Lessons from Niagara

In last month’s post on the contributions of freethinkers, I outlined the life of the pioneering civil-rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Today, I want to focus on one aspect of Du Bois’ life, one that still holds resonance for atheists and others continuing the fight for full equality for all people.

In July 1905, Du Bois and some fellow civil-rights activists met at Niagara Falls, on the Canadian side of the border, to found the so-called Niagara Movement. Named not just for the location but for the “mighty current” of change they hoped to unleash, the activists of the Niagara Movement sought an end to segregation, to laws designed to disenfranchise black voters, and other legal and semi-legal racism of the day. Their declaration of principles laid out the goals at which they aimed.

A major reason behind the founding of the Niagara Movement was that Du Bois and others believed that prominent black leaders of the day, especially Booker T. Washington, were too conciliatory and too accommodating of white prejudice. The members of this movement sought to change that by taking a forthright and fearless stand for equality. As their declaration said:

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, and to complain loudly and insistently. To ignore, overlook, 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 cooperation of all men of all races.

Of note, the Niagara Movement (no doubt influenced by Du Bois’ freethought views) did not exclude religious authorities from its condemnation. While calling on the government to honor its obligations under the Constitution, it also declared, “Especially are we surprised and astonished at the recent attitude of the church of Christ — of an increase of a desire to bow to racial prejudice, to narrow the bounds of human brotherhood, and to segregate black men to some outer sanctuary.”

The movement’s second public address, issued the next year at Harper’s Ferry, took a similar bold stand and issued these ringing words of militancy:

Our enemies, triumphant for the present, are fighting the stars in their courses. Justice and humanity must prevail. We live to tell these dark brothers of ours – scattered in counsel, wavering and weak – that no bribe of money or notoriety, no promise of wealth or fame, is worth the surrender of a people’s manhood or the loss of a man’s self-respect. We refuse to surrender the leadership of this race to cowards and bucklers. We are men; we will be treated as men. On this rock we have planted our banners. We will never give up, though the trump of doom find us still fighting.

…Courage brothers! The battle for humanity is not lost or losing. All across the skies sit signs of promise. The Slav is rising in his might, the yellow millions are tasting liberty, the black Africans are writhing toward the light, and everywhere the laborer, with ballot in his hand, is voting open the gates of Opportunity and Peace. The morning breaks over blood-stained hills. We must not falter, we may not shrink. Above are the everlasting stars.

The Niagara Movement was hampered by a lack of organization and opposition from Booker T. Washington, and eventually dissolved. Yet Du Bois and some of its other founding members would carry its principles forward when they founded a new organization, the NAACP, which was destined to have enormous impact on the civil-rights struggle in America.

We, too, can take lessons from Niagara. There will always be misguided individuals who encourage us to submit, to be silent, to bear insult and abuse from the majority without resistance. There will always be people, even among those who are sympathetic, who accuse us of rocking the boat and urge us to keep our heads down for our own good, lest we rouse the majority to greater prejudice and make things even harder on ourselves. This advice is wrong, and it has always been wrong. Progress in civil rights was never achieved through meekness. Unjust laws were never rolled back by not resisting them. As Du Bois said (but in a non-sexist sense), “persistent manly agitation” is the way to liberty. To right wrongs, we must fight back, and we must speak out loudly and vociferously. To do anything less is to invite others to marginalize and ignore us. To win the battle for equality and acceptance, we must never be afraid to demand what is ours by right.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex Weaver

    I just mentally substitute “adult” when they say “man.”

  • Adam

    Progress in civil rights was never achieved through meekness. Unjust laws were never rolled back by not resisting them. As Du Bois said (but in a non-sexist sense), “persistent manly agitation” is the way to liberty. To right wrongs, we must fight back, and we must speak out loudly and vociferously. To do anything less is to invite others to marginalize and ignore us. To win the battle for equality and acceptance, we must never be afraid to demand what is ours by right.

    Well said Ebon. This is exactly how I feel about the holocaust that is abortion. It would be nice to have you on our side of this issue, you’re such a clear writer.

  • Polly

    I’m going to throw some reactions out here; I’m not married to these notions.

