In the late 60's and the early 70's, there were two major African American democratic clubs in Oakland. One was "The Muleskinners Democratic Club" headed up by the late John George, who was the head Wagon Master. I can hear John saying "Dem that's getting on the wagon, get on - dem that ain't get out the damn way." I remember Paul Cobb was the wagonmaster in West Oakland, and I was the wagonmaster in Fruitvale.
The other club was the CBS Democratic club, which stood for Columbia Gardens, Brookfield Village and Sobrante Park. The club was headed up by Attorney Clarence Davis, former Councilmember Carter Gilmore, and Eathem Gums.
There was a strong feeling for the need to organize a young Black professional organization to play a role and get involved in Oakland and county politics. We needed something much like what William Byron Rumford and DG Gibson did when they organized the East Bay Democratic Club in the mid 50's. In those years, the young turks consisted of Lionel Wilson, Allen and his sister Rita Broussard, Hiawatha Roberts, Don McCullum, Viola Taylor, Ray Dones, Joe Simmons, Clint White, Wiley Manuel, CL Dellums, Leon Miller, and Albert McKee, among many others.
When I considered forming a young Black political organization it was the East Bay Democratic Club that I had in mind to emulate. I knew I could organize around issues, because that's what I had always done.
A significant part of the club’s founding was daily conversations with Leo Bazile, with whom I had similar inclinations. I remember discussing this issue with John George, who thought I should bring this new group to join Muleskinners. By this time, I was the club's Vice-President and George referenced that I could soon be President of the club. I did not find that idea appealing.
There would be no way this young group of extremely talented Black professionals would have agreed. They wanted to develop their own priorities and leadership. With that in mind, Leo Bazile, John Harrison, AC Taylor and I had various discussions on moving forward to organize what was to become Niagara.
Because the three of them were in their second year of law school, it fell to me to put Niagara together.
In the fall of 1973, my then wife Irene allowed me to host and convene a meeting at our home to discuss the amorphous idea for a new Democratic club. Those in attendance that Sunday morning were Leo Bazile, John Harrison, AC Taylor, Art Scott, Michael Penn, Al Rogers, Edna & Esther Tidwell, Shirley Douglas, Wilson Riles, Jr. Elihu Harris, Walter Edwards, Ed Atkins and Irene Scott.
We thoroughly discussed the idea and we agree that this concept was urgently needed. The first question that had to be resolved was what would we call this group. Leo had always admired Dubois idea of the talented tenth. Wilson Riles said “ok - how about the Niagara Movement”. I think I then said "The New Niagara Movement!"
Because we wanted to engage in partisan politics, it made perfect sense to register with the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee. It was a no brainer for us to identify with the Democratic Party, which would give us the partisan legitimacy we would need.
As we waited for the official designation from the Central Committee, I was the anointed Chairman.
Once our membership was accepted, we moved to have permanent officers. We held elections, after which I became the first President of Niagara, Leo Bazile, Vice-President, Walter Edwards, Secretary, Elihu Harris, Political Education Chair; Art Scott, Membership Chair, Anita Williams, Finance Chair, Shirley Douglas, Precinct Chair. From there it's all vague.
We were lawyers, doctors, city planners and representatives of most all of the professions. I believe we checked all of the boxes.
We did not put any effort in trying to out organize the Black Panther Party; we did what we felt we could do best, which was organize each other.
I can remember our first political fundraiser. It was a cocktail reception held at 1200-Lakeshore to honor the California State Legislative Black Caucus. I believe the admission was a huge $5.00. The event was incredibly successful.
But I must say the highlight for me was the event for the Former Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. I was asked by a friend to host Carter for the weekend, which meant to host a reception and to travel with him while he was here, in the Bay Area. It was when he arrived and went to the VIP holding area where I first introduced him to then Secretary of State Jerry Brown, who was running for the Democratic nomination for Governor. There was nothing but an icy stare between the both of them. I thought I would freeze all over watching the icy stares.
The reception at my home was a success by any measure. His wife was in my kitchen washing dishes— can you believe that? Needless to say, Carter went on to become the 39th President of the United States.
Carter invited me to stay in the Lincoln bedroom if he was fortunate enough to win the presidency. I did not accept the open invitation.
In my time with the Niagara Movement club, I had two political highs: The first one was when one third of the votes on the council were occupied by Niagara members: Wilson Riles, Leo Bazile, and Elihu Harris, the Mayor.
The other high was when the same three ran for Mayor, and the two in the general election were Elihu and Wilson. Not a bad record of achievement for The New Niagara Movement Democratic Club. I do not know if we were as successful as the EBDC, but I will hold our achievements with any political organizations in the state of California.
But at the end of the day, we stood on the shoulders of giants. We stood on the shoulders of those who came before us and faced incredibly daunting challenges.They were giants and their challenges were very daunting. I encourage all who can to please come to our 45th anniversary to aid Niagara in raising money for voter registration.
What follows is a partial list of our members who were successful in the political arena:
1. Elihu Harris, Legislator & Mayor
2. Wilson Riles, Oakland Councilmember
3. Leo Bazile, Oakland Vice-Mayor
4. Mary King, County Supervisor, the first African American woman, as well as the first
person to Chair the County Central Committee for the Democratic Party.
5. Don White, the longest serving Treasurer in the history of the county.
6. Barbara Lee, Congresswoman
7. Keith Carson, Alameda County Board of Supervisors Member
8. Bill Riley, Member of the Board of Trustees for the Peralta Community Colleges
9. Geoffrey Carter, Traffic Commissioner/Magistrate
10. Sylvester Hodges, Member of the Oakland School Board
11. Sandre Swanson, State Legislator
12. Shirley Douglas, the first African American woman to serve on as the Alameda
We hope you will join us this upcoming Friday, March 2nd for our 45th Anniversary celebration of the Niagara Movement Democratic Club taking place at Geoffrey's Inner Circle, 410-14th Street in downtown Oakland.
The cocktail reception will begin at 5:30pm and will be followed by a dinner program at 7pm. The Honorable Willie Brown will provide the evening's keynote address. A presentation of awards will honor SF Supervisor London Breed, Business Leader Dorothy King, and Community Activist Gene Hazzard.
Visit www.niagara45.eventbrite.com to purchase your advance ticket(s), VIP table(s) and/or to become an event sponsor.