Founding of the Niagara Movement

The Niagara Movement, which was founded by W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter, attempted to elevate the position of African Americans in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

The Niagara Movement was formed largely as a response to the indifference of local, state, and federal authorities to the plight of blacks in the United States. Despite the promises of the Civil War and Reconstruction, lynching and mob violence went unchecked throughout the South during the Jim Crow period (1881-1914). Outbreaks of rioting were also common in the North at this time. By the end of the nineteenth century, interracial violence had become a national problem. Niagara Movement
African Americans;organizations
[kw]Founding of the Niagara Movement (July 11, 1905)
[kw]Niagara Movement, Founding of the (July 11, 1905)
Niagara Movement
African Americans;organizations
[g]Canada;July 11, 1905: Founding of the Niagara Movement[01330]
[g]United States;July 11, 1905: Founding of the Niagara Movement[01330]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;July 11, 1905: Founding of the Niagara Movement[01330]
[c]Social issues and reform;July 11, 1905: Founding of the Niagara Movement[01330]
[c]Organizations and institutions;July 11, 1905: Founding of the Niagara Movement[01330]
Du Bois, W. E. B.
Washington, Booker T.
Roosevelt, Theodore
[p]Roosevelt, Theodore;opposition from Niagara Movement
Taft, William Howard
[p]Taft, William Howard;opposition from Niagara Movement
Carnegie, Andrew
Trotter, William Monroe

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the three most important spokesmen for the rights of blacks in the United States were Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and William Monroe Trotter. Washington, who was an adviser to Theodore Roosevelt and a friend to white millionaires, counseled blacks to practice accommodation. He drew sharp attacks from Du Bois, editor of the newspaper The Crisis, and Trotter, editor of the Boston newspaper The Guardian, for his insistence that blacks should settle for vocational education instead of striving for higher education.

W. E. B. Du Bois.

(Library of Congress)

The philosophical division between Washington’s supporters, known as the Bookerites, Bookerites and his detractors, the anti-Bookerites, Anti-Bookerites[Antibookerites] became even more apparent after a riot that took place in Boston. Trotter had arranged to confront Washington at a public meeting to be held in the Columbus Avenue African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. When Washington was introduced to the two thousand people in attendance, a riot ensued in which one person was stabbed and Trotter himself was arrested. As a result of the exaggerated coverage given to the event in the newspapers, the anti-Bookerites received considerable support. Trotter had become, in effect, a martyr for the radical left.

In 1903, Washington began to perceive the need for a militant and unified organization of black Americans. In February, he informed Du Bois of his plan to unite all black spokesmen. With the financial assistance of his friend Andrew Carnegie, Washington arranged for a conference to be held at Carnegie Hall in New York during the first week of January, 1904. Invitations were sent to twenty-eight influential blacks, only eight of whom were anti-Bookerites. Trotter was not invited. The planned meeting was kept secret from the public.

Essentially, the conference of 1904 set the groundwork for a more permanent organization. The Bookerites and anti-Bookerites who attended the meeting arrived at a compromise position. They also agreed to appoint a permanent committee, known as the Committee of Twelve, Committee of Twelve at a later date. Although the conference gave the appearance of harmony, this facade was shattered later by comments made in the press by Washington and Du Bois.

Du Bois became disillusioned with the Committee of Twelve when, in July, 1904, it adopted a more conservative platform than had been agreed on in January and appointed Washington as its chairman. After resigning from the Committee of Twelve in March, 1905, Du Bois, with the support of Trotter, set about forming a more radical organization. Trotter suggested forming a “strategy board” that would become a national anti-Washington organization. After resolving that no expenses were to be paid by any white benefactors, Du Bois and Trotter met with F. L. McGhee McGhee, F. L. of St. Paul and C. E. Bentley Bentley, C. E. of Chicago to plan a meeting to be held that summer in western New York. Invitations were mailed to black leaders in seventeen states.

On July 11, 1905, twenty-nine black men from all over the United States gathered at Fort Erie, Ontario, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, and christened their organization the Niagara Movement. Having learned their lesson from the Committee of Twelve, the men created an executive system of overlapping jurisdictions for their organization to prevent domination by any one member. Du Bois was elected general secretary, and George Jackson, a lawyer from Cincinnati, was elected general treasurer. Both men worked in conjunction with an executive committee made up of the chairmen of the individual states’ local chapters. Work was divided among special committees, the most important of which, the Press and Public Opinion Committee, was headed by Trotter. The state committees were assigned the roles of securing just legislation for blacks and of carrying out educational and propaganda functions.