    The meek will never inherit the earth, they’ll give it away. I also think that MLK a few decades later may not have been AS effective if he were not the velvet around the iron fist of more militant(physically) movements. Don’t get me wrong, what he did was for real and just as much an act of real rebellion, all the better for being non-violent. But, some people don’t react until their own hides are at stake. Nothing in this country was ever accomplished solely through the ballot box. Laws got passed, SCOTUS cases won, and were subsequently ignored until people stood up for their rights…or sat down, as the case may be.

    Having said that, I don’t FEEL oppressed. It’s true that I don’t openly discuss my non-religious AND political views (like voting NO on Prop 8 in CA) in front of certain people for fear of it having an adverse effect on my career. But, that COULD all just be in my head – the effect on my career, I mean. I’ve heard what some others think of gays in my company.
    It strikes me as ironic for atheists to claim this mantle when, on the whole, I’d bet we are better educated, higher-earning, and thus further up the socio-economic ladder than our religious counterparts. Though, of course, we lack the organized political power of the RR.

    As Du Bois said (but in a non-sexist sense)

    Heh.. apparently “manly” was common back then; I’ve read it in other early XXth writings.

  • Mr.Pendent

    There will always be misguided individuals who encourage us to submit, to be silent, to bear insult and abuse from the majority without resistance. There will always be people, even among those who are sympathetic, who accuse us of rocking the boat and urge us to keep our heads down for our own good, lest we rouse the majority to greater prejudice and make things even harder on ourselves. This advice is wrong, and it has always been wrong.

    This is reminiscent of a quote that I have loved from the book The Subtle Knife, the second in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. I have this quote on my website, and on a skin on the back of my phone. I love it because it reminds me what is at stake when we allow superstition and irrational beliefs to go unchallenged:

    “There are two great powers,” the man said, “and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger and those who want to obey and be humble and submit.”

    A quote that I remember in response came, I’m almost embarrassed to say, from Spider Man #537, at the peak of the Marvel Civil War. These words I take to be a battle cry against those who would oppress us based on our (non)beliefs, “spoken” by Captain America as he was on the run from a Government Mandated Registration program:

    “Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.

    This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences.

    When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world–

    ‘No you move.’”

    The tree beside the river of truth, I think, alludes a poem by Maya Angelou named “A Brave and Startling Truth”:

    Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River.
    Each of you, descendant of some passed
    On traveler, has been paid for.
    You, who gave me my first name, you
    Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
    Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
    Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of
    Other seekers–desperate for gain,
    Starving for gold.
    You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo,
    the Scot,
    You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
    Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
    Praying for a dream.
    Here, root yourselves beside me.
    I am that Tree planted by the River,
    Which will not be moved
    I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
    I am yours–your Passages have been paid
    Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
    For this bright morning dawning for you.

    And what better thing to be seen in the bright morning dawn than daylight atheism?

  • Christopher

    Mr. Pendent,

    Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger and those who want to obey and be humble and submit.”

    And so far the masters have held the upper hand in that conflict: for every recognition of status of a formerly-surpressed segment of the population, at least one new segment of the population is surpressed. So long as their is a social order powerful enough to supress population segments this will continue to happen.

    Only when society has been stripped of the bulk of its power (note: ballots won’t do anything to further that end) will this conflict ever cease.

  • velkyn

    ah, adam, doing the common thing that anti-choice people do, try to take credit for having a clue when they don’t. As soon as you acknowledge that you cannot control a woman or consider her a second-class citizen and that your beliefs are yours alone and not to be forced on anyone, then you can claim to be on the right side of any issue concering freedom. Not before.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    That was a beautiful poem, Mr. Pendant. I’d never heard it before. Thanks!

    I also think that MLK a few decades later may not have been AS effective if he were not the velvet around the iron fist of more militant(physically) movements.

    I think that’s very likely true, Polly, and it speaks to what makes any reform movement successful. Obviously, I don’t condone violence of any kind. (Nonviolent civil disobedience may be appropriate, depending on the circumstances.) That said, I think that most successful reform movements have both a “mainstream” aspect that tempers its language and lobbies for gradual shifts, and a radical aspect that speaks out loudly and pushes for immediate, dramatic change.

