Now, certainly, there are very few average men or philosophers, to whom the answer given to our question would not seem to state, or at any rate fairly indicate, the race problem in its essence. But, however few they be, I do not hesitate to align myself with them as one who does not believe that the essential race problem as it exists in the South (whatever it be in the North) is stated, or even fairly indicated, in the foregoing answer. In Northern and Western communities, where he is outnumbered by many thousands of white people, the Negro may be accounted a problem, because he is lazy, or ignorant, or brutal, or criminal, or all these things together; or because he is black and different. But in Southern communities, where the Negro is not outnumbered by many thousands of white people, the race problem, essentially, and in its most acute form, is something distinct from his laziness or ignorance, or brutality, or criminality, or all-round intellectual and moral inferiority to the white man. That problem as the South knows and deals with it would exist, as certainly as it does to-day, if there were no shadow of excuse for the conviction that the Negro is more lazy, or more ignorant, or more criminal, or more brutal, or more anything else he ought not to be, or less anything else he ought to be, than other men. In other words, let it be supposed that the average Negro is as a matter of fact the equal, morally and intellectually, of the average white man of the same class, and the race problem declines to vanish, declines to budge. We shall see why, presently. The statements just made demand immediate justification. For they are doubtless surprising to a degree, and to some readers may prove startling.
I proceed to justify them as briefly as possible, asking the reader to bear in mind that very much more might be said along this line than I allow myself space to say.
That the Negro is not a problem because he is lazy, because he declines to work, is evidenced by the patent fact that in virtually every Southern community he is sought as a laborer in fields, mills, mines, and that in very many Southern communities the vexing problem for employers is not too many, but too few Negroes. In certain agricultural sections, notably in the Louisiana sugar district, quite a number of Italians ("Dagoes") are employed. The reason is not dissatisfaction with Negro labor, but simply that there is not enough of it to meet the requirements of the large plantations. There is, perhaps, not one of these plantations on which any able-bodied Negro could not get employment for the asking; and as a rule, the Negroes are given, not the work which demands the lowest, but that which demands the highest, efficiency: they are the ploughmen, the teamsters, the foremen. If any one doubts that Negroes are wanted as laborers in Southern communities, very much wanted, let him go to any such community and attempt to inveigle a few dozen of the laziest away. He will be likely to take his life in his hands, after the usual warning is disregarded!
The small politician's trump-card, played early and late, and in all seasons, that the Negro is a black shadow over the Southland because of his excessive criminality, serves well the politician's purpose,--it wins his game; but only because the game is played and won on a board where fictions, not facts, are dominant. Nothing is easier than to offer so-called proofs of the contention that the Negro's tendency to crime is something peculiar to his race; there are the jail and penitentiary and gallows statistics, for instance. But surely it should not be difficult for these so- called proofs to present themselves in their true light to any one who takes the trouble to consider two weighty and conspicuous facts: this, first, that the Negroes occupy everywhere in this country the lowest social and industrial plane, the plane which everywhere else supplies the jail, the penitentiary, the gallows, with the greatest number of their victims; and secondly this, that in the section of the country where these penal statistics are gathered, all the machinery of justice is in the hands of white men.
No Negro is a sheriff, or judge, or justice of the peace, or grand or petit juryman, or member of a pardoning board. Charged with crime, again and again, the black man must go to jail; he is unable to give bond; he is defended, not by the ablest, but by the poorest lawyers, often by an unwilling appointee of the court; he lacks the benefit of that personal appeal to judge and jury, so often enjoyed by other defendants, which would make them WANT to believe him innocent until proven guilty; he faces, on the contrary, a judge and jury who hold him in some measure of contempt as a man, regardless of his guilt or innocence. He is without means, except occasionally, to fight his case through appeals to higher courts, and errors sleep in many a record that on review would upset the verdict. In the light of such considerations, it would seem impossible that criminal statistics should not bear hard upon the Negro race, even supposing it to be a fact that that race of all races in the world is the LEAST criminal.
Let it be admitted without question that in most Southern communities the crimes and misdemeanors of the Negroes exceed those committed by an equal number of white people, and we have admitted nothing that at all explains or accounts for the race problem. For is it not equally true that in every other community the doers of society's rough work, the recipients of its meagrest rewards, are chargeable, relatively, with the greatest number of crimes and misdemeanors? Is it not true, as well in Massachusetts and Connecticut as in Louisiana and Mississippi, that the vast majority of those occupying prison cells are members of the social lowest class? that the vast majority condemned, after trial, to hard labor with their hands were accustomed to such labor before their judicial condemnation? Nothing is more preposterous than the idea that the race problem means more Negroes hanged, more Negroes imprisoned, more Negroes in mines and chain-gangs, than white people! If the Negro did not furnish the great bulk of the grist for the grinding of our penal machinery in the Southern states, he would constitute the racial miracle of this and all ages!
My own conviction is, and I speak with the experience of forty years' residence in Southern states, that the Negro is not more given to crimes and misdemeanors than the laboring population of any other section of the country. But be this as it may, it is abundantly certain that no race of people anywhere are more easily controlled than the Negroes by the guardians of law and order; and there are none anywhere so easily punished for disobedience to the statutes and mandates of their economic superiors. Courts and juries may be sometimes subject to just criticism for undue leniency toward white defendants; but that courts and juries are ever subject to just criticism for undue leniency in dealing with black defendants is the sheerest nonsense.
