecedented levels. In return for their labors, Washington believed Blacks would prosper economically thereby accruing wealth and property which would contribute to their economic independence guaranteeing Black progress.

In exchange for this progress, Blacks were to forego social equality and political enfranchisement. Thus, Washington’s plan accommodated the interests of whites economically, politically, and socially. Rather than demanding the dismantling of Jim Crow racial segregation, Washington’s approach accepted racial segregation for the sake of spurring economic cooperation across the color line. Because this plan embraced whites’ basic material and psychic needs, it became known as the Washingtonian accommodationist approach to achieve Black freedom.

The accommodationist approach fell far short of its promises. During the early years of the twentieth century, Blacks remained economic slaves and a politically voiceless people. Violence on Blacks proliferated as lynching and pogroms became commonplace. Blacks continued to endure insults and were portrayed and treated as an inferior race. They were a people whose humanity was stubbornly denied. Given this situation, Black freedom proved elusive and prospects for a rewarding future were dire. 

Militant Black leaders including Monroe Trotter, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois, became agitated with the relentless oppression and critical of accommodationist politics. Thus, in 1905 a group of these well-educated professionals organized the Niagara Movement. Their approach explicitly rejected accommodationist politics as a viable strategy to achieve Black liberation. Philosophically, the NM declared Blacks were full human beings who must refuse to settle for nothing less than full social and political equality. They demanded the dissolution of Jim Crow and advocated for the inclusion of African Americans as fully enfranchised citizens of the United States. They rejected the view that People of color globally were inferior and pledged to seek the erasure of the color line that belted the world. They sought a freedom that honored Black humanity, enabling Black people to enjoy all privileges and rights granted to humans as their birthright.

To secure these rights, the NM adopted the strategy of agitation and protest. The movement declared, “we do not hesitate to complain, and to complain loudly and insistently… 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.” Regarding protest, it was asserted “we believe that this class of American citizens should protest emphatically and continually against the curtailment of their political rights.” Moreover, “the voice of protest of ten million Americans must never cease to assail the ears of their fellows, so long as America is unjust.” Yet, the NM rejected violence as a tactic while aggressively condoning self-defense. By choosing agitation and protest, the NM broke from the accommodationist approach of Washington. Indeed, Niagara leaders opposed Washington’s proclamation that “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.” Members of the NM insisted that the idea that for Blacks to meet white approval, they had to study to show themselves useful and loyal to their white superiors, was suicidal. 

To operationalize agitation and protests the NM developed specific tactics. They held rallies, conducted marches, and produced writings aimed at producing restless agitation among the Black masses. These measures encouraged Blacks to break free from submissive attitudes and recognize their duty was to strike the first blow for freedom. Legal warfare was chosen as the dominant protest tactic through which Black freedom would be won by challenging Jim Crow in the courts. Thus, in 1906, a member of the NM--Barbara E. Pope—refused to move to the Jim Crow section of a Virginia train. Before Virginia’s Supreme Court, the NM won the case of Pope v. the Commonwealth of Virginia which concluded Jim Crow transportation was illegal. Hence, Pope, though unheralded, “sat” into history half century before Rosa Parks. The Pope case demonstrated that Jim Crow could be whittled away in the courts. Overall, during the first decade of the twentieth century, the NM pioneered agitation and protest as foundational pillars of the historic Black freedom struggle. 

The NM was all-Black, which proved Blacks themselves were fully capable of leading their own freedom movement. The movement was elitist in that its leaders were privileged given their educational achievements and occupations. In the beginning, the movement was sexist given women were not allowed to join. Black women, and Du Bois, led the fight for gender inclusion which culminated in women being accepted as members of the organization a year after its inception. Nevertheless, within five years of its founding, the NM collapsed because it had no mass base, suffered severe financial shortfalls, and was unable to overcome internal rivalries. However, the movement existed long enough to have major influences on the Black freedom struggle, including on the modern civil rights movements and the contemporary Black Lives Matter Movement.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored people (NAACP) was born in 1909 from the ashes of the Niagara Movement. A majority of the members of the NM transitioned directly into the NAACP which has endured as the preeminent civil rights organization to this day. The major resource the NM bequeathed the NAACP was Du Bois, a founder of the NM who also became a founder and a prominent leader of the NAACP. Du Bois brought his knowledge of agitation and protest to the new movement. It also provided strategic and tactical direction for the  NAACP. Like the NM, the NAACP championed agitation and protests as their weapons of resistance. The NAACP formidable victories against Jim Crow consisted of major legal victories which culminated in the 1954 Brown vs Board decision which declared school segregation was unconstitutional thus undermining the entire infrastructure of Jim Crow. The Brown decision was a direct descendant of the 1906 Pope decision.

