From schism to civil rights: “The Niagara Movement” explores debate over how Black Americans could best overcome

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 05-05-2023 8:54 AM

In the United States, the early 20th century has often been portrayed as a time of hope and excitement, in which the nation’s growing industrial power, improvements in mass communications, and advances in technology and science heralded a new era of prosperity and national pride.

That might have been true for some white people. But for most African Americans, the early 1900s was a time when they faced increasing violence from white people, most notably in the South; it was also an era in which segregation continually tightened its grip on society, leaving most black people impoverished.

And the African American community faced an internal debate: How could they best improve their lives and come to grips with a society that deemed them second-class citizens?

In his new feature documentary, “The Niagara Movement: The Early Battle for Civil Rights,” longtime Florence filmmaker Larry Hott explores that question, honing in on what he calls “a small chapter of U.S. history” but a vital one nevertheless: the debate between black leaders W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter on one hand, and Booker T. Washington on the other, on how African Americans could advance in society.

“At the risk of invoking a cliche, this was really an inflection point,” Hott said in a recent interview. “There aren’t a lot of books on [The Niagara Movement], but this was a time when things completely change and you see the first stirring of the civil rights movement, the demand that African Americans must become full citizens of the United States.”

“The Niagara Movement,” by Florentine Films/Hott Productions, will have its first public screening May 20 at 4 and 7 p.m. at the Northampton Center for the Arts at 33 Hawley, with discussion afterward with the filmmakers and some film participants. (The documentary airs on PBS this fall.)

As in his past documentaries, Hott has interviewed a number of historians, biographers, activists, and others to tell the story, weaving in archival photos and early film clips with some narration, including the reading of sections of letters and essays from some of the principal historical figures.

The story offers a nuanced portrait of Washington, who was born into slavery in the 1850s and advocated for black progress through education, vocational training, and self-help, rather than challenging the segregation and disenfranchisement of black voters in the South.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Jena Schwartz: Things I have not said
In federal lawsuit, teacher accuses Amherst schools of violating civil rights, other district policies
It’s official: Belchertown’s request to create town manager position OK’d by state
Defying the odds: Hadley’s Owen Earle back competing less than two years removed from horrific accident
As Hadley works on energy storage bylaw, some question why the town has to allow them at all
Amherst officials cool to bid to double spending hike for regional schools

Washington was the most noted black figure in the U.S. of his era, an educator and author who founded what would become Tuskegee University in Alabama, the black land-grant school. But he also had to “thread the needle in not getting lynched,” as Hott puts it, as he pushed for black progress.

“He had to do it in a way that wouldn’t leave whites feeling threatened,” Hott said.

Washington “understood the language, the culture, the customs, the rules of the South in a way that W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter did not,” Du Bois scholar Chad Williams says in the film.

Washington’s argument was that African Americans, once they had proved themselves productive members of society, would be granted full political rights.

But Washington’s policy of accommodation and conciliation came under fire from a new generation of black activists and leaders like the Great Barrington-born Du Bois, the scholar and writer who was the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.

Another was Trotter, a Massachusetts native and Harvard graduate himself who co-founded an influential black newspaper, the Boston Guardian, in 1901. He used the paper to become “the most fiery, passionate and uncompromising fighter for African American civil rights in the early 20th century,” as the film puts it.

That set Washington and his critics on a collision course. In fact, Trotter attacked Washington repeatedly in the Guardian as a sellout to white America, prompting Washington to sue him — unsuccessfully — for libel.

The clash between the two visions for black advancement was also fanned by horrific incidents of violence against black people, such as one noted in the film. In 1899, a white mob in Georgia dragged a man named Sam Hose, accused of killing his white employer, from a jail cell, torturing and mutilating him before burning him alive.

Pieces of Hose’s body were later sold off as souvenirs, the film notes.

In the wake of that barbarity, Du Bois, then living in Georgia himself, would later write, “I changed from studying the Negro problem to letting people know just what the colored people were suffering.”

Reentry to the film world

Hott says he followed a somewhat unusual path in making “The Niagara Movement.” He had actually retired from filmmaking a few years ago after his late wife and filmmaking partner, Diane Garey, had also retired.

But when his wife died in early 2021, Hott says he was left wondering, “What do I do with my life now?” By coincidence, he was approached later in the year by a Buffalo/Toronto TV station he’s worked with on many other documentaries; they asked him about doing a film on The Niagara Movement.

“They had the funding already in place, so my job would be to do the interviews and filming — no fundraising,” said Hott, who worked with his longtime editor, Rikk Desgres, on the new documentary.

“I’ve always said that if a project just walks through the door like that, I’ll take it,” Hott added. “This was a gift.”

Plus, he notes, the project embraced the kind of “social action” that has always appealed to him as a subject, while “a lot of the history was right here in our backyard,” a reference to the roots Du Bois and Trotter had in Massachusetts.

There was another local connection: Two of Hott’s sources for the film are Amilcar Shabazz, a professor in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Whitney Battle-Baptiste, director of the university’s Du Bois Center.

“They both really knew the subject,” Hott said. “I couldn’t believe my luck.”

“The Niagara Movement” provides a brisk but lively account of how the chasm widened in the early 1900s between Washington and his followers and Du Bois, Trotter and other black “radicals.”

At one point, Trotter and his supporters shouted down Washington when the latter gave a speech in Boston, the episode then degenerating into fistfights. In turn, Washington used his clout to get most black newspapers to ignore or denounce his critics, and he sent spies to infiltrate their movement.

In 1905, Du Bois, Trotter and 29 other black leaders from 14 states met in Buffalo, near Niagara Falls — hence the name of the movement — to formally create an organization to counter Washington and his policies.

They spelled out their basic goals in a manifesto, including the notion that the right to vote and racial equality were essential not just for black citizens but for the whole country — and that the group would push relentlessly for that equality.

The organization would struggle with funding over the next few years, and Trotter and Du Bois eventually had a falling out, with Trotter leaving the group.

But even as it ended around 1910, members of the group, notably Du Bois, were joining forces with white liberals to form a new organization that would take the battle for equality deep into the 20th century: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“The Niagara Movement was like a shooting star in many ways,” says Williams, the Du Bois scholar. “But even in the few short years that it was formally in existence, it laid the groundwork for the modern civil rights struggle.”

To reserve a seat for the free screening of “The Niagara Movement” at the Northampton Center for the Arts, visit nohoarts.org/events/the-niagara-movement.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

]]>