The frequent charge that the Negro's worst crimes partake of a brutality that is peculiarly racial, is not supported by facts. I need not enlarge upon this statement further than to say that the Negro's worst crimes, with all their shocking accompaniments, are, not seldom, but often, duplicated by white men. Let any one who doubts the statement observe for one week the criminal statistics of any cosmopolitan newspaper, and he will have his doubt removed.
Assuredly we do not hit upon the essence of the race problem in the Negro's propensity to crime!
Do we hit upon it in his ignorance, in the fact that an immense number of the black people are illiterate, not knowing the first from the last letter of the alphabet? Hardly. For, almost to a man, the people who most parade and most rail at the race problem in private conversation, on the political platform, and in the pages of newspapers, books, and periodicals, are disposed rather to lament, than to assist, the passing of the Negro's ignorance. Ex-Governor
Vardaman, of Mississippi, used the following language in a message to the legislature of that state, January, 1906:--
"The startling facts revealed by the census show that those [Negroes] who can read and write are more criminal than the illiterate, which is true of no other element of our population. . . . The state for many years, at great expense to the tax-payers, has maintained a system of Negro education which has produced disappointing results, and I am opposed to the perpetuation of this system. My own idea is, that the character of education for the Negro ought to be changed. If, after forty years of earnest effort, and the expenditure of fabulous sums to educate his head, we have only succeeded in making a criminal of him and impairing his usefulness and efficiency as a laborer, wisdom would suggest that we make another experiment and see if we cannot improve him by educating his hand and his heart. . . . Slavery is the only process by which he has ever been partially civilized. God Almighty created the Negro for a menial, he is essentially a servant."
This is the reply of an ex-governor of one of our blackest states to those who contend that the negro is a problem, a "burden carried by the white people of the South," because of his ignorance and consequent inefficiency; and that the lightening of the burden depends upon more money spent, more earnest efforts made, for the schooling of the black people. According to this ex-governor, and there are thousands who agree with him in and out of Mississippi, the race problem is heightened, rather than mitigated, by all attempts to increase the negro's intellectual efficiency. The more ignorant he is, the less burdensome he is to the white man, provided his heart be good, and his hands skillful enough to do the service of a menial. Nothing but slavery ever partially civilized him, nothing but slavery continued in some form can civilize him further!
If we listen vainly for the heart-throb of the race problem in the Negro's laziness, and criminality, and brutality, and ignorance, and inefficiency, do we detect it with clearness and certainty in the personal aversion felt by the white people for the black people, aversion which the white people can no more help feeling than the black people can help exciting? Is this the real trouble, the real burden, the real tragedy and sorrow of our white population in those sections of the country where the Negroes are many,--that they are compelled to dwell face to face, day by day, with an inferior, degraded population, repulsive to their finer sensibilities, obnoxious to them in countless ways inexplicable? Facts are far from furnishing an affirmative answer. However pronounced may be the feeling of personal aversion toward the Negroes in Northern communities, where they are few, or known at long range, or casually, there is no such thing in Southern communities as personal aversion for the Negro pronounced enough to be responsible for anything resembling a problem. How could there be in the South, where from infancy we have all been as familiar with black faces as with white; where many of us fell asleep in the laps of black mammies, and had for playmates
Ephrom, Izik, Zeke, black mammy's grandchildren; where most of us have had our meals prepared by black cooks, and been waited on by black house-servants and dining-room servants, and ridden in carriages and buggies with black hostlers? We are so used to the black people in the South, their mere personal presence is so far from being responsible for our race problem, that the South would not seem Southern without them, as it would not without its crape myrtles, and live-oaks, and magnolias, its cotton and its sugar- cane!
It is very easy to go astray in regard to the matter of personal aversion toward the members of alien races, to magnify greatly the reality and importance of it. What seems race-aversion is frequently something else, namely, revulsion aroused by the presence of the strange, the unusual, the uncanny, the not- understood. Such revulsion is aroused, not only by the members of alien races, alien and unfamiliar, but as certainly by strange animals of not more terrifying appearance than the well-loved cow and horse; and it would be aroused as really and as painfully, doubtless, by the sudden proximity of one of Milton's archangels. It was not necessarily race-aversion which made Emerson, and may have made many another Concord philosopher, uncomfortable in the presence of a Negro, any more than it is race-aversion which makes the Fifth Avenue boy run from the gentle farmyard cow; any more than it is race-aversion which would make me uncomfortable in the presence of Li Hung Chang. The Negro, simply, it may be, was a mystery to Emerson, as the farmyard cow is a mystery to the Fifth Avenue boy, as the Chinaman is a mystery to me.
The Negro is NOT a mystery to people whom he has nursed and waited on, whose language he has spoken, whose ways, good and bad, he has copied for generations; and his personal presence does not render them uncomfortable, not, at any rate, uncomfortable enough to beget the sense of a burden or a problem.
