Lessons from Niagara

Lessons from Niagara October 8, 2008

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.

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