By Ed Brock
It was no accident that Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois should come upon the world stage at the same time.
It was the hand of God, U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., told a rapt audience at Monday's U.S. First Army Annual Black History Month Program at Fort Gillem in Forest Park. Scott was there to talk about the Niagara Movement, the organization founded by DuBois that would be the precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"God brought those two giants on the stage at the same time, at the right time to provide the necessary tension," Scott said.
And in fact it was the tension between Washington and DuBois that led to the creation of the Niagara Movement, the 100th anniversary of which is the central theme of this year's Black History Month.
Speaking in the dining room of the Getaway Club at Fort Gillem to a crowd of more than 100 people, Scott began his speech with a discussion of the important role black people have played in American history, starting with Crispin Attucks, the first man to die in America's push for freedom during the Boston Massacre.
He hailed white Americans, too, who had played a role in black history, such as abolitionist John Brown.
"He thought God had called him to free black people, and yes, God had called him," Scott said.
The Civil War that followed Brown's actions and the Reconstruction that followed the war created a "brief moment" when it seemed that African Americans were on the road to equality.
Then came the "Compromise of 1877," Scott said. After the close presidential election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel L. Tilden, a special electoral commission was set to decide the vote that had come down to 20 electoral votes.
The Democrats were threatening a filibuster to stop the commission's report, and to appease them the Republicans offered to, among other things, withdraw Federal troops from the South.
That meant the end of enforcement of civil rights for African Americans, Scott said.
"When the Compromise of 1877 took place a dark curtain fell on this country," Scott said. "That Compromise of 1877 laid the ground work and the long road followed to the need for the Niagara Movement.
In the ensuing years "every kind of conceivable thing was passed to keep the African American down," Scott said, including the Plessey v. Ferguson case that marked the beginning of Jim Crow Laws.
In response to this decline Booker Washington delivered his Atlanta Compromise speech in 1895 at the site of what is now Piedmont Park. Scott said that in his speech Washington sought to accommodate the white South and urged black people to not "worry about integration right now," Scott said.
DuBois took the opposite tact, and with William M. Trotter arranged the meeting of 29 men on July 11 through 14, 1905 on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls that led to the creation of the Niagara Movement.
Scott read from DuBois 1906 speech in which the group demanded "full manhood suffrage, and we want it now, henceforth and forever."
"Against this (growing attack on the rights of African Americans) the Niagara Movement eternally protests," DuBois said. "We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social, and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America."
Cocoa and Fleetwood Dunston of Atlanta said they were inspired by Scott's presentation. They are very familiar with the Niagara Movement and even more familiar with Washington's Atlanta Compromise speech. They live near Piedmont Park.
"Every child in the state of Georgia should travel to Piedmont Park," Cocoa Dunston said. "There's a plaque there and people walk by and they don't realize how rich that ground is."
On Feb. 18 Georgia Department of Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond will speak about the Niagara Movement at a luncheon in The Commons community club at Fort Gillem's parent facility Fort McPherson in Atlanta. The event will be open to all active duty, Reserve and National Guard personnel, military retirees and their dependents.
Tickets cost $10 and are available by calling (404) 464-2618.