Niagara forum spotlights need for renewed activism

By Talia Whyte

Originally published in the Bay State Banner

One hundred years ago, 800 concerned African Americans gathered in Faneuil Hall in Boston to discuss the political and social issues afflicting blacks at that time.

Topics discussed at the meeting — one of five organized by W.E.B. Du Bois as part of the burgeoning Niagara Movement — included the alarming rate of lynchings of African Americans in the South and the need for a progressive alternative to Booker T. Washington’s more passive, accommodationist viewpoint of African Americans in the post-Reconstruction era. The Niagara Movement became a springboard for many other civil rights efforts to come.

Another group of African Americans convened at Faneuil Hall last Saturday, at a gathering organized by the Boston chapter of the NAACP. They came together not only to commemorate the Movement’s centennial anniversary, but also to address problems plaguing the community today.

Dr. Robert Hall, director of African American studies at Northeastern University, said that while blacks have made a great deal of progress since the Niagara Movement, many of those complex problems — poverty, unemployment, disproportionate involvement with the criminal justice system and others — are made more complex by the ugly insistence of racism, whether direct or indirect.

Hall referenced one example: the recent controversial statements of Nobel laureate James Watson, the renowned biologist and winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his role in discovering the double-helix structure of DNA.

The 79-year-old Watson, who is white, was quoted in an article in the Oct. 14 Sunday Times Magazine of London as saying he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.”

Hall called Watson’s remarks an instance of “pseudo-scientific racism.”

“We are in a better position today because of better representation, politically and otherwise,” Hall said. “But we still need to figure out how to handle today’s racism.”

Many panelists at last weekend’s meeting felt that the Jena Six case is an example of the new civil rights movement. They also said that the struggle for social justice is now a global issue, especially concerning the war on terror. The growing number of Americans coming out against the war in Iraq, they said, spotlights a new kind of activism brewing in the country.

“I don’t know if we need to meet in Niagara, but we might need to meet in Fallujah,” said Geoff Ward, a criminal justice professor from Northeastern University. “Niagara offered an opportunity of sustainable activism, which makes the act for civil rights more credible today. We have complex global problems today that we really need to look at.”

William Strickland of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies agreed. He said the “imperialistic misdeeds” of the Bush administration have placed the United States in a compromising position on the world stage, citing the U.S. government’s alleged kidnapping of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Bush’s caustic relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

“Hugo said [Bush] was the devil,” said Strickland, referencing Chávez’s controversial statements about the president at the United Nations last year. “If he is not the devil, he is the closest thing to it.”

Kerri Greenige of Northeastern University agreed that the American people should force the Bush administration to prioritize its agenda.

“A country that can fund billions for a war but can’t provide health care for children is shameful,” she said. “America needs to refocus on what is important.”

Even amid these concerns, one troubled the panelists above all: African Americans’ lack of interest in tackling these issues, as their predecessors did years before. They blamed this in part on members of the black community becoming more disconnected from one another.

L’Merchie Frazier, director of education at the Museum of African American History, worries most about the dearth of black youth taking on these issues. She said that many African American youth feel that because there were so many achievements resulting from the civil rights movement, there is nothing more to fight for today.

Frazier said that when she was younger, her grandmother brought her to civil rights meetings hosted by educator Mary McLeod Bethune when she was growing up in Florida. She urged parents to carry on that tradition today.

“I look at this audience today, I don’t see any young people here,” she said. “Who are going to be the carriers of our history?”

At meeting’s end, the consensus was that the Niagara Movement’s legacy still has a vital place today, and there is a need to keep this part of history alive for the future.

“We need to continue this conversation,” said Charlotte Nelson of Dorchester. “We need a new Niagara Movement.”

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.


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