The Niagara Movement, formed in 1905 by philosopher and activist W.E.B. Du Bois and businessman William Monroe Trotter, was named for the Niagara Falls location of the first meeting and the “mighty current” of protest on which they would embark.
Both were African American Harvard graduates born and raised in Massachusetts who were horrified at the increase in violence against Blacks, the racist portrayals of Blacks in the news and other media, and the use of laws to retrench Black rights at the dawn of the 20th century.
Directed by veteran filmmaker Lawrence Hott, the new documentary “The Niagara Movement: The Early Battle for Civil Rights” is now streaming on Buffalo Toronto Public Media’s YouTube Channel, the PBS app, and theniagaramovement.org.
It chronicles the struggle between Du Bois and Monroe on one side, and educator and spokesman Booker T. Washington on the other, to secure civil rights for Blacks in America.
Speaking to the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Hott, who came to filmmaking through his activism and his friendship with famed filmmaker Ken Burns, stated, “It was an era of terror, and the Niagara Movement was trying to coalesce and bring the whole country together.”
During Reconstruction, 15 African Americans served in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. In addition, there were two Black governors. Roughly 1,500 Blacks were serving in state legislatures until 1900 when the terror campaign waged by racist Whites against Blacks’ socio-political progress matured into the Jim Crow Era that almost completely disenfranchised Black Americans.
“The Niagara Movement is important because we have to have some understanding of what’s come before to understand what’s happening now,” stated Hott.
Washington, a Southerner and former slave, urged Blacks to accept segregation, disenfranchisement, and a position of subservience to Whites in the hopes that eventually they would come around.
Hott explained, “At first, people like DuBois accepted it. But things get worse, and they say this kind of subservience, keeping our heads down, and we’re still being terrorized and lynched? We have to mobilize.”
Hott knew of Washington as a revered historical figure, but in making the film he learned that he was a complex figure. “I was surprised to find out just how controversial a figure he was,” said Hott.
Washington also had powerful White financial backers. “People like [Andrew] Carnegie were giving millions to Booker T. Washington,” explained Hott.
The Du Bois and Trotter-led Niagara Movement challenged injustice in the courts and challenged racist caricatures in the media by direct protest such as the campaign against the White supremacist film “The Birth of a Nation,” and by creating alternative narratives.
Trotter co-founded the newspaper the Boston Guardian with an editorial bent in direct opposition to Washington’s policies. “I didn’t know how prevalent and important the Black Press was at the time,” said Hott. “One of the things that angered Trotter and Du Bois was how much power Booker T. Washington had over the Black Press. Look at Rupert Murdoch and the press. We have that parallel right now.”
Using historical documents and commentary by historians, sociologists and biographers, Hott crafts an incisive look at the evolution of American civil rights, the overwhelming influence Washington possessed, and the specific strategies used to challenge White supremacy.
The film also includes searing archival images. “We thought we’d have to rely on reenactments,” Hott stated, “but we found that there were plenty of visuals such as the postcards of lynchings.”
Though the film was commissioned by a Black television executive, Hott, who is White, wanted to ensure he handled the subject with as much care and respect as possible. “I knew that you had to involve the community. I called the African American Studies department at the U. of Massachusetts. I contacted the DuBois Center, where I knew people on the board.
“I also wanted my crew to reflect my community, such as our cinematographer, composer, and associate producer.” Hott also got Black activists as contributors to the film. “We needed contemporary Black activists in the film to just place [the story] in history…”
The Niagara Movement” also demonstrates the clear throughline between the Niagara Movement, the formation of the NAACP in 1909, and the Civil Rights Movement of the late 20th century.
Over two centuries of disenfranchisement had left the African American community without a capital base. The Niagara Movement was ultimately unable to fund its initiatives and sustain itself. It dissolved in 1908, morphing into the NAACP, which was heavily funded by Whites.
The new organization adopted the Niagara Movement’s strategies of organizing nationally and using the legal system to confront racial discrimination.
“The Niagara Movement” documentary will be distributed nationally by American Public Television in February 2024.