By Selina Long
This article first appeared in the 2016 edition of Circa magazine
Over one hundred and fifty years ago, the American Civil War, one of the greatest wars for freedom on American soil, ended and created three essential human rights amendments: the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment making all Americans born or naturalized in the United States equal citizens; and the Fifteenth Amendment that officially made minorities first-class citizens. For African-Americans this was for the first time in their history an enactment of their civil rights and a beacon of change, though they knew it would not be immediate. For those living in the Northern United States some prosperity did gradually occur over the next forty years but for those living in the South, unfortunately it was a very different scenario. Due to cultural divisions and bitterness over losing the Civil War, white Southerners were not willing to recognize this demand for change in human rights. Though they were forced to accept that the law now confirmed for African-Americans their humanness, they were not inclined to integrate them into humanity to co-exist as equals. Many Southern whites, who were still in control of the economy, were determined to create a lack of opportunity for Blacks by making their available employment a part of the peonage system, a scheme in which white employers compelled Black employees to pay off their debts with work so they were still, even with guaranteed freedom, considered inferior. However, it did not end there, for the next forty years there was a lack of protection and daily fears of violence and lynching, a form of torture where white angry mobs would attack Black men and women by hanging, beating or mutilating them. Lynching was an act of terror meant to spread fear in order to maintain white supremacy. Many Blacks were weary of this constant maltreatment so they reacted with race riots and protests.
Beginning of the Civil Rights Era
However, the most successful start in their fight for freedom was the formal beginning of the Civil Rights Era in 1905, when brilliant and ardent minds worked together to form a platform of change. As most people may not know, the Civil Rights Movement technically had a Canadian origin when in 1905 twenty-nine Americans, most notably W.E.B. Dubois, John Hope, Monroe Trotter, Frederick McGhee and C. E. Bentley, met in Fort Erie, Ontario. For these twenty-nine individuals their objective was to form a new organization constructed on the vital social, economic and political civil rights matters that plagued the African-American community. The committee consisted of both Black and white members but in 1905 these were questionable friendships, especially in the Southern United States, and these were the societal issues they were attempting to conquer. Due to the absence of legal protection and persistent violence against Blacks they obviously could not hold their committee meetings in the South; therefore the North would be safer. Initially they were to meet in Buffalo, New York, but due to racist attitudes, members were barred from Buffalo hotels. However in Niagara, Ontario, they received more welcoming accommodations and found lodging at the Erie Beach Hotel in Fort Erie. This was also better suited for the organization as the Niagara region was already a tourist destination and it attracted political activists of every persuasion. It was also ideal for posing in pictures because it could help to make a statement around the world due to the international fame of the nearby Niagara Falls. With all this taken into consideration they decided to name their organization the Niagara Movement after the grand and powerful Niagara Falls, a force and strong current to which they were also hoping to equate. The organization was meant to initiate change through protestation and advocation against the American government for the full enactment of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
The most important platform that the Niagara Movement utilized, which proved to be their ultimate weapon of advancement through peace, was civil disobedience. They knew it was effective since persistent agitation is the way to liberty, as civil disobedience uneases authorities and forces them to negotiate. The Niagara Movement did this with their monthly periodicals The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line, poster and postcard propaganda and student recruitment. But the success of this was proven in 1906 when Niagara Movement member Barbara E. Pope refused to change seating and occupy a Jim Crow car on the Southern Railway from the District of Columbia to Pannonia Springs, Virginia. Eventually, she was arrested, charged and fined $10.00 but at the Supreme Court of Appeals, Virginia’s fine and ruling was reversed by the judgement of the Circuit Court. It was a landmark decision as it helped to establish under Virginia law that an interstate passenger could refuse to be ‘Jim Crowed’; however the case also drove the organization into debt. Whether it was marching, newspaper publications, sit-ins or legal battles, all of these methods for fighting Jim Crow were adopted into the greater Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Eventually, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote these tenets of the Niagara Movement into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) creed which he co-founded.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of membership and bankruptcy, the Niagara Movement ended its reign in 1909. However, it is best not to judge the organization based on its minimal fame and prominence but rather on its factual goals which they achieved by radically promoting change, and by that verdict it was a success. The Niagara Movement was pivotal in the long history of American Civil Rights because it promoted public dialogue and effectual social interactions. All of their tactics to promote change were eventually adopted fifty years later when Civil Rights participants continuously protested and achieved success with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Of course after this great achievement there was still a long way to go for societal change, but the platform of how to change a nation may have never been possible if it were not for the Niagara Movement.
“We want our children trained as intelligent human beings should be, and we will fight for all time against any proposal to educate Black boys and girls simply as servants and underlings, or simply for the use of other people. They have a right to know, to think, to aspire.”
Niagara Movement Speech
William Edward Burghardt
(W.E.B.) Du Bois
W.E.B. DuBois commenced university studies in 1885 at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, which was at the time an all-Black-American University. He spent two summers as a teacher for poor African-American students; and it was then that he became more aware of the differences between African-Americans living in the North and those in the South, and his passion for civil rights began. At that time he solidified his goals for improving the status of Blacks and came to believe that higher education was an important means of combating racial oppression. In 1895, he became the first African-American to get a Ph.D in history from Harvard University and in 1897 he was appointed as a professor of Economics and History at Atlanta University, where he undertook research on all aspects of African-American life: education, social life, family life, churches, and labour and economics. Du Bois was highly critical of Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist position, which favored elementary and industrial education as the means for Blacks to become economically productive and, hence, eligible for full equality as citizens.
DuBois, on the other hand, staunchly maintained that full and equal civil rights were the birthright of every American, and demanded that full political rights be granted to all Blacks. This principle was acknowledged by all members into the Niagara Movement’s campaign.
Interview with Brooke Blackburn
Fall Film Series: Heroic Journeys – Black Histories on Screen
The J4BL Book Club
Fall Film Series: Heroic Journeys – Black Histories on Screen