Before the NAACP, the Niagara Movement fought for equal rights

Associated Press | 8/29/2012, 9:18 a.m.
A little more than 100 years ago, the civil rights organization that led to the formation of the NAACP held...
Niagara Movment members J.L. Clifford, L.M. Hershaw, F.H.M. Murray and W.E.B. Du Bois convened in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., in 1906. University of Massachusetts at Amherst

A little more than 100 years ago, the civil rights organization that led to the formation of the NAACP held its largest gathering in Boston to help fight for racial equality in America.

By the time the Niagara Movement hit Boston for its annual conference in late August 1907, W.E.B. Du Bois was poised for battle.

The Movement had inched along the prior three years, and the strain of running an organization plagued with chronic infighting, limited resources and an almost insurmountable goal of attaining racial equality within turn-of-the-century America was a daunting task. Especially for an intellectual like Du Bois, more comfortable in academia than slapping backs and shaking hands.

But he tried. Lord knows, Du Bois tried.

“I was no natural leader of men,” Du Bois wrote years later. “I could not slap people on the back and make friends of strangers. I could not easily break down an inherited reserve; or at all times curb a biting, critical tongue. Nevertheless, having put my hand to the plow, I had to go on.”

And people, mostly African Americans, were willing to follow, largely because the other national black leader at the time, Booker T. Washington, the Wizard of Tuskegee, was considered part of the problem.

About 800 people showed up that day at Faneuil Hall — the largest gathering of the Movement — and listened to Du Bois try to stir the masses.

“We are not discouraged,” he declared. “Help us brothers, for the victory which lingers, must and shall, prevail.”

It would be a long fight, and the Niagara Movement did not make it to the end. In 1910, the all-black group gave birth to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and many of the members of the Niagara Movement dedicated their efforts to the new group. It was believed then that an organization of whites and blacks would be more effective in achieving goals of racial equality.

In his autobiography, published in 1940, Du Bois conceded that the Movement never really gained national traction.

“The Niagara Movement itself had made little progress, beyond its inspirational fervor, toward a united and constructive program of work,” Du Bois wrote in “Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept.”

“It was therefore not without misgiving that the members of the Niagara Movement were invited into the new conference …”

It started with so much hope — and in direct opposition to Washington’s accommodationist policies. From where Washington sat, and that was frequently with U.S. presidents and titans of American industry, the “Negro problem” would disappear if the recently freed slaves would just learn to accept their role in society — at the bottom, in the fields, toiling still.

Making matters worse, Washington and his Tuskegee Institute controlled the lion’s share of money donated by liberal, well-intentioned whites for improving the lives and education of blacks.

“We shall not agitate for political or social equality,” Washington declared in his famous 1895 Atlanta Compromise speech. “Living separately, yet working together, both races will determine the future of our beloved South.”