The Niagara Movement: The Black Lives Matter Movement of the Early Twentieth Century

110 years ago, the Niagara Movement was founded by black civil rights activist (and fellow nonbeliever) W.E.B. Dubois to directly confront racism in American society. Unlike the “accomodationist” tactic advocated by Booker T. Washington, Dubois believed that blacks needed to attack racist laws and customs head-on, and not wait for some far-off day when whites would be prepared to accept them as equals. A PDF of the Niagara Movement’s goals and philosophy can be found here:

Click to access niagara.pdf

While much of what the Niagara Movement wanted seems like common sense (e.g., universal suffrage, the end of peonage in the South, free, compulsory, and integrated high schools for children of all races, equal treatment before the law), it was considered shocking and radical by the standards of the early twentieth century, and even many black leaders thought that Dubois and his followers were being too bold. What is depressing for me, as I read the goals of the Niagrara Movement 110 years after the fact, is that many of the demands it states have yet to be properly implemented in the post-Civil Rights era.

The major issue that the contemporary “Black Lives Matter” movement is concerned with is the topic of police brutality in black communities. While I don’t think the term “police brutality” was known in 1905, blacks were subject to a wide variety of legal and extralegal forms of violence, including socially sanctioned lynch mobs, the use of convict labor, all-white juries, and unequal punishments. Dubois’ position on the need for criminal justice reform mirrors that of the “Black Lives Matter” movement when he said, “We [i.e., blacks] are not more lawless than the white race; we [are] more often arrested, convicted and mobbed. We want justice, even for criminals and outlaws.” It is not unreasonable to ask if the Aurora movie theater shooter, James Holmes (who killed twelve and injured 70), could be apprehended alive and unharmed, why can’t blacks who have done less or nothing at all expect the same treatment from the police? If the United States is supposed to be a nation governed by rule of law, then all people should stand equal before the law, regardless of race and regardless of whether they carry a badge or not.

While the slogan “All Lives Matter” sounds nice in theory, it ignores the history and the reality that all lives have never mattered in the United States, and the lives of some groups of people are seen as downright disposable. If we want to go back to what the founding fathers “intended,” the truth is that it was never their intention for black people to become full citizens, much less that the United States would have a black president or a national holiday commemorating a famous black man. For most of American history, black people have been seen as a social problem, not as fellow citizens or co-workers in the project of American democracy, and that’s still the case to this day. The very act of asserting the humanity of blacks is as revolutionary in 2015 as it was in 1905, when Dubois started the Niagara Movement.

The conservatives who claim that MLK would have disapproved of the “Black Lives Matter” movement clearly haven’t read anything King wrote or even read a basic history of the Civil Rights Movement (and all of King’s books are back in print, so no one has an excuse for not reading them). Either that, or they want to misappropriate recent history to hide the less than stellar record that conservatives have on the issue of black civil rights. I keep repeating this on this blog, but the fact has to be reiterated that no one in the Col War era conservative movement was in favor of civil rights for blacks. Not Ronald Reagan. Not William F. Buckley. Not Jerry Falwell. Not Barry Goldwater. None of them. When the Sixteen Street Baptist Church bombing happened, Buckley was more concerned about how the attack would affect the white people in Birmingham than the children who were killed or the people who were hurt:

Let us gently say the fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur — of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro.

And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice. Certainly it now appears that Birmingham’s Negroes will never be content so long as the white population is free to be free.

If that’s not a prime example of how black lives don’t matter, I don’t know what is. But I suppose from Buckley’s perspective, those girls probably had it coming to them, going to their heretical Protestant church with its “jungle music” and suspicious political activities.

The problem with the current discourse on police brutality is few people mention that rule of law is a two way street. The only way citizens will develop a respect for the law is if the “guardians of the law” respect them in turn. Hence, the disrespect of police that one sees among some in black communities is the result of disrespect that the police show to them. This attitude is not just found here, but in many parts of Latin America, Italy (especially Sicily), and Eastern Europe, where ordinary people have no trust that the police will protect their interests. It’s hilarious that the Fox News crowd complains about the “no snitching” policy in low-income areas, when many sectors of the police have exactly the same code among themselves.

To put it bluntly, history has shown that the Washingtonian belief in “accomodationism” doesn’t work. Whites were no more prepared to accept blacks as equals in 1955 than they were in 1855. If getting civil rights was a matter of sitting around and waiting for whites to suddenly realize how awesome black people are, we’d still have “white” and “colored” signs everywhere. Directly challenging the system and calling out the status quo on its hypocrisy is the only tactic that has ever produced gains for minorities, whether for blacks, women, LGBT people, or workers. I will end this post with the Niagara Movement declaration’s section on “Protest” and “Agitation”:

We refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults. Through helplessness we may submit, but the voice of protest of ten million Americans must never cease to assail the ears of
their fellows, so long as America is unjust…
Of the above grievances we do not hesitate to complain, Agitation and to
complain loudly and insistently. To ignore, over-look, or apologize for these wrongs is to prove ourselves unworthy of freedom. Persistent manly agitation is the way to liberty, and toward this goal the Niagara Movement has started and asks the co-operation of all men of all races.