The Question of Color-Blind Citizenship: Albion Tourgee, W.E.B. Du Bois and the Principles of the Niagara Movement

By Elliott, Mark | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2008 | Go to article overview

The Question of Color-Blind Citizenship: Albion Tourgee, W.E.B. Du Bois and the Principles of the Niagara Movement


Elliott, Mark, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


  The colored man and those white men who believe in liberty and
  justice--who do not think Christ's teachings a sham--must join
  hands and hearts ... without both united, there is no hope of success.
  Albion Tourgee, 1893.

  We believe it is the duty of the Americans of Negro descent, as a
  body, to maintain their race identity until this mission of the Negro
  people is accomplished, and the ideal of human brotherhood has become
  a practical possibility.
  W.E.B. Du Bois, 1897.

At the founding meeting of the Niagara Movement in 1905, the organization adopted a statement of principles declaring that "any discrimination based simply on race or color is barbarous." It further described racism as an impediment to enlightened reason and humanitarian progress, an unfortunate relic of "unreasoning human savagery of which the world is and ought to be thoroughly ashamed." Calling for "the co-operation of all men of all races" in "persistent manly agitation" against racial discrimination, the Niagara-ites overtly invoked the abolitionist heritage of protest. (2) To honor this tradition, they pledged to hold a memorial meeting every Thanksgiving to honor the "Friends of Freedom" in whose radical steps they hoped to follow. Its first Thanksgiving memorial was dedicated to three men: William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Albion Tourgee. (3)

The Niagara Movement's selection of heroes was significant. An interracial trio of civil rights leaders--two of them white and one black--Garrison, Douglass and Tourgee had stood not only for a spirit of uncompromising agitation for full equality, but also for the principle that American citizenship should be "color blind." Garrison had argued that American citizenship "knows nothing of white or black men; it makes no invidious distinctions with regard to the color or condition," and he dismissed prejudices based on physical differences by saying "I would as soon deny the existence of my Creator as quarrel with the workmanship of his hands." (4) Douglass too repeatedly expressed his hope for a society of perfectly equal individuals, where race would not matter--a faith manifest in his marriage to Helen Pitts, a white feminist radical, in 1884. (5) But, it was Tourgee who brought the phrase "color-blind" citizenship into the legal and political discourse when he argued before the Supreme Court as the lead attorney for Homer Plessy in 1896 that "the Law ought to at least color-blind." Tourgee furthermore launched an interracial national civil rights organization in 1891 that declared as a founding principle that "justice is color-blind." (6) Considering its reverence for these forbearers, it may be regarded as strange--and a surprise to some historians to learn--that the Niagara Movement originally restricted its membership to black men only. What was the relationship between the ideal of "color-blind citizenship" and the Niagara Movement's decision to organize along the color-line? What conflicts existed between this principle in the abstract and the real world of interracial relationships, alliances, and organizing strategies?

This paper examines the concept of color-blind citizenship in the years leading up to the founding of the Niagara movement in 1905. In particular, I probe the conflicts and contradictions of civic "colorblindness" as it influenced both the philosophies and organizational strategies of two civil rights leaders, Albion Tourgee and W.E.B. Du Bois. The attitude of Du Bois and his fellow Niagara-ites to the "colorblind" principle must be understood in light of the prior experience of Tourgee, whose interracial movement of the 1890s foundered partly because of the difficulties he encountered in putting the "color-blind" ideal in practice. The failure of his movement begged the question: could American citizenship be color-blind? In light of Tourgee's experience, Du Bois's famous reflections upon black civic identity, and his ambivalence toward American citizenship, can be understood as a response to a specific historical moment--as well as a philosophical position of trans-historical significance.

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