It may be very difficult for Northern readers, to whom the Negro is in reality a stranger, a foreigner, to appreciate fully the force of what has just been said; but appreciated by them it must be, or they can never hope to realize the innermost meaning of the race problem in the South.
So much for what the race problem is not. Let me without further delay state what it is. The foundation of it, true or false, is the white man's conviction that the Negro as a race, and as an individual, is his inferior: not human in the sense that he is human, not entitled to the exercise of human rights in the sense that he is entitled to the exercise of them. The problem itself, the essence of it, the heart of it, is the white man's determination to make good this conviction, coupled with constant anxiety lest, by some means, he should fail to make it good. The race problem, in other words, is NOT that the Negro is what he is in relation to the white man, the white man's inferior; but this, rather: How to keep him what he is in relation to the white man; how to prevent his ever achieving or becoming that which would justify the belief on his part, or on the part of other people, that he and the white man stand on common human ground.
That such is the heart of the problem should be made evident by this general consideration alone: namely, that everywhere in the South friction between the races is entirely absent so long as the Negro justifies the white man's opinion of him as an inferior; is grateful for privileges and lays no claim to RIGHTS. Let him seem content to be as the South insists he shall be, and not only is he not harshly treated, not abused, and never boycotted, but he is shown much kindness and generosity, and employment awaits him for the asking. Trouble brews when he begins to manifest those qualities, to reveal those tastes, to give vent to those ambitions, which are supposed to be characteristic exclusively of the higher human type, and which, unless restrained, would result in confounding the lower with the higher. The expression "Good Nigger" means everywhere in the South a real Negro, from the Southern standpoint, one who in no respect gets out of focus with that standpoint; the expression "Bad Nigger" means universally one who in some respect, not necessarily criminal, does get out of focus with it. So, stated differently, the race problem is the problem how to keep the Negro in focus with the traditional standpoint.
But we are very far from needing to rely upon any general consideration in support of the proposition advanced above. It is supported by evidences on every hand, waiting only the eye of recognition. Scarcely a day passes but something is said or done with this end in view, to emphasize, lest they forget, the conviction for both white man and Negro that the latter is and must remain an inferior. Let me instance a few such evidences.
Consider, first, the "Jim Crow" legislation in the manner of its enforcement. Such legislation is supposed to have for its object the separation of the races in trains, street-cars, etc., to save the white people from occasional contact with drunken, rowdy, ill- smelling Negroes, and to prevent personal encounters between the whites and blacks. How is this object attained in the street cars of Southern cities? Members of the different races occupy the same cars, separated only by absurdly inadequate little open-mesh wire screens, so tiny and light that a conductor can move them from one seat to another with the strength of his little finger. Needless to add, these screens would serve to obscure neither sound, sight, nor smell of drunken rowdies who sat behind them! In summer cars black and white passengers may be separated not even by a make-believe screen; they are simply required, respectively, to occupy certain seats in the front or the back end of the cars.
In Birmingham, Alabama, the front seats are assigned to Negroes in all closed cars, and the back seats in all open ones. Why the front seats in the one case, and the back seats in the other, it is not easy to understand in the light of the letter and alleged spirit of the Jim Crow law! The underlying purpose of the law is clearly not the separation of the races in space; for public sentiment does not insist upon its fulfillment to that end. The underlying purpose of it would seem to be the separation of the races in status. The doctrine of inequality would be attacked if white and black passengers rode in public conveyances on equal terms; therefore the Negro who rides in a public conveyance must do so, not as of undoubted right, but as with the white man's permission, subject to the white man's regulation. "This place you may occupy, that other you may not, because I am I and you are you, lest to you or me it should be obscured that I am I and you are you." Such is the real spirit of the Jim Crow laws.
Why is it that in every Southern city no Negro is allowed to witness a dramatic performance, or a baseball game, from a first- class seat? In every large city, there are hundreds of Negroes who would gladly pay for first-class seats at the theatre and the baseball game, were they permitted to. It can hardly be that permission is withheld because theatres and baseball games are so well attended by half the population that first-class seats could not be furnished for the other half. As a matter of fact, theatre-auditoriums and baseball grand-stands are seldom crowded; the rule is, not all first-class seats occupied, but many vacant. Surely as simple as moving from seat to seat a make-shift screen in a street-car, would it be to set apart a certain number of seats in the dress-circle of every theatre, and in the grand-stand of every baseball park, for Negro patrons. The reason why this is not done is perfectly obvious: it would be intolerable to the average Southern man or woman to sit through the hours of a theatrical performance or a baseball game on terms of equal accommodation with Negroes, even with a screen between. Negroes would look out of place, out of status, in the dress circle or the grand-stand; their place, signifying their status, is the peanut- gallery, or the bleachers. There, neither they nor others will be tempted to forget that as things are they must continue.
How shall we account for the "intense feeling" (to quote the language of the mayor or New Orleans) occasioned in that city one day, last July, when it was flashed over the wires that the first prize in the National Spelling Contest had been won by a Negro girl, in competition with white children from New Orleans and other Southern cities? The indignation of at least one of the leading New Orleans papers verged upon hysterics; the editor's rhetoric visited upon some foulest crime could hardly have been more inflamed than in denunciation of the fact that, on the far- away shore of Lake Erie, New Orleans white children had competed at a spelling bee with a Negro girl. The superintendent of the New Orleans schools was roundly denounced in many quarters for permitting his wards to compete with a Negro; and there were broad hints in "Letters from the People" to the papers that his resignation was in order.
