The Niagara Movement

Predecessor to the NAACP

(Feature photo: Niagara Falls copyright Brenda R. Jones)

Map: Environment and Climate Change Canada

By Karen Rodriguez

“The legal battles to end Jim Crow started by the Niagara Movement paved the way for the NAACP, the key legal fighting body of the Civil Rights Movement.” Angela Jones*

Because lodging was sparse in Buffalo, New York, presumably due to discriminatory practices, the first Niagara Movement meeting was held July 1-13, 1905 at the Erie Beach Hotel in Fort Erie, Ontario. Attendees included William Talbert (whose home in Buffalo was to have been the meeting place), W.E.B. Du Bois, Monroe Trotter, and F.M.H. Murray as well as 25 others from across the country. By 1909 membership in the organization grew to 450. But the Niagara Movement was short lived. Niagara members attended the Feb. 12, 1909 first meeting of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and by 1910 were subsumed by that fledgling organization. In its five years of existence, the Niagara Movement was plagued by disorganization, financial problems, antagonisms among members, and disputes with Booker T. Washington and his associates. But its ideas became the backbone for the new Civil Rights Movement.

Washington and the Tuskegee Institute advocated vocational training and accommodation with the white community in coping with Jim Crow laws and other perceived discriminatory practices. Niagara Movement members objected to Washington’s accommodation views and instead adopted principles from the National Afro-American Council. They demanded full integration and suffrage, a cessation of discrimination in public places, the right to associate with whomever they pleased, and a better education for their children.

The tension between Washington and the Niagara Movement played out in African American newspapers, generally in back and forth editorials between Washington and Niagara Movement leader W.E.B. Du Bois. The positive results of this often ugly disagreement were that newspapers became the primary way for African Americans to debate issues among themselves and this dialog frequently brought national attention to racial injustices.

Left: Booker T. Washington, Digital ID: (digital file from original negative) Date unknown.
Right: William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois. Digital ID: cph.3a53178. 1904.
Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

The idea espoused by the members of the Niagara Movement that African Americans should be fully integrated into American society originated with the Reconstruction Amendments** to the U.S. Constitution enacted after the Civil War. Subsequent to the Amendments, the Compromise of 1877 led to Jim Crow segregation laws, a primary Niagara Movement issue.

In the 1876 Presidential election, Democrat Samuel L. Tilden won the popular vote and 185 electoral votes; Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won 165 electoral votes. Tilden needed all remaining 20 electoral votes to win the White House. The Compromise of 1877 stated that Republicans could have the White House if they ended Reconstruction. Federal troops enforcing the Reconstruction Amendments in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were withdrawn. The Democratic south gained the right to deal with African Americans without the interference of the Republicans in the north. By 1883, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was repealed. In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the idea of “separate but equal”, or Jim Crow segregation.

By 1905 Buffalo, a city on the former Underground Railroad, had become a center for African American intellectuals—lawyers, doctors, and business owners—as well as poor migrants from the south. Jones states, “The Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization, was created because it became painfully obvious that the U.S. government was not going to do anything to address the ‘Negro Problem’ or the inequities produced under slavery.”***

The major contributions of the Niagara Movement include: wide discourse among African Americans via newspapers, conferences, and organization focus groups; legal action undertaken to defend individuals prosecuted for questionable crimes; and, nationally highlighting racial discrimination-related incidents such as the Boston Riot of 1903, the Atlanta Riot of 1906 and the Springfield Riot of 1908. It was the Brownsville Affair of 1906, however, that prompted Niagara Movement members to travel to Washington D.C. to petition Congressmen to right an injustice. The incident led to a shift in African American public opinion from the Republican “party of Lincoln” to the Democratic Party.

The white residents of Brownsville, Texas blamed members of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division, an African American battalion stationed there, for an August 13, 1906 shooting spree that killed one and injured two others. The perpetrators were never found; scanty historical records, however, show that the battalion soldiers were innocent. Nevertheless, without trial or hearing, and in spite of impeccable service records and six Medal of Honor recipients, all in the battalion were given a dishonorable discharge by Secretary of War to President Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft.

The Brownsville Affair of 1906 spurred Niagara Movement members to petition members of Congress on behalf of the battalion, rail against Roosevelt in the African American press, and conduct an anti-Taft campaign when Taft ran for president in 1908. African Americans felt betrayed by the Republican Party when the battalion was not reinstated, so for the first time African Americans voted in great numbers for a Democrat, William Jennings Bryan, who was running against Republican Taft. Bryan lost but, “African Americans were becoming legitimized political actors because of their public electoral activism.”****

The Niagara Movement solidified a platform leading to African American integration into the American political and social system. After the Movement was succeeded by the NAACP, African Americans worked within the justice system through the mid-1950s, took to direct action through the mid-1960s under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., and from the 1970s to today continue to press for civil rights through actions led by political and activist groups such as the Black Power Movement and Black Lives Matter.

*Jones, Angela. African American Civil Rights, Early Activism and the Niagara Movement. p. 71; ***p. 174; ****p. 208

**Reconstruction Amendments: Thirteenth Amendment: ended slavery (1865). Fourteenth Amendment: afforded all citizens due process and equal protection under the law (1868). Fifteenth Amendment: granted suffrage to all male residents regardless of creed or race (1870).

The books:

Jones, Angela. African American Civil Rights, Early Activism and the Niagara Movement. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC. 2011.

Williams, Lillian Serece. Strangers in the Land of Paradise, the Creation of an African American Community, Buffalo, New York, 1900-1940. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press. 1999.

The place:

Niagara Falls in New York and Ontario is in the Niagara River connecting channel between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The channel is in the Lake Ontario basin. Buffalo is on the eastern end of Lake Erie.

Content copyright 2017 Karen Rodriguez

Niagara Falls photo copyright Brenda R. Jones;

Washington and Du Bois photos Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

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