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The Niagara Movement’s Powerful Fruit — 100 Years of Protest

The Niagara Movement’s Powerful Fruit — 100 Years of Protest

By Julianne Malveaux

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASAALH) was founded 90 years ago on Sept. 9, 1915. It’s founder, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, author of the scathing masterpiece, The Miseducation of the Negro (1933), was also the founder of Negro History Week (1926), the forerunner to contemporary Black History Month celebrations. Each year, the association develops a theme for Black History Month. This year it has highlighted The Niagara Movement: Black Protest Reborn, 1905-2005.

The Niagara Movement lasted a decade, at best. At its heyday, it had fewer than 200 members. This small, almost exclusively male and poorly funded group managed to act as a thorn in the side of the accommodationist despot, Booker T. Washington, and to articulate a series of goals and principles that remain unrealized today. Washington was so profoundly threatened by the Niagara Movement that he sent spies to cover its meetings and encouraged a “blackout” of its coverage by the Black press. Still, most historians say the Niagara Movement created the legacy of the NAACP, the organization founded in 1909 to advance the civil rights cause.

This could not be a better year to celebrate Black protest, in a year when so many African Americans feel no need to protest. Ground down or worn out, too many seem to accept the unjust realities of our current situation as if there is no alternative. We need simply look back a century to remember the courage of other African Americans who had fewer resources and advantages. Too many of us have accepted the hype that race no longer matters, even as lawsuits are being filed against all kinds of folks — Macy’s, Cracker Barrel, Planned Parenthood. To be sure, the merit of these lawsuits has yet to be determined, but racial bias in the workplace, the marketplace and the classroom has hardly disappeared. So why has protest?

The Niagara Movement was a protest for suffrage, equal enforcement of laws and “real education.” How do we get these things? “By voting where we may vote; by persistent, unceasing agitation; by hammering at the truth; by sacrifice and work.” Not much, it seems, has changed since the founding of the Niagara Movement. African Americans, for all our progress, still seek voting rights, equal enforcement of the law and real education. No Child Left Behind isn’t going to do it.

Celebrating protest, beginning with the Niagara Movement, means celebrating those folks who refused to go along to get along, refused to smile and take the payola that Washington was offering. It means celebrating the Black Panther Party and its breakfast program created to feed Black children so they could learn. It means celebrating those SNCC workers, those Freedom Riders and civil rights stalwarts, folk like John Lewis, Joyce Ladner, Eleanor Holmes Norton and James Forman, who died recently. And it also means celebrating the folks who turned their backs as George W. Bush walked down Pennsylvania Avenue thinking delusionally that the last election was a referendum on the carnage we have wrought on Iraq.

The protest tradition is often disparaged and seen as disruptive. But the Niagara Movement, with its very brief history, reminds us that protest sows seeds that often yield remarkably effective fruits. The NAACP was considered a subversive organization by some until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Educators in schools that were segregated were frequently harassed because they held NAACP memberships. Once upon a time, the NAACP was our nation’s protest organization. Today, young people question the relevance of the NAACP. This year, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Niagara Movement, we might ask if our oldest and largest civil rights organization will again embrace the protest tradition.

Much of the protest that emerged in the 1965-1975 period took place on our nation’s campuses. Peace activists protested the Vietnam War, Black students protested racist admissions policies, and women protested their marginalization and absence in faculty ranks. These protests resulted in Black studies departments, Black cultural centers, women’s studies departments and a vibrant multicultural movement.

Will these folks, this Black History Month, celebrate their protest history, or simply focus on tried-and-true themes? Too often, Black History Month turns into recitations of “first Blacks” and a reflection on “how far we have come.” This year we have the opportunity to embrace what is vibrant about Black history, to remember the Niagara Movement and the protests we have experienced in these last 100 years. This is a chance for us to celebrate A. Philip Randolph, the mastermind of the 1963 March on Washington, to lift up economist Dr. Abram Harris and the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns, and to also change the language around spontaneous street protest, actions some would call “riots” that are more accurately described as “uprisings.”

This year the ASAALH has challenged those in the academy to reclaim our protest tradition. With a protest agenda that is 100 years old, will we step up and meet the challenge?

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