Certainly in the days following the National Spelling Contest the race problem was in evidence, if it ever was, in New Orleans and the South! Did it show itself, then, as the problem of Negro crime, or brutality, or laziness? Assuredly not! Of the Negro's personal repulsiveness? By no means! There was no evidence of Negro criminality, or brutality, or laziness in the Negro child's victory; and every day in the South, in their games and otherwise, hundreds of white children of the best families are in closer personal contact with little Negroes than were the white children who took part in the Cleveland spelling bee. The "intense feeling" can be explained on one ground only: the Negro girl's victory was an affront to the tradition of the Negro's inferiority; it suggested--perhaps indicated--that, given equal opportunities, all Negroes are not necessarily the intellectual inferiors of all white people. What other explanation is rationally conceivable? If the race problem means in the South to its white inhabitants the burden and tragedy of having to dwell face to face with an intellectually and morally backward people, why should not the Negro girl's triumph have occasioned intense feeling of pleasure, rather than displeasure, by its suggestion that her race is not intellectually hopeless?
Consider further that while no Negro, no matter what his occupation, or personal refinement, or intellectual culture, or moral character, is allowed to travel in a Pullman car between state lines, or to enter as a guest a hotel patronized by white people, the blackest of Negro nurses and valets are given food and shelter in all first-class hotels, and occasion neither disgust, nor surprise in the Pullman cars. Here again the heart of the race problem is laid bare. The black nurse with a white baby in her arms, the black valet looking after the comfort of a white invalid, have the label of their inferiority conspicuously upon them; they understand themselves, and everybody understands them, to be servants, enjoying certain privileges for the sake of the person served. Almost anything, the Negro may do in the South, and anywhere he may go, provided the manner of his doing and his doing is that of an inferior. Such is the premium put upon his inferiority; such his inducement to maintain it.
The point here insisted on may be made clearer, if already it is not clear enough, by this consideration, that the man who would lose social caste for dining with an Irish street-sweeper might be congratulated for dining with an Irish educator; but President Roosevelt would scarcely have given greater offense by entertaining a Negro laborer at the White House than he gave by inviting to lunch there the Principal of Tuskegee Institute. The race problem being what it is, the status of any Negro is logically the status of every other. There are recognizable degrees of inferiority among Negroes themselves; some are vastly superior to others. But there is only one degree of inferiority separating the Negro from the white person, attached to all Negroes alike. The logic of the situation requires that to be any sort of black man is to be inferior to any sort of white man; and from this logic there is no departure in the South.
Inconsistent, perhaps, with what has been said may seem the defeat in the Louisiana Legislature (1908) of the anti-miscegenation bill, a measure designed to prohibit sexual cohabitation between white persons and Negroes; to be specific, between white men and Negro women. But there was no inconsistency whatever in the defeat of that bill. In all times and places, the status of that portion of the female population, Lecky's martyred "priestesses of humanity," whose existence men have demanded for the gratification of unlawful passion, has been that of social outcasts. They have no rights that they can insist upon; they are simply privileged to exist by society's permission, and may be any moment legislated out of their vocation. Hence the defeat of an anti-miscegenation measure by Southern legislators cannot be construed as a failure on their part to live up to their conviction of race-superiority. It must be construed, rather, as legislative unwillingness to restrict the white man's liberty; to dictate by statute the kind of social outcast which he may use as a mere means to the gratification of his passion. To concede to Negro women the status of a degraded and proscribed class, is not in any sense to overlook or obscure their racial inferiority, but on the contrary, it may be, to emphasize it. Precisely the same principle, in a word, compasses the defeat of an anti-miscegenation bill which would compass the defeat of a measure to prohibit Negro servants from occupying seats in Pullman cars.
At the risk of reiteration, I must in concluding this article take sharp issue with the view of a recent very able writer, who asks the question, "What, essentially, is the Race Problem?" and answers it thus: "The race problem is the problem of living with human beings who are not like us, whether they are in our estimation our 'superiors' or inferiors, whether they have kinky hair or pigtails, whether they are slant-eyed, hook-nosed, or thick-lipped. In its essence, it is the same problem, magnified, which besets every neighborhood, even every family."
I have contended so far, and I here repeat, that the race problem is essentially NOT what this writer declares it to be. It is emphatically not, in the South, "the problem of living with human beings who are not like us, whether they are in our estimation our superiors or inferiors." It may be, it probably is, that in the North, where the Negro is largely a stranger, a foreigner, very much to the same degree that the Chinese are strangers and foreigners in the South; and where, consequently, the Negro's personal repulsiveness is a much more significant force than it is in the South. Assuredly there would be no race problem, anywhere, were there no contact with others unlike ourselves! The unlikeness of the unlike is everywhere its indispensable foundation. But we get nowhither unless we carefully distinguish between the foundation of the problem and the problem itself. There is nothing in the unlikeness of the unlike that is necessarily problematical; it may be simply accepted and dealt with as a fact, like any other fact. The problem arises only when the people of one race are minded to adopt and act upon some policy more or less oppressive or repressive in dealing with the people of another race. In the absence of some such policy, there has never been a race problem since the world began. It is the existence of such a policy become traditional, and supported by immovable conviction, which constitutes the race problem of the Southern states.
