But as a new film produced by WNED PBS (Buffalo-Toronto) reveals, there was an earlier American civil rights movement that took place in the early 1900s and which laid the foundation for the one which followed in the 1960s.
Produced and directed by Emmy Award-winning and two-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lawrence R. Hott, “The Niagara Movement: The Early Battle for Civil Rights” sheds light on the fight for civil rights that occurred during the turn of the 20th century – a period known for a surge in the lynching of Blacks.
The documentary, fueled by powerful images, provocative interviews, historically accurate and archived insights from a trio of legendary Black leaders from the past and the ingenuity and insight of the film’s director, “The Niagara Movement” showcases an essential part of American history that has long been ignored but should never be forgotten.
The Niagara Movement, which provided the blueprint for later civil rights organizations, most notably the NAACP, was formed by famed author and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois and Black newspaper publisher William Monroe Trotter, both of whom were based in Boston.
Named for a meeting planned for Buffalo but ultimately held in Fort Erie, Canada, near Niagara Falls, the Niagara Movement emerged as a rebuke to the racially segregationist and conciliatory stance that Booker T. Washington — then widely viewed as the de facto leader of Black America — took with the white establishment.
The end of Reconstruction brought about oppressive Jim Crow laws and widespread lynching. Washington’s solution was to embrace and promote a philosophy of racial segregation and industrial training for Blacks instead of other advances.
However, both DuBois and Trotter criticized his position. In response, they invited Black intellectuals, clergy, writers, newspapermen and activists from across the country, 29 men in total, to meet, and analyze the prevailing problems then plaguing Blacks. They ultimately formed The Niagara Movement and agreed upon the key demand of full civil rights for African Americans.
The Niagara Movement’s Declaration of Principles, which delivered a stinging rebuke to Washington, stated, in part: “We refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults.”
The film captures the far-reaching impact of the short-lived Movement — disbanded only four years after its inception — which laid the cornerstone of the modern American civil rights movement, eventually morphing into the NAACP.
Hott touts relevance of Niagara Movement to controversial issues of today
The film is the brainchild of Don Boswell, who for 20 years was the head of the Buffalo Toronto PBS station. An African American man with a great deal of experience at PBS, he knew the story of the Niagara Movement and was determined to give it the attention it deserved,”
Hott said. “He and his colleagues struggled for 15 years to secure the funding for this project – then something changed in the zeitgeist – George Floyd changed everything. Finally, people started to pay attention and to put their support and money behind developing African American history projects.
“When I accepted the project, I was given one year to get it done which is really tight. Fortunately, we discovered a lot of archived information from the years between 1895 and 1910 when most of the events relevant to the Niagara Movement occur. There was so much material – even a lot of photographs of the three key figures involved: Washington, DuBois and Trotter.
“As for the film’s relevance to the challenges our nation is facing today, I look to April England-Albright from Black Voters Matter based in Alabama and Georgia. She makes the case that there’s a direct line from what was happening after Reconstruction to today.
“The whole subject of the film is what are we going to do in the face of terror? What do we do in the face of so many lynchings and the segregationists determined to prevent us from beginning life on equal footing?
“Washington said keep your heads down as expressed in the Atlanta Compromise. DuBois went along with that at first but firsthand experiences convinced him that vocational training would not save his people. He had had enough and believed the time had come to refuse to accept anymore.
Lessons Learned from History
“DuBois and the emerging Niagara Movement illustrated the benefits that come from supporting grassroots organizations, taking action, standing firm and refusing to compromise when it’s necessary, as well as the importance of including both women and whites as equally respected members and voices and integral to the success of such organizations.
“You can draw a direct line from the litigation initiated by the leaders of the Niagara Movement in 1906 to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In fact, the Niagara Movement’s Declaration of Principles, which is similar to the Declaration of Independence, said basically ‘we have these human rights and we’re going to stand up for them and we’re going to go across the country to get the support we need.
“Still, Trotter realized that one of the problems they faced was their initial refusal to allow women to join the organization. In the film, one of the founders reminds his male colleagues that the National Organization of Colored Women had at that time nearly 15,000 members, and then asked in disbelief, ‘And you’re not going to let them in?’
Fortunately, they soon opened their doors to everyone, gender and race notwithstanding.
“But they failed because they didn’t have enough money and lacked adequate support. That’s essential for the success of grassroots organizations and those who continue to make a difference today have learned that – working to get out the vote for ballot initiatives, for city council, school board and state legislature races – focusing on the needs of their local communities.
“Above all, the founders of the Niagara Movement realized sometimes you have to take chances – stand your ground. But if you want to achieve your goals, having an educated and diverse membership greatly improves the chance for success. When the NAACP was subsequently established, they initially only had one Black person on the Board of Directors – DuBois. And that remained the case for the organization’s first 20 years. But they learned, they evolved and, as history shows us, they made a difference in the lives of African Americans.”
“The Niagara Movement,” which premiered November 6 on WNED PBS (Buffalo-Toronto) and Buffalo Toronto Public Media’s YouTube Channel, will distributed by American Public Television in February 2024 to public television stations across the country and also made available on the PBS app in February 2024.
Visit www.theniagaramovement.org for more information, educational resources and bonus materials. Follow WNED PBS on X (formerly known as Twitter), Facebook, and Instagram (@wnedpbs).
Additional information about Buffalo Toronto Public Media can be found at wned.org.