The Niagara Movement’s “Declaration of Principles,” drafted by Du Bois and Trotter, was a radical document that was the foundation for a radical organization. In blunt language, the document accused the white race of “ravishing and degrading” the black race and pleaded for the cooperation of all men of all races. It also demanded that whites grant blacks suffrage as well as equal civil rights, equal economic opportunities, and equal educational opportunities. Du Bois and Trotter hoped that their fledgling organization would confront Booker T. Washington and his white supporters.

The Tuskegee Machine, Tuskegee Machine led by Washington, opposed the Niagara Movement from the outset. Washington’s supporters infiltrated the Niagara Movement and tried to isolate it. Although Washington agreed almost entirely with the Declaration of Principles, he did not agree with the founders’ plans for achieving their goals, which included a political emphasis, agitation, and demands for an immediate end to all racial discrimination and lacked attention to economic development.

In spite of the harassment from Tuskegee, the Niagara Movement made considerable progress during its first year. In December, 1906, Du Bois reported to the group’s 170 members in thirty-four states that the organization had distributed more than one thousand pamphlets. State chapters across the country had worked in conjunction with local protest groups in such major cities as New York and Philadelphia and in the District of Columbia. Members had also demonstrated against a segregated exposition in Jamestown, Virginia, and had protested an amendment to the Hepburn railroad rate bill that legalized segregated passenger seating in trains. When the Niagara Movement convened in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in August, 1906, for its second annual conference, the organization’s only serious problem seemed to be a lack of funds.

Problems, however, had already begun to surface in the months preceding the meeting, and they continued throughout the year. Early in 1906, Du Bois had angered Trotter by forming a women’s auxiliary of the movement. In the fall, a serious breach developed between Trotter and Clement Morgan, Morgan, Clement the secretary of the Massachusetts state branch. Trotter objected vehemently when Morgan accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for a seat in the legislature, thereby violating the movement’s rule forbidding members to hold office. In a show of protest, Trotter resigned from the Committee on Arrangements.

Trotter’s final break from the Niagara Movement came in the fall of 1906, as plans for another meeting took shape. Trotter proposed that Du Bois be replaced as general secretary and that the head of the Massachusetts branch should be elected, not appointed. After Du Bois and Morgan rejected Trotter’s proposals, Trotter formally withdrew his membership in the Niagara Movement in 1908.

Trotter’s departure was the beginning of the end for the Niagara Movement. Du Bois admitted that his inexperience as a political leader was an obvious factor in the organization’s decline. Encouraged by the rift between the founders of the movement, the Tuskegee Machine escalated its attacks against Du Bois in black newspapers. The lack of any formal national headquarters and a regular paid staff also contributed to the movement’s decline. After Trotter’s resignation, the group held two more meetings, neither of which had a large attendance. In 1910, the Niagara Movement ceased operations altogether when Du Bois encouraged its members to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).


Before the Niagara Movement disbanded, this relatively small organization had a significant impact on American politics. Ever since its founding in 1905, it had denounced President Theodore Roosevelt for his well-publicized view that blacks were racially inferior. The Niagara Movement’s opposition to Roosevelt reached its peak when soldiers from the all-black Twenty-fifth Infantry regiment had been accused of running rampant through the streets of Brownsville, Texas, killing one man and wounding two others. Roosevelt himself had denounced the soldiers and encouraged his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, to do the same during the presidential campaign of 1908.

In the summer of 1907, at its meeting in Boston, the Niagara Movement set the theme for the coming presidential election by calling on the five hundred thousand black voters of the North to use their votes to defeat Taft. The organization supported Senator Joseph Benson Foraker’s Foraker, Joseph Benson bid for the Republican nomination as a gesture of gratitude for his dissent from the majority report by the Committee on Military Affairs on the Brownsville incident. Even though Foraker did not win the nomination, the movement’s supporters built up enough political momentum both during and after the election of 1908 to help Woodrow Wilson win the election of 1912.

