BEFORE THE NAACP: “The Niagara Movement”


“By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget:  ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.”  (W.E.B. DuBois, “The Souls of Black Folk”)


Since July 4, 1776, African-Americans have acknowledged the power and profundity of the eloquent prose, adopted by 56 white guys from the Continental Congress, as the 13 colonies further distanced themselves from the British Empire.  This famed human rights proclamation became one of the linchpins to the wheels of freedom for this nation’s black citizenry.  But, over the next 200 years, black Americans still had to hustle and scrap for a place in line behind lighter-skinned immigrants for their “legal rights” and, astonishingly, their so-called “natural rights,” as well. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” was not the obvious reality for African-Americans that ideologists would have you believe.

The painful road to freedom’s doorsteps, for African-Americans, has been chock-full of derailing roadside bombs, calling for persistent and strategic defusing techniques, legal and “unlawful” (i.e., civil disobedience, etc.).  The response to these often explosive occurrences were many times led by honorable and decent thinking whites who paid a heavy price, as well.   This included Colonial era civil rights warriors like the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Quaker driven Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage and other German and Dutch Quaker-oriented abolitionist initiatives.  It also extended to modern-era, acronym-penned groups like CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) and NAACP (National Association of Colored People). The sad part of this painful path to liberty, in my opinion, is the often ignored sacrifices and buried contributions of our white American brethren, as in the NAACP and other battle-tested groups.

Though dwindling membership rolls now haunt the struggling NAACP, perhaps the notches on its court-fighting muzzles are the most impressive.  Yet, four years before their awe-inspiring debut, in 1909, its fledgling predecessor was setting the stage.  Spearheaded by a fearless freedom fighter, W.E.B. DuBois, the group was named after the powerful cascading waters of Niagara Falls, in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada.  The first meeting of the “Niagara Movement” was significant, since Fort Erie was where many American slaves had ended their Underground Railroad journey.  This followed their finally crossing over into Canada from the shores of Lake Erie and Buffalo, New York.  But, the “Niagara Movement” inaugural meeting was also significant for another reason.  It was a giant step away from the more conciliatory policies of Booker T. Washington, whom DuBois labeled as “The Great Accommodator,” due to Washington’s beliefs that blacks needed to cooperate more with sympathetic whites to overcome the murky waters of racism and segregation.

The “Niagara Movement” was a more aggressive appeal to the senses of America’s court system for equal punishment and judicial reformation, including the removal of discrimination from jury selection.  Among its many human rights assertions, it also called for employers to ensure that blacks, like whites, would have permanent employment and demanded that labor unions stop boycotting black workers.  This black organization’s Declaration of Principles also called for equitable treatment in the military, as well as demanding the nation to enforce constitutional law for everyone.  Clearly, in 1905, the “Niagara Movement” was setting a more militant tone for its descendant, more-racially diverse clusters of civil rights advocates which followed its lead.

In 1906, a follow-up meeting was held on the campus of HBCU (Historically Black College & University) Storer College, now a component of Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia- another link to the Abolitionist Movement.  According to history records, DuBois and other attendees discussed prevailing civil rights issues, then removed their shoes, took off their socks and walked barefooted to the nearby historic fort to honor the grounds where John Brown’s famed-but-failed raid, on the federal armory, stoked the fires of black freedom and civil rights.

These were just some of the events that inspired my Baptist minister father, who once met W.E.B. DuBois, my personal name-sake, perhaps even marking me forever within my own pursuits.  Like the ancient African tribal traditions of naming children, based on their order of birth, circumstances at birth, desired characteristics, etc., my middle given name (DuBois), although French in origin, bestowed the desires of my father to honor the footprints of this freedom warrior who came before me.  Behind their footsteps and my own pursuits toward purposeful living, I was compelled to extend the same middle name to our two sons.  Interestingly, even a grandson bears the same name.  It’s not yet clear what names my daughter or other son may choose; both are unmarried to-date.  But, I’m thankful that my father pondered long and hard about the worthiness of his life journey and the legacy of my ancestors, as well.

DuBois’ efforts with the “Niagara Movement” were fraught with debilitating financial challenges and organizational problems.  And, the “Springfield (Illinois) Race Riot of 1908” highlighted the need for more interracial discussions and approaches to defuse spiraling racial tensions.  This particular riot ended in 40 homes and 24 businesses being destroyed.  Five white people and two black citizens were killed.  History records hint of many more “unreported” deaths of white people shot by black citizens defending their homes and businesses.

Typical of many racially-charged events, the riots came at the heels of a white woman falsely claiming that a black man had raped her, according to documentation.  When she later admitted to lying, the falsely accused black man was released from jail. The release infuriated many whites who responded by burning black-owned residential and commercial properties, resulting in an estimated $200,000 in damage.  In the court cases which followed, no white person was convicted of any serious crimes (records show that a Jewish person was convicted of a lesser crime of stealing a saber).  However, when a white engineer was killed by a black home intruder, the black person was found guilty of attempted rape and later hung, after a trial.  On the other hand, an 84-year-old, law-abiding black cobbler, whose only “crime” was being married to a white woman, was dragged from his home and lynched in a nearby schoolyard.

Ironically, these activities took place in the “Land of Lincoln,” the birthplace of the 16th President of the United States, whose proclamation abolished slavery in the U.S.  The riots led to the formation of the NAACP, in the wake of the feeble attempts of the “Niagara Movement.” These were part of the winding, pockmarked roads to freedom’s doorsteps experienced by African-American citizens. These are the “self-evident” truths of a significant number of our nation’s citizenry, black and white.  They inspired the collective reasoning, across racial lines, which launched the NAACP’s historic assaults on disgraceful national injustice.  These are the whispered hints of history- to avoid the mistakes of the past- if our nation will only listen…

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

(Previously posted on 08/13/2010)


About William "Duke" Smither (a.k.a., "Backstreet D'jeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and former contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy. A second installment ["Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue...."] is pending completion.