There was an immensely tragic race problem distressing the South fifty years ago; but who will suggest that it was the problem of "living with human beings who are not like us?" The problem then was, clearly, how to make good a certain conviction concerning the unlike, how to maintain a certain policy in dealing with them. What else is it today? The problem, How to maintain the institution of chattel slavery, ceased to be at Appomattox; the problem, How to maintain the social, industrial, and civic inferiority of the descendants of chattel slaves, succeeded it, and is the race problem of the South at the present time. There is no other.
Whether the policy adopted by the white South, and supported, as I have said, by immovable conviction, is expedient or inexpedient, wise or unwise, righteous or unrighteous, these are questions which I have not sought to answer one way or another in this article. Perhaps they cannot be answered at all in our time. Certain is it, that their only real and satisfactory answer will be many years ahead of the present generation.
In the mean time, nothing could be more unwarranted, than to suppose that the race problem of one section of this country is peculiar to that section, because its white inhabitants are themselves in some sense peculiar; because they are peculiarly prejudiced, because they are peculiarly behind the hour which the high clock of civilization has struck. Remove the white inhabitants of the South, give their place to the white people of any other section of the United States, and, beyond a peradventure, the Southern race problem, as I have defined it, would continue to be--revealed, perhaps, in ways more perplexing, more intense and tragic.
NEGRO SUFFRAGE IN A DEMOCRACY by Ray Stannard Baker
In this paper I endeavor to lay down the fundamental principles which should govern the Negro franchise in a democracy, and to outline a practical programme for the immediate treatment of the problem.
As I see it, the question of Negro suffrage in the United States presents two distinct aspects:--
FIRST: the legal aspect.
SECOND: the practical aspect.
It will be admitted, I think, without argument, that all governments do and of a necessity must exercise the right to limit the number of people who are permitted to take part in the weighty responsibilities of the suffrage. Some governments allow only a few men to vote; in an absolute monarchy there is only one voter; other governments, as they become more democratic, permit a larger proportion of the people to vote.
Our own government is one of the freest in the world in the matter of suffrage; and yet we bar out, in most states, all women; we bar out Mongolians, no matter how intelligent; we bar out Indians, and all foreigners who have not passed through a certain probationary stage and have not acquired a certain small amount of education. We also declare--for an arbitrary limit must be placed somewhere-- that no person under twenty-one years of age may exercise the right to vote, although some boys of eighteen are to-day better equipped to pass intelligently upon public questions than many grown men. We even place adult white men on probation until they have resided for a certain length of time, often as much as two years, in the state or the town where they wish to cast their ballots. Our registration and ballot laws eliminate hundreds of thousands of voters; and finally, we bar out everywhere the defective and criminal classes of our population. We do not realize, sometimes, I think, how limited the franchise really is, even in America. We forget that out of nearly ninety million people in the United States, fewer than fifteen million cast their votes for President in 1908--or about one in every six.
Thus the practice of a restricted suffrage is very deeply implanted in our system of government. It is everywhere recognized that even in a democracy lines must be drawn, and that the ballot, the precious instrument of government, must be hedged about with stringent regulations. The question is, where shall these lines be drawn in order that the best interests, not of any particular class, but of the whole nation, shall be served.
Upon this question, we, as free citizens, have the absolute right to agree or disagree with the present laws regulating suffrage; and if we want more people brought in as partakers in government, or some people who are already in, barred out, we have a right to organize, to agitate, to do our best to change the laws. Powerful organizations of women are now agitating for the right to vote; there is an organization which demands the suffrage for Chinese and Japanese who wish to become citizens. It is even conceivable that a society might be founded to lower the suffrage age-limit from twenty-one to nineteen years, thereby endowing a large number of young men with the privileges, and therefore the educational responsibilities, of political power. On the other hand, a large number of people, chiefly in our Southern States, earnestly believe that the right of the Negro to vote should be curtailed, or even abolished.
Thus we disagree, and government is the resultant of all these diverse views and forces. No one can say dogmatically how far democracy should go in distributing the enormously important powers of active government. Democracy is not a dogma; it is not even a dogma of free suffrage. Democracy is a life, a spirit, a growth. The primal necessity of any sort of government, democracy or otherwise, whether it be more unjust or less unjust toward special groups of its citizens, is to exist, to be a going concern, to maintain upon the whole a stable and peaceful administration of affairs. If a democracy cannot provide such stability, then the people go back to some form of oligarchy. Having secured a fair measure of stability, a democracy proceeds with caution toward the extension of the suffrage to more and more people--trying foreigners, trying women, trying Negroes.
And no one can prophesy how far a democracy will ultimately go in the matter of suffrage. We know only the tendency. We know that in the beginning, even in America, the right to vote was a very limited matter. In the early years, in New England, only church- members voted; then the franchise was extended to include property-owners; then it was enlarged to include all white adults; then to include Negroes; then, in several Western States, to include women.