Although the Niagara Movement ceased to exist after the formation of the NAACP in 1910, it had a definite effect on the formation of the latter organization. The majority of the black founders, including Du Bois and Trotter, came to the NAACP from the Niagara Movement and became the dominant black constituency within the organization. The memory of the financial problems that had plagued the Niagara Movement convinced many of these former members of the need to secure support from liberal whites. The Niagara Movement also served as a catalyst in the shift of the consensus of black thought from the Bookerite doctrine to the protest tradition that was first endorsed by the movement and later adopted by the NAACP. Finally, many of the goals of the Niagara Movement, particularly the emphasis on higher education, material advancement, and voting rights, were adopted by the NAACP. Although it can be said that the Niagara Movement was too radical for its time, the NAACP was undoubtedly an organization whose time had come.

The Niagara Movement’s most important legacy, however, was the awareness it fostered among whites of the seriousness of the plight of blacks in the United States. For the first time in the twentieth century, whites were told, in strong language, by blacks themselves that blacks were not inferior beings and that they were entitled to all the rights enjoyed by other Americans. By employing such effective methods as editorializing in black newspapers and organizing local demonstrations, the Niagara Movement prepared the way for the national protest movements of the 1960’s. Niagara Movement
African Americans;organizations

Further Reading

  • Blaustein, Albert P., and Robert Zangrando, eds. Civil Rights and the American Negro. New York: Trident Press, 1968. This episodic account of the Civil Rights movement asserts that the Niagara Movement was a natural response to the injustices of the Jim Crow period.
  • Burns, W. Haywood. The Voices of Negro Protest in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. Discusses twentieth century protest movements, highlighting the NAACP.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later. Edited by Dolan Hubbard. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003. Reprint of Du Bois’s powerful 1903 statement about the problem of the twentieth century, which he defined as the problem of the color line. In a direct challenge to Booker T. Washington’s program of gradualism, Du Bois argues that black U.S. citizens will progress only through challenge, struggle, and political protest.
  • Fox, Stephen R. The Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter. New York: Atheneum, 1970. Chapter 3 provides one of the most comprehensive accounts of the Niagara Movement available. Although the emphasis is on Trotter, the author gives attention to the roles played by Washington and Du Bois. Also provides a lengthy explanation for the demise of the movement.
  • Hoemann, George H. What God Hath Wrought: The Embodiment of Freedom in the Thirteenth Amendment. New York: Garland Press, 1987. A social history of the time in which the amendment that gave African Americans their freedom was written. Also dissects the meanings of words within that amendment.
  • Logan, Rayford W., ed. W. E. B. Du Bois: A Profile. New York: Hill & Wang, 1971. The Niagara Movement is discussed at length in an article by William H. Ferris titled “The Emerging Leader: A Contemporary View.” Written before the demise of the movement, the article paints a deceptively harmonious and optimistic picture of its inner workings.
  • McKissick, Floyd B. Three-Fifths of a Man. New York: Macmillan, 1969. An examination of how the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation have influenced race relations in the United States.
  • Marable, Manning. W. E. B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Manning places the Niagara Movement within the context of the American political scene of its time and demonstrates how it evolved into the NAACP.
  • Moore, Jacqueline M. Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift. Lanham, Md.: SR Books, 2003. Provides a detailed overview of the debate between Washington and Du Bois concerning their different approaches to the problems of segregation and discrimination against blacks.
  • Morris, Aldon D. Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Free Press, 1984. Stressing the militant side of the Niagara Movement, Morris illustrates the similarity between the goals of the movement and the goals of the NAACP.
  • Nieman, Donald G. Promises to Keep: African-Americans and the Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. A constitutional history of the United States with special focus on the impact of the Constitution on U.S. social history.
  • Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. In chapter 5, titled “The Mantle and the Prophet,” Rampersad gives a philosophical overview of the similarities between the tenets of the Niagara Movement and Du Bois’s own personal position as he stated in his writings.
  • Tuttle, William M., ed. W. E. B. Du Bois. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. In the chapter titled “Radicals and Conservatives,” Kelly Miller offers an interesting explanation of the significance of the cities chosen by the Niagara Movement’s founders as the sites for their meetings.
  • Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. 1901. Reprint. New York: Gramercy Books, 1993. Washington’s seminal work, in which he describes his idea of the “talented tenth” and how black citizens of the United States will achieve full equality gradually, through hard work and demonstrating their worthiness. A direct contrast to the more aggressive platform of Du Bois.
  • Zuckerman, Phil, ed. The Social Theory of W. E. B. Du Bois. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2004. A collection of Du Bois’s writings from a wide variety of sources, including newspaper articles, speeches, and selections from his books, both well known and lesser known. Emphasizes Du Bois’s theoretical contributions to sociological thought.

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