W.E.B. DuBois at Harpers Ferry

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the outlook for full civil rights for African Americans was at a precarious crossroads. Failed Reconstruction, the Supreme Court’s separate but equal doctrine (Plessy v. Ferguson), coupled with Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist policies threatened to compromise any hope for full and equal rights under the law. Harvard educated W.E.B. DuBois committed himself to a bolder course, moving well beyond the calculated appeal for limited civil rights. He acted in 1905 by drafting a “Call” to a few select people. The Call had two purposes: “organized determination and aggressive action on the part of men who believed in Negro freedom and growth,” and opposition to “present methods of strangling honest criticism.”

Thirteen months later, from August 15-19, 1906, the Niagara Movement held its first public meeting in the United States on the campus of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The week was filled with many inspirational speeches, meetings, special addresses, and commemorative ceremonies. The historic conference concluded on Sunday, August 19th, with the reading of “An Address to the Country,” penned by W.E.B. DuBois:

We will not be satisfied to take one jot or title less than our full manhood rights. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans. W.E.B. DuBois, August 19, 1906

With thunderous applause, the Harpers Ferry conference drew to a close. Years later recalling this conference, DuBois referred to it as “…one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held.” The Niagara Movement laid the cornerstone of the modern civil rights era. A new movement found a voice. The organization continued until 1911, when almost all of its members became the backbone of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).