Thus the line has been constantly advancing, but with many fluctuations, eddies, and back-currents--like any other stream of progress. At the present time the fundamental principles which underlie popular government, and especially the whole matter of popular suffrage, are much in the public mind. The tendency of government throughout the entire civilized world is strongly in the direction of placing more and more power in the hands of the people. In our own country we are enacting a remarkable group of laws providing for direct primaries in the nomination of public officials, for direct election of United States Senators, and for direct legislation by means of the initiative and referendum; and we are even going to the point, in many cities, of permitting the people to recall an elected official who is unsatisfactory. The principle of local option, which is nothing but that of direct government by the people, is being everywhere accepted. All these changes affect, fundamentally, the historic structure of our government, making it less republican and more democratic.
Still more important and far-reaching in its significance is the tendency of our government, especially our Federal Government, to regulate or to appropriate great groups of business enterprises formerly left wholly in private hands. More and more, private business is becoming public business.
Now, then, as the weight of responsibility upon the popular vote is increased, it becomes more and more important that the ballot should be jealously guarded and honestly exercised. In the last few years, therefore, a series of extraordinary new precautions have been adopted: the Australian ballot, more stringent registration systems, the stricter enforcement of naturalization laws to prevent the voting of crowds of unprepared foreigners, and the imposition by several states, rightly or wrongly, of educational and property tests. It becomes a more and more serious matter every year to be an American citizen, more of an honor, more of a duty.
At the close of the Civil War, in a time of intense idealistic emotion, some three-quarters of a million of Negroes, the mass of them densely ignorant and just out of slavery, with the iron of slavery still in their souls, were suddenly given the political rights of free citizens. A great many people, and not in the South alone, thought then, and still think, that it was a mistake to bestow the high powers and privileges of a wholly unrestricted ballot--a ballot which is the symbol of intelligent self- government--upon the Negro. Other people, of whom I am one, believe that it was a necessary concomitant of the revolution; it was itself a revolution, not a growth, and like every other revolution it has had its fearful reaction. Revolutions, indeed, change names, but they do not at once change human relationships. Mankind is reconstructed not by proclamations, or legislation, or military occupation, but by time, growth, education, religion, thought. At that time, then, the nation drove down the stakes of its idealism in government far beyond the point it was able to reach in the humdrum activities of everyday existence. A reaction was inevitable; it was inevitable and perfectly natural that there should be a widespread questioning as to whether all Negroes, or indeed any Negroes, should properly be admitted to full political fellowship. That questioning continues to this day.
Now, the essential principle established by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was not that all Negroes should necessarily be given an unrestricted access to the ballot; but that the right to vote should not be denied or abridged 'on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.' This amendment wiped out the color-line in politics so far as any written law could possibly do it.
Let me here express my profound conviction that the principle of political equality then laid down is a sound, valid, and absolutely essential principle in any free government; that restrictions upon the ballot, when necessary, should be made to apply equally to white and colored citizens; and that the Fifteenth Amendment ought not to be, and cannot be repealed. Moreover, I am convinced that the principle of political equality is more firmly established to-day in this country than it was forty years ago, when it had only Northern bayonets behind it. For now, however short the practice falls of reaching the legal standard, the principle is woven into the warp and woof of Southern life and Southern legislation. Many Southern white leaders of thought are to-day CONVINCED, not FORCED believers in the principle; and that is a great omen.
Limitations have come about, it is true, and were to be expected as the back-currents of the revolution. Laws providing for educational and property qualifications as a prerequisite to the exercise of the suffrage have been passed in all the Southern States, and have operated to exclude from the ballot large numbers of both white and colored citizens, who on account of ignorance or poverty are unable to meet the tests. These provisions, whatever the opinion entertained as to the wisdom of such laws, are well within the principle laid down by the Fifteenth Amendment. But several Southern States have gone a step further, and by means of the so-called 'grandfather laws,' have exempted certain ignorant white men from the necessity of meeting the educational and property tests. These unfair 'grandfather laws,' however, in some of the states adopting them, have now expired by limitation.
Let me then lay down this general proposition:--
Nowhere in the South to-day is the Negro cut off LEGALLY, as a Negro, from the ballot. Legally, to-day, any Negro who can meet the comparatively slight requirements as to education, or property, or both, can cast his ballot on a basis of equality with the white man. I have emphasized the word legally, for I know the PRACTICAL difficulties which confront the Negro votes in many parts of the South. The point I wish to make is that legally the Negro is essentially the political equal of the white man; but that practically, in the enforcement of the law, the legislative ideal is still pegged out far beyond the actual performance.
Now, then, if we are interested in the problem of democracy, we have two courses open to us. We may think the laws are unjust to the Negro, and incidentally to the 'poor white' man as well. If we do, we have a perfect right to agitate for changes; and we can do much to disclose, without heat, the actual facts regarding the complicated and vexatious legislative situation in the South, as regards the suffrage. Every change in the legislation upon this subject should, indeed, be jealously watched, that the principle of political equality between the races be not legally curtailed. The doctrine laid down in the Fifteenth Amendment must, at any hazard, be maintained.
