HARPERS FERRY, W.VA. (FinalCall.com) – Scholars, musicians, politicians, modern civil rights icons and descendants of the original participants commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Niagara Movement’s first U.S. meeting Aug. 16-20 on the historic grounds of Storer College, which is now a U.S. National Park.
In 1906, led by Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, dozens of Black men and women met in Harpers Ferry, where abolitionist John Brown had led a slave insurrection that captured the U.S. Army Arsenal at Harpers Ferry–an act that many scholars credit with hastening the onset of the Civil War and eventual end of slavery in this country.
In 1909, members of the Niagara Movement organized the NAACP, the nation’s oldest and strongest civil rights organization today. In 2006, hundreds of activists joined the granddaughter of Dr. DuBois (Dr. DuBois Irvin, professor of Psychology at Xavier University) and his two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Dr. David Levering Lewis, who is also a professor of History at NYU, and others, who helped recall the life and work of the scholar, whose seminal 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk” contained the immortal prediction: “for the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line…”
In 2006, participants re-enacted a “pilgrimage” to the site of John Brown’s Fort, which had been reconstructed on the farm of Alexander Murphy near the historic town. Participants heard a humble speech of atonement from Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.VA.), the longest serving member in the history of the Senate and himself a former member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK); and they faced down a silent protest during the event by two dozen modern-day Klansmen, members of the World Knights of the KKK.
“I cannot claim that I led in the effort” to reverse the erosion of the political rights of Blacks that began with the end of the Reconstruction, said Sen. Byrd. “I cannot claim that. But I was wrong,” he continued solemnly.
“I’ve said it before. I say it now. I was wrong. I don’t say that to get your votes. You have exemplified to me what it means to be tolerant and to be forgiving, and I won’t ever, ever forget it. And I thank you.
“The courageous and determined men and women of the Niagara Movement gathered to register their protest of such treatment, and to make known their intention to be vigilant in their efforts to contest any, any, legal action or practice to assign them status as second-class citizens. That was a great and a right thing to do for our country, and for you.”
Later, the crowd stiffened, but there were no incidents when the modern KKK members arrived, escorted by police. They were not wearing white sheets and hoods, but they wore all-black garments with Nazi paraphernalia and slogans such as “racist and proud of it.”
“Father God, Thou knowest the purpose of our meeting. We come to commemorate a great event that happened in the history of this nation. We come to raise the banner of freedom. We come to raise the banner of our Father and our God,” said Reverend Dr. Benjamin Hooks, former NAACP president and former Federal Communications Commission member, in the opening invocation.
Sen. Byrd and Dr. Hooks unveiled a State Historical Marker commemorating the Niagara Movement’s 1906 Harpers Ferry meeting.
A month earlier, current NAACP President Bruce Gordon and Board Chairman Julian Bond unveiled a tablet honoring the John Brown raid, which was originally set to be placed on the Storer College campus in 1932.
“Here, John Brown aimed at human slavery a blow that woke a guilty nation,” the plaque read in part. Its dedication was delayed more than 70 years because the college administration thought it to be too militant at the time. Storer College was closed in 1965 after West Virginia’s colleges and universities were integrated as a result of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision.
The weeklong Niagara Movement Centennial was organized by U.S. Park Ranger Todd Bolton, with the assistance of Jefferson County, West Virginia-NAACP President George Rutherford. The planning spanned a 12-year period.
In 1896, 10 years before the Niagara meeting, the Colored Women’s League of Washington, D.C., led by Dr. Mary Church Terrell, met in Harpers Ferry and made a pilgrimage to the John Brown Fort.
The 2006 commemoration heard from many civil rights pioneers, including the widow and daughters of Reverend Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Reverend Walter Fauntroy, and included musical performances by folk singer Odetta, the Count Basie Orchestra and the Gospel Choir from Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., among others. Reverend J. Milton Waldron, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in 1906, was an original participant in the Niagara Movement meeting.