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Heritage Moments: W.E.B. Du Bois, the Niagara Movement and the ‘mighty current’ of black protest

Photo retrieved from the Library of Congress
The founders of the Niagara Movement photographed in Fort Erie in July 1905. W.E.B. Du Bois is in the middle row, second from right, in white hat and bowtie

For black people at the turn of the 20th century, America was a harrowing place to be. It was a land of legally sanctioned discrimination, widespread lynchings, enforced poverty and open, constant insult. Black leaders tried different strategies to help African-Americans cope with these conditions.

The educator Booker T. Washington advocated accommodation rather than a direct challenge to Jim Crow laws, in the hope that white America would gradually change – an approach that found favor with the country’s white majority. But a few other black leaders espoused a more confrontational strategy, one that called for an immediate end to racial prejudice. They were led by a young Harvard- and Berlin-educated author and intellectual from Western Massachusetts named W.E.B. Du Bois.

Du Bois and his colleagues established an organization, called the Niagara Movement, to galvanize opposition to discrimination. Founded in Buffalo and Fort Erie, it soon evolved into the most important civil rights group of the century.

It all began in February 1905, when Du Bois and more than two dozen other black leaders met at the Buffalo home of another prominent African-American intellectual and organizer, Mary B. Talbert of the Michigan Street Baptist Church. There they drafted the principles of what would become the Niagara Movement, and invited 59 black businessmen from all over America, believed to be sympathetic with their more “militant” strategy, to a conference that summer.

That conference was held in July at the Erie Beach Hotel, a Fort Erie resort perched on the spot where Lake Erie starts flowing into the Niagara River. For many years it was assumed that Du Bois and his colleagues met in Canada because hotels on the U.S. side would not accommodate black guests, but research by the historian Cynthia Van Ness revealed that Buffalo hotels had long been in compliance with New York State anti-discrimination laws. Rather, Du Bois staged the conference in Fort Erie largely to hide it from Booker T. Washington’s sympathizers.

Du Bois and his colleagues called their new organization the Niagara Movement, after the “mighty current” of protest, and of change, they sought to unleash. For three days the conference’s 29 participants met, emerging with a “declaration of principles” primarily written by Du Bois. While the manifesto may seem relatively tame by today’s standards, at the time it was considered radically militant.

It called for full and immediate voting rights, civil rights and economic opportunity, and equality in education, the courts, health and housing. It demanded equal treatment in the military, an end to the color line and other forms of segregation and more, in language that still resonates well over a century later:

We refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults. Through helplessness we may submit, but the voice of protest of 10 million Americans must never cease to assail the ears of their fellows, so long as America is unjust. … We repudiate the monstrous doctrine that the oppressor should be the sole authority as to the rights of the oppressed. … This nation will never stand justified before God until these things are changed.

For the next four years the Niagara Movement soldiered on, but it was beset by internal disputes and poor finances. Nevertheless its stridency proved popular among African-Americans after lynchings and race riots in Atlanta in 1906 and Springfield, Ill., in 1908 showed that Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist approach was doing little to stop outbursts of anti-black violence.

In 1909 Du Bois and several of his colleagues allied with white liberals to found a new organization dedicated to racial equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Thus from the ashes of the Niagara Movement arose the N.A.A.C.P., a leading force in the civil rights movement from its founding right up to today.

Du Bois was 37 when he came to Fort Erie. He would remain one of America’s most important activists and thinkers until his death at age 95 – one day before the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. His passing was announced to the hundreds of thousands of marchers gathered at the Lincoln Memorial by Roy Wilkins, the head of the N.A.A.C.P. The crowd honored Du Bois with a moment of silent prayer.  

Cast (in order of appearance):

W.E.B. Du Bois: Aaron Moss

Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)

Sound editing: Micheal Peters

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)