But, personally,--and I am here voicing a profound conviction,--I think our emphasis at present should be laid upon the practical rather than upon the legal aspect of the problem; I think we should take advantage of the widely prevalent feeling in the South that the question of suffrage has been settled, legally, for some time to come: of the desire on the part of many Southern people, both white and colored, to turn aside from the discussion of the political status of the Negro.
In short, let us for the time being accept the laws as they are, and build upward from that point. Let us turn our attention to the practical task of finding out why it is that the laws we already have are not enforced, and how best to secure an honest vote for every Negro and equally for every 'poor white' man, who is able to meet the requirements, but who for one reason or another does not or cannot now exercise his rights. I include the disfranchised white man as well as the Negro, because I take it that we are interested, first of all, in democracy, and unless we can arouse the spirit of democracy, South and North, we can hope for justice neither for Negroes, nor for the poorer class of white men, nor for the women of the factories and shops, nor for the children of the
Taking up this side of the problem we shall discover two entirely distinct difficulties:--
First, we shall find many Negroes, and indeed hundreds of thousands of white men as well, who might vote, but who, through ignorance, or inability or unwillingness to pay the poll-taxes, or from mere lack of interest, disfranchise themselves.
The second difficulty is peculiar to the Negro. It consists in open or concealed intimidation on the part of the white men who control the election machinery. In many places in the South to- day no Negro, how well qualified, would dare to present himself for registration; when he does, he is rejected for some trivial or illegal reason.
Thus we have to meet a vast amount of apathy and ignorance and poverty on the one hand, and the threat of intimidation on the other.
First of all, for it is the chief injustice as between white and colored men with which we have to deal,--an injustice which the law already makes illegal and punishable,--how shall we meet the matter of intimidation? As I have already said, the door of the suffrage is everywhere legally open to the Negro, but a certain sort of Southerner bars the passage-way. He stands there and, law or no law, keeps out many Negroes who might vote; and he represents in most parts of the South the prevailing public opinion.
Shall we meet this situation by force? What force is available? Shall the North go down and fight the South? You and I know that the North to-day has no feeling but friendship for the South. More than that--and I say it with all seriousness, because it represents what I have heard wherever I have gone in the North to make inquiries regarding the Negro problem--the North, wrongly or rightly, is to-day more than half convinced that the South is right in imposing some measure of limitation upon the franchise. There is now, in short, no disposition anywhere in the North to interfere in internal affairs in the South--not even with the force of public opinion.
What other force, then, is to be invoked? Shall the Negro revolt? Shall he migrate? Shall he prosecute his case in the courts? The very asking of these questions suggests the inevitable reply.
We might as well, here and now, dismiss the idea of force, express or implied. There are times of last resort which call for force; but this is not such a time.
What other alternatives are there?
Accepting the laws as they are, then, there are two methods of procedure, neither sensational nor exciting. I have no quick cure to suggest, but only old and tried methods of commonplace growth.
The underlying causes of the trouble in the country being plainly ignorance and prejudice, we must meet ignorance and prejudice with their antidotes, education and association.
Every effort should be made to extend free education among both Negroes and white people. A great extension of education is now going forward in the South. The Negro is not by any means getting his full share; but, as certainly as sunshine makes things grow, education in the South will produce tolerance. That there is already such a growing tolerance no one who has talked with the leading white men in the South can doubt. The old fire-eating, Negro-baiting leaders of the
Tillman-Vardaman type are swiftly passing away: a far better and broader group is coming into power.
In his last book, Mr. Edgar Gardner Murphy, of Alabama, expresses this new point of view when he says,--
'There is no question here as to the unrestricted admission [to the ballot] of the great masses of our ignorant and semi-ignorant blacks. I know no advocate of such admission. But the question is as to whether the individuals of the race, upon conditions or restrictions legally imposed and fairly administered, shall be admitted to adequate and increasing representation in the electorate. And as that question is more seriously and more generally considered, many of the leading publicists of the South, I am glad to say, are quietly resolved that the answer shall be in the affirmative.'
From an able Southern white man, a resident of New Orleans, I received recently a letter containing these words:--
'I believe we have reached the bottom, and a sort of quiescent period. I think it most likely that from now on there will be a gradual increase of the Negro vote. And I honestly believe that the less said about it, the surer the increase will be.'
Education--and by education I mean education of all sorts, industrial, professional, classical, in accordance with each man's talents--will not only produce breadth and tolerance, but will help to cure the apathy which now keeps so many thousands of both white men and Negroes from the polls: for it will show them that it is necessary for every man to exercise all the political rights within his reach. If he fails voluntarily to take advantage of the rights he already has, how shall he acquire more rights?
And as ignorance must be met by education, so prejudice must be met with its antidote, which is association. Democracy does not consist in mere voting, but in association, the spirit of common effort, of which the ballot is a mere visible expression. When we come to know one another we soon find that the points of likeness are much more numerous than the points of difference. And this human association for the common good, which is democracy, is difficult to bring about anywhere, whether among different classes of white people, or between white people and Negroes. As one of the leaders of the Negro race, Dr. Du Bois, has said,--
'Herein lies the tragedy of the age. Not that men are poor: all men know something of poverty. Not that men are wicked: who is good? Not that men are ignorant: what is truth? Nay, but that men know so little of each other.'