    Separately, they’re ineffective: a mainstream movement lacking the radicals is unlikely to have the fire and the motivation to accomplish great things, whereas a radical movement alone will push for change without regard to the achievability of their goals, and likely accomplish nothing. It’s the combination of the two that can work to the greatest effect.

  • DeHy

    the “holocaust” that is abortion. Ha ha.

    The moment someone feels the need to use Nazi-related terminology, especially when referring to another person’s freedom of choice, it immediately renders that person’s credibility null and void. I mean, are you seriously suggesting that the decision to expel a cluster of cells is the same thing as mass genocide? The absurdity of that statement is overwhelming and also insulting to all victims of atrocity–in fact, it’s insulting to all humanity. I am anti-capital punishment, but not once have I referred to it as a “holocaust” even in joke. (And I could do so with a bit more accuracy, considering the disproportionate amount of African-Americans on death row.) To use emotionally and culturally loaded language IMHO is like an admission that you don’t have a real argument for your position and must rely on evoking “feelings” in your audience in the hopes that it will override your more rational opposition.

    I am a woman and I have a right to make my own choices. If I got pregnant tomorrow, I would abort as soon as possible because I feel it is a greater crime to bring a child into the world that you know is unwanted. My sixty year old mother was unwanted, and she still cries over it today. This is my life, not yours. My choice, my responsibility, my money and time should I choose to keep the kid. While I would make the decision early and stick by it, and I do not consider abortion to be used as a (constant) form of birth control, it is my decision to make and not yours. I don’t care if you’re a man or woman, if you want to force me to abide by your personal beliefs, then kindly get bent. Get bent long, hard, and often. I think you know where.

    I would say the same to pro-choicers who want to require that all pregnant women recieve mandatory abortions…oh, that’s right. There aren’t any. But if there were, they’d get the same answer. If some woman wants to deliver the baby, it’s her body, her life, her money, time, and responsibility…. She has a right to choose as much as I do.

    George Carlin said it perfectly when he said that the ‘pro-life’ crowd would defend a fertilized egg right up until it exits the womb (stamping all over the mother’s rights, because they really are just anti-woman)–and then it can grow up as best as it can in starvation and disease for all they care….right up until they reach “military age”.

    And what is their stance on a parent’s right to beat living children? No to ending an unwanted pregnancy before it really gets going while it is still just a cluster of cells, but yes to beating children who can actually feel pain and humiliation for…oh, whatever’s pissing you off about them at the moment. (Not to paint the entire group with that brush, but who hasn’t noticed that interesting inconsistency to their logic?) When it comes to abortion, the woman has no right to choose for her ‘child’, but when it comes to blatant abuse of actual children (either by beating or refusing medical care)it suddenly becomes a matter parental rights?

    And that charming fact that so many people who oppose legal abortions also oppose sex ed and contraception–two things that have proven to lower the number of unwanted pregnancies and thus the number of potential abortions. This isn’t about saving ‘babies’. It’s about finding a new way to force women back against all the progress they made–if not into the kitchen than at least at the lowest levels of employment, where they are only beginning to push above. Post-WWII it was the psychobabble of the feminine mystic, and now it’s abortion. Honestly, you can buy apple pie at the store now, you don’t need June Cleaver in the kitchen to make it for you.

    I could go on, but I’ve already given the comment considerably more dignity than it deserves and I’m in the process of earning a second Bachelor’s degree, so I don’t have time for a continued debate, which this could turn into.

    Good answer, velkyn, and more concise than mine. There is no pro-life, only anti-choice. The pro-choice side isn’t forcing anyone to have abortions or not, but that “pro-life” stance is completely about forcing another person’s life to conform to one’s own “moral” (usually ‘divinely moral’) standard.

    I guess I could have just typed “pro-life=anti-choice and nazi references=fail” and that would have summed it up, huh?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I’d rather this thread not become another abortion debate. Let’s ignore the religious trolls, please.

  • Brad

    That said, I think that most successful reform movements have both a “mainstream” aspect that tempers its language and lobbies for gradual shifts, and a radical aspect that speaks out loudly and pushes for immediate, dramatic change.

    Out of curiosity, what do you think of the freethought movement in light of this sociology? That might deserve its own post.