Leadership and Activism

Plessy v. Ferguson

The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision cemented the “separate but equal” doctrine into United States law. The case dealt with segregated seating on a train, but the decision impacted much more.  In 1892, a man named Homer A. Plessy was arrested for refusing to move from his seat in the “white-only” section of the train he was riding to Louisiana.

Plessy’s lawyers went before the Supreme Court to argue that his 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law had been violated in the arrest. Attorney General Cunningham argued in defense of the law, stating that it didn’t discriminate against African Americans, but simply made a distinction between Black and white. The railroad cars, he argued, were “separate but equal.”

Even though it did not directly address voting laws, it supported restrictions against Black involvement in political life by upholding the “separate but equal” doctrine that provided legal justification for treating white and Black citizens differently.  In other words, the ruling upheld that tools of suppression used against African Americans were constitutional.

The Niagara Movement

Despite obstacles, many African Americans, especially those who lived in cities or in the North, fought for civil rights and access to the ballot.  In 1905, sociology, history and economics professor and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois called for a meeting of Black leaders at Niagara Falls, New York.

DuBois, along with newspaper editor and activist William Monroe Trotter, St. Paul, Minnesota lawyer, and activist Fredrick L. McGhee and 26 others created an organization that offered a more radical alternative to the accommodationist rejection of the fight for political and social equality with whites in favor of developing job skills and a reputation for stability and dependability path to Black advancement offered by popular leader Booker T. Washington.

This organization became known as the Niagara Movement, named after the falls where the first meeting was held. Members stayed on the Canadian side of the falls because the group was denied hotel rooms on the U.S. side.


Niagara Movement Leaders W.E.B. Du Bois, J.R. Clifford, L.M. Hershaw, and F.H.M. Murray; Source: National Park Service

The Niagara Movement believed that voting rights were the foundation of African American rights. The Declaration of Principles covered many issues from public health to education to suffrage:

At the same time, we believe that this class of American citizens should protest emphatically and continually against the curtailment of their political rights. We believe in manhood suffrage; we believe that no man is so good, intelligent or wealthy as to be entrusted wholly with the welfare of his neighbor."
-Niagara's Declaration of Principles, 1905

The Niagara Movement struggled financially and was unable to impact legislation. However, after the Springfield Race Riot of 1908 , during which white mobs shot Black citizens, destroyed property and lynched two elderly Black men, white activists joined with many of the Niagara leaders to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Among its leaders were DuBois and “the fearless anti-lynching crusader, suffragist, women's rights advocate, journalist and speaker of international stature,” Ida B. Wells.

Wells is also known for her early start to resistance against white supremacy when she refused to give up her seat on a train at age 14 in 1884.  She then sued the railroad company and won.  Unfortunately, the company took the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court where the decision was reversed.


Ida B. Wells; Source: National Women's History Museum