After the Atlanta riot I attended a number of conferences between leading white men and leading colored men. It is true those meetings bore evidence of awkwardness and embarrassment, for they were among the first of the sort to take place in the South, but they were none the less valuable. A white man told me after one of the meetings,--
'I did not know that there were any such sensible Negroes in the South.'
And a Negro told me that it was the first time in his life that he had ever heard a Southern white man reason in a friendly way with a Negro concerning their common difficulties.
More and more these associations of white and colored men, at certain points of contact, must and will come about. Already, in connection with various educational and business projects in the South, white and colored men meet on common grounds, and the way has been opened to a wider mutual understanding. And it is common enough now, where it was unheard of a few years ago, for both white men and Negroes to speak from the same platform in the South. I have attended a number of such meetings. Thus slowly-- awkwardly, at first, for two centuries of prejudice are not immediately overcome--the white man and Negro will come to know one another, not merely as master and servant, but as co-workers. These things cannot be forced.
One reason why the white man and the Negro have not got together more rapidly in the South than they have, is because they have tried always to meet at the sorest points. When sensible people, who must live together whether or no, find that there are points at which they cannot agree, it is the part of wisdom to avoid these points, and to meet upon other and common interests. Upon no other terms, indeed, can a democracy exist, for in no imaginable future state will individuals cease to disagree with one another upon something less than half of all the problems of life.
'Here we all live together in a great country,' say the apostles of this view; 'let us all get together and develop it. Let the Negro do his best to educate himself, to own his own land, and to buy and sell with the white people in the fairest possible way.'
It is wonderful, indeed, how close together men who are stooping to a common task soon come.
Now, buying and selling, land ownership and common material pursuits, may not be the highest points of contact between man and man, but they are real points, and help to give men an idea of the worth of their fellows, white or black. How many times, in the South, I heard white men speak in high admiration of some Negro farmer who had been successful, or of some Negro blacksmith who was a worthy citizen, or of some Negro doctor who was a leader of his race.
It is curious, once a man (any man, white or black) learns to do his job well, how he finds himself in a democratic relationship with other men. I remember asking a prominent white citizen of a town in Central Georgia if he knew anything about Tuskegee. He said,--
'Yes: I had rather a curious experience last fall. I was building a hotel and couldn't get any one to do the plastering as I wanted it done. One day I saw two Negro plasterers at work in a new house that a friend of mine was building. I watched them for an hour. They seemed to know their trade. I invited them to come over and see me. They came, took the contract for my work, hired a white man to carry mortar at a dollar a day, and when they got through it was the best job of plastering in town. I found that they had learned their trade at Tuskegee. They averaged four dollars a day each in wages. We tried to get them to locate in our town, but they went back to school.'
When I was in Mississippi a prominent banker showed me his business letter-heads.
'Good job, isn't it?' he said. 'A Negro printer did it. He wrote to me asking if he might bid on my work. I replied that although I had known him a long time I couldn't give him the job merely because he was a Negro. He told me to forget his color, and said that if he couldn't do as good a job and do it as reasonably as any white man could, he didn't want it. I let him try, and now he does most of our printing.'
Out of such points of contact, then, encouraged by such wise leaders as Booker T. Washington, will grow an ever finer and finer spirit of association and of common and friendly knowledge. And that will inevitably lead to an extension upon the soundest possible basis of the Negro franchise. I know cases where white men have urged intelligent Negroes to come and cast their ballots, and have stood sponsor for them, out of genuine respect. As a result, to-day, the Negroes who vote in the South are, as a class, men of substance and intelligence, fully equal to the tasks of citizenship.
Thus, I have boundless confidence not only in the sense of the white men of the South, but in the innate capability of the Negro, and that once these two come really to know each other, not at sore points of contact, but as common workers for a common country, the question of suffrage will gradually solve itself along the lines of true democracy.
Another influence also will tend to change the status of the Negro as a voter. That is the pending break-up of the political solidarity of the South. All the signs point to a political realignment upon new issues in this country, both South and North. Old party names may even pass away. And that break-up, with the attendant struggle for votes, is certain to bring into politics thousands of Negroes and white men now disfranchised. The result of a real division on live issues has been shown in many local contests in the South, as in the fight against the saloons, when every qualified Negro voter, and every Negro who could qualify, was eagerly pushed forward by one side or the other. With such a division on new issues the Negro will tend to exercise more and more political power, dividing, not on the color line, but on the principles at stake.
Thus in spite of the difficulties which now confront the Negro, I cannot but look upon the situation in a spirit of optimism. I think sometimes we are tempted to set a higher value upon the ritual of a belief than upon the spirit which underlies it. The ballot is not democracy: it is merely the symbol or ritual of democracy, and it may be full of passionate social, yes, even religious significance, or it may be a mere empty and dangerous formalism. What we should look to, then, primarily, is not the shadow, but the substance of democracy in this country. Nor must we look for results too swiftly; our progress toward democracy is slow of growth and needs to be cultivated with patience and watered with faith.
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