ABSTRACT

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,— the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. 1

[W.E.B. Du Bois]

My fi rst clear memory of Dr. Du Bois was my pride in his recognized scholarship and authority in his many fi elds of work and writing. . . . We Negro students joined the NAACP which Dr. Du Bois helped to organize and build; we read religiously The Crisis of which he was editor for so many years, and in which he wrote clearly, constructively and militantly on the complex problems of the American scene, on the Negro question, on Africa, and on world affairs. 2

[Paul Robeson]

I fi rst read Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk in my home and his novel The Quest of the Silver Fleece . He writes, my father would say, but he doesn’t lead anybody. 3

[unknown African American]

The late 19th century saw several attempts to protest racial discrimination and Washingtonian accommodationism. In 1887, T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age and the most able black journalist of his day, appealed to African Americans to organize a

National Afro-American League which would agitate for the removal of six principal grievances: (1) the suppression of voting rights in the South, which denied blacks political participation in the states where they were most numerous, (2) the prevalence of mob rule and lynching in the South, (3) the inequitable distribution of government funds between black and white schools, (4) the degrading prison system in the South, (5) the racial segregation on southern railroads, and (6) the denial of accommodations to African Americans in public places. Writing from his Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington supported these proposals, which led to a convention in 1890 in Chicago, Illinois. The delegates endorsed Fortune’s recommendation that the desired goals be secured by appealing to public opinion, pursuing litigation, and organizing nonviolent demonstrations. 4

Just three years later, Fortune announced that the Afro-American League was defunct because of inadequate support. In 1898, at a meeting in Rochester, New York, the league was revived as the National AfroAmerican Council, with a statement of objectives similar to the league’s original platform. Conceived as a comprehensive civil rights organization, the council was rent by factionalism and was largely ineffectual during its ten-year existence. At fi rst, Washington did not hold any offi ce in the council, but through his friendship with Fortune, he became a dominant infl uence in its activities. To a large extent, black responses to the council refl ected approval of or opposition to Washington’s policies. When W.E.B. Du Bois, a young professor at Atlanta University, was made director of a business bureau promoted by the council, Washington sensed a challenge to his leadership and formed the National Negro Business League, with the help of a list of African-American entrepreneurs provided to him by Du Bois. It was also true that Washington believed that the council would concentrate on protest, rather than on economic approaches to uplifting the race. 5

Because the Afro-American Council continued to be dominated by Washingtonians, Du Bois insisted that something more be done. He issued an appeal to twenty-nine African-American “radicals” to meet on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in July, 1905, to form an organization opposed to Washington’s Tuskegee Machine. The Niagara Movement, which resulted from this meeting, placed responsibility for the racial problem squarely on whites. Its list of demands included the end to discrimination in voting and jury selection, equal economic and education opportunity, livable housing, and an end to the convict-lease system. The reformers refused to apologize for complaining “loudly” about these

injustices and called for “persistent manly agitation,” an oblique reference to the Tuskegee Machine. The statement was sharply critical of employers, labor unions, the Christian Church, and American public opinion. In many respects, the Niagara Movement refl ected the aspirations of the collegeeducated black elite and its determination to effect profound changes in American race relations through direct action. Journalist Ray Stannard Baker described this effort as “a party of protest which endeavors to prevent Negro separation and discrimination against Negroes by political agitation and political infl uence.” 6

Predictably, Booker T. Washington opposed the Niagara Movement from its inception. His obstructionist tactics and ubiquitous infl uence undermined the organization, which was never able to gain white support. It was also unable to gain an appreciable following among the black masses, and went down to short-term defeat as a protest movement. But the Niagara Movement was further evidence of the growing dissatisfaction of black northerners with Washington’s southern-style leadership and claim to speak for the black race. Baker characterized Washington as “an opportunist and optimist” who “teaches that if the Negro wins by real worth a strong economic position in this country, other rights and privileges will come to him naturally.” And, Baker added, “many highly educated Negroes, especially in the North, dislike and oppose” Washington. To Gunnar Myrdal, who spearheaded an important study of the black condition, the Niagara Movement signifi ed “the fi rst organized attempt to raise the Negro protest against the great reaction after the Reconstruction. Its main importance was that it brought to open confl ict and wide public debate two types of Negro strategy-one stressing accommodation and the other raising the Negro protest. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois became national symbols for these two main streams of Negro thought.” 7

The short-lived Niagara Movement was never effective because of serious organizational fl aws, including insuffi cient funding and inadequate leadership, as well as Booker T. Washington’s determined opposition. But the movement laid the foundation for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a biracial coalition of black radicals and white liberals, pledged to advance civil and political rights for African Americans. The NAACP would represent a more serious challenge to Washington’s dominance and would become the most important civil rights organization in American history. 8

The origins of the NAACP grew out of a shocking 1908 race riot in Springfi eld, Illinois, home of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.