Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Niagara Movement

Niagara Movement 1905Some say that the 20th century civil rights movement began on July 11, 1905, when 29 black men met on the Canadian side of the Niagara River to form a new national organization called "The Niagara Movement". Led by W. E. B. Du Bois, the men, intellectuals and activists from 14 states, gathered to formally distance themselves from Booker T. Washington's conciliatory approach, and to establish a more action-oriented group. Two key members of the group were Bostonians Clement G. Morgan and William Monroe Trotter.

Du Bois also had a Massachusetts connection. He had been born in Great Barrington, in Western Massachusetts, and he, Morgan, and Trotter were all Harvard College graduates. Du Bois was also the first black to earn a Ph.D. from that institution.

Morgan had graduated from Harvard (along with Du Bois) in 1890, and then from Harvard Law School in 1893. He was the first black man to be senior class orator at Harvard; he and Du Bois had finished first and second in the junior class oratory contest the year before. He had been the first black Cambridge city councilor in 1985-1896, and was a practicing lawyer in the Boston area in 1905.

Trotter had grown up in the Boston area--first in South Boston, and later in Hyde Park. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard five years after Du Bois and Morgan, in 1895. He was the first man of color to earn a Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, and in 1901 co-founded the Boston Guardian, and became its editor.

The 1905 formal address of the Niagara Movement to the country, co-authored by Du Bois and Trotter, acknowledged that "the negro American" had made a lot of progress in the prior decade. But, the address continued:

This class of American citizens should protest emphatically and continually against the curtailment of their political rights. . . . We believe also to protest against the curtailment of our civil rights. All American citizens have the right to equal treatment. . . . We especially complain against the denial of equal opportunities to us in economic life; in the rural districts of the south this amounts to peonage and virtual slavery. . . . Common school education should be free to all American children and compulsory. . . . We demand upright judges in courts, juries selected without discrimination on account of color, and the same measure of punishment and the same efforts at reformation for black as for white offenders. . . .

At the same time we want to acknowledge with deep thankfulness the help of our fellow-men from the abolitionist down to those who today still stand for equal opportunity and who have given and still give of their wealth and of their property for our advancement. . . . God forbid that we should ever forget to urge corresponding duties upon our people: The duty to vote. The duty to respect the rights of others. The duty to work. The duty to obey the laws. The duty to be clean and orderly. The duty to send our children to school. The duty to respect ourselves, even as we respect others.

Morgan became state secretary for the Massachusetts state organization, and his wife, Gertrude Wright Morgan, became the national secretary for women in 1906. Trotter did not favor allowing women to become members, and Trotter and Morgan (and their wives) clashed on this and other issues. Du Bois eventually sided with Morgan, and William and Geraldine Trotter left the movement in 1907. This feud in the Massachusetts branch was draining to the organization, and to Du Bois personally, who had been close to Trotter. Combined with financing and leadership problems, and continued conflict with Booker T. Washington, the Niagara Movement had broken up by 1910. But Niagara was instrumental in the formation of the NAACP in 1909, and most Niagarites transferred their allegiance to that organization.

Illustration Credits and References

The photo above was taken from the University of Massachusetts Library Collections. Du Bois is second from the right in the middle row; next to him (last in the row) is Robert Bonner, also of Massachusetts. Clement Morgan is second from the left in the bottom row.

The text of the address was taken from the July 16, 1905 Boston Sunday Globe.

Many original documents and photographs relating to the Niagara Movement can be seen at the University of Massachusetts web site, which has a large W.E.B. Du Bois collection.

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