Unlike the NM, the NAACP was dominated by white leadership. This leadership composition influenced the NAACP to pursue liberal approaches to achieve Black freedom which contrasted with the more radical approaches of the NM. As a result, the NAACP relied heavily on the legal strategy which depended on the action of litigants rather than mass resistance. Albeit for different reasons, both the NM and the NAACP shared the liability of not having a mass base. This reality limited the capacity of either movement to achieve sweeping resistance necessary for the overthrow of Jim Crow. Nevertheless, until mid-twentieth century, the NAACP kept the flame of resistance aglow through its local branches thus helping to prepare the way for a massive onslaught against racial segregation that erupted in the second half of the century.

 Massive resistance of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) was launched by the 1955 mass Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. Through the mass protest of the boycott and a supreme court ruling, Blacks in Montgomery overthrew local bus segregation. Hence, the foundation of the modern civil rights movement was firmly laid by the successful boycott and gave rise to mass protests across the South. The legacy of the NM and the NAACP was apparent in the CRM because it adopted the strategy of agitation and protests and rejected violence. The CRM drew lessons from the writings and activism of Du Bois who was a stellar scholar and activist. Martin Luther King, Jr. and fellow activists acknowledged Du Bois’s scholarship and activism armed them with pivotal agency during their struggles against Jim Crow. King agreed that protests were the keys to overthrowing Jim Crow because the continuing whirlwinds of revolt would need to shake the nation until justice emerged. Moreover, many of the leaders and activists of the CRM were trained to resist Jim Crow within NAACP branches. 

Like the two previous movements, the formal leaders of the CRM were men. As in the NM, The CRM was driven by black leadership who recognized the need not to pull back on the throttle of massive resistance. Moreover, unlike the NM and the NAACP, the civil rights movements mobilized a mass base through Black churches, educational institutions, and voluntary organizations. As a result, the CRM was able to generate enormous protests that caused the Jim Crow Regime to collapse because of mass disruptions of the economy and the racist social order. 

Most modern justice movements in the United States and abroad have been influenced by the strategies, tactics, and cultural repertories of the CRM.  Indirectly these movements have been influenced by the legacy of the NM interwoven in the fabric of the CRM. These influences are evident in the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) given its embrace of agitation and protests. Indeed, BLM has generated protests across continents at unprecedented levels. Like the NM and the CRM, BLM is directed by black leadership. However, in contrast to those movements, BLM’s top leadership consists of Black women who are disproportionately queer. This composition was unimaginable in the NM and CRM and rebuffed as was the leadership of Bayard Rustin during the CRM. Parts of these legacies, therefore, have endured and have been overcome in succeeding movements because of their retrogressive attributes. Thus, the CRM eschewed NAACP’s lack of mass participation and militancy, while BLM criticized exclusive male leadership in the CRM. Each of these movements introduced innovations to avoid repeating stumbling blocks present in the NM and CRM.

The historic significance of the Niagara Movement lies in its status as the first national protest movement to achieve Black liberation. To be sure, the legacy of the Niagara Movement endures in the life of succeeding protest movements. This remains true whether the continuing legacies of the Niagara Movement stem from the embrace of its positive attributes or rejections of its retrogressive elements. The example of the Niagara Movement shines bright because it taught that the voice of protest of millions of people globally must never cease to assail the ears of those standing in paths to human freedom.

Aldon Morris

Aldon Morris is the Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University. His interests include race, social inequality, religion, politics, theory and social movements. Morris is the author of the award winning book, The Origins of the Civil rights Movement. He is co-editor of Frontiers in Social Movement Theory and Opposition Consciousness. He has published widely on a variety of topics. His book, The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, was published in 2015 by the University of California Press.