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27



WHAT SHALL THE NEGRO DO?



1. This paper is addressed directly to the colored people of
the United States. A large mass of them, of course, will not see^
it ; yet others of them wilL Nothing more forcibly illustrates
the great progress of our times than the fact that already one
may safely count on reaching a considerable body of readers,
wholly or partly of Negro blood, through the pages of a monthly
publication adapted to the highest popular intelligence of the
Anglo-Saxon race. The explanation of this is, that although
the colored man in America enters the second quarter-century
of his emancipation without yet having attained the full meas-
ure of American freedom decreed to him, he has, nevertheless,
enjoyed, for at least twenty, years, a larger share of private,
public, religious, and political liberty than falls to the lot of any
but a few peoples — the freest in the world.

It would be far from the truth to say that other men every-
where, or even that all white men, are freer than he. No subject
of the Czar, be he peasant or prince, however rich in ■privileges,
dares claim the rights actually enjoyed by an American f reed-
man. The Negro's grievance is not that his liberties are few ; it
is that, in a land and nation whose measure of every man's free-
dom is all the freedom any one can attain without infringing upon
a like freedom in others, and where all the competitions of life
are keyed on this idea, his tenure of almost every public right
is somehow mutilated by arbitrary discriminations against him.
Not that he is in slave's shackles and between prison walls, or in
a Russian's danger of them, but that, being entered in the race
for the prize of American citizenship, in accordance with all the
rules of the course, and being eager to run, he is first declared
an inferior competitor, and then, without gain to any, but with
only loss to all, is handicapped and hobbled.

Without gain to any and with, loss to all. For in this con-



628 WHAT SHALL THE NEGRO DO?

test no one truly wins by another's loss ; no one need lose by
another's gain ; the prize is for every one that reaches the goal,
and the more winners there are the better for each and all. The
better public citizen the Negro can be the better it will be for
the white man. But the Negro's grievance is, that the discrimi-
nations made against him are more and more unbearable the
better public citizen he is or tries to be ; that they are imped-
iments, not to the grovelings of his lower nature, but to the
aspirations of his higher ; that as long as he is content to travel
and lodge as a ragamuffin, frequent the vilest places of amuse-
ment, laze about the streets, shun the public library and the best
churches and colleges, and neglect every political duty of his
citizenship, no white man could be much freer than he finds
himself ; but that the farther he rises above such life as this the
more he is galled and tormented with ignominious discrimina-
tions made against him as a public citizen, both by custom and
by law ; and finally, that as to his mother, his wife, his sister, his
daughter, these encouragements to ignoble, and discouragements
to nobler, life are only crueler in their case than in his own.

2. What large enjoyment of rights, with what strange suffer-
ing of wrongs ! Yet to explain the incongruity is easy ; the large
enjoyment of rights belongs to a new order of things, which has
only partly driven out the old order, of which these wrongs are,
by comparison, but a slender remnant To explain is easy, but
to remove, to remove these sad and profitless wrongs, what shall
the nation do?

There are many answers. We are reminded of what the
nation has done, and the record is a great ona For forty years
of this nineteenth century, one of whose years counts for a score
of any other century's, it made the condition of the Negro the
absorbing national question, to which it sacrificed its peace and
reposa Admitting much intermixture of motives of selfish
power and of self-preservation, yet the fundamental matter was a
moral conviction that moved the majority of the nation to refuse
to hold slaves or countenance slave-holding by State legislation.
To have waived this conviction would have avoided a frightful
civil war. The freedom of the Negro was bought at a higher
price, in white men's blood and treasure, than any people ever



WHAT SHALL THE NEGRO DO? 629

paid, of their own blood and treasure, for their own liberty.
Since the close of the war, many millions of dollars have been
spent by private benevolence in the North to qualify the south-
ern Negro, morally and intellectually, for his new freedom, and
the outlay continues still undiminished- No equal number of
people elsewhere on earth receives so great an amount of mis-
sionary educational aid. In the South itself a great change has
taken — is taking — place in popular sentiment concerning certain
aspects of the Negro's case. In 1885-86 over 58 per cent of the
colored school population in seven great southern States were
enrolled in State public schools, in recognition of the necessity
and advantage of the Negro's elevation.

These things are not enumerated to remind the Negro of his
obligations. His property, as far as it goes, is taxed equally
with the white man's for public education and the maintenance
of the State ; and all the benefactions he has received, added to
all the peculations of which he stood accused in the days of his
own misrule, are not yet equal to the just dues of a darker past
still remaining, and that must ever remain, unpaid to him. They
are enumerated not to exhaust the record, but merely to indicate
the range of what has been done in the past, and is being done
in the present, by white men concerning the Negro's rights and
wrongs. The great national political party that first rose to
power, and for almost a quarter of a century held governmental
control, by its espousal and maintenance of the Negro's cause,
still declares that cause a living issue in the national interest.
The great party now in power, with one or more disaffected
wings from the opposition, though it does not propose to do
anything, as to the Negro, that has thus far been left undone, at
least consents not to undo anything that has been done. Yet
other important issues have been pushed to the front by both
parties, and the " Negro question," however pre-eminent in the
nation's true interest, is not paramount in the public attention.

But what has the Negro done? What is he doing? The
trite answer is, that he has increased from four millions to seven,
and is still multiplying faster by natural increase than any
other race on the continent But, also, he has accepted his free-
dom in the spirit of those who bestowed it ; that is, limited by,



*l ~*t*%- -



630 WHAT SHALL THE NEGRO DO?

and only by, the civil and political rights and duties of Ameri-
can citizenship equally devoid of special privileges and special
restrictions. He fought in no mean numbers in the great army
that achieved his liberation, and he has laid down, since then,
many a life rather than waive the rights guaranteed to him by
the American Constitution. In the infancy of his citizenship,
steeped in moral and intellectual ignorance, with some of his
former masters disfranchised and the rest opposed to almost the
whole list of his civil rights, he fell into the arms of unscrupu-
lous leaders and covered not a few pages of history with a record
of atrociously corrupt government ; yet, as the present writer
has lately asserted elsewhere, the freedman never by legislation
removed the penalties from anything that the world at large
calls a crime, and here it may be added that he never put upon
the statute book a law hostile to the universal enjoyment of
American liberty. In the darkest day of his power he estab-
lished the public-school system. He has exceeded expectation
in his display of industry, his purchase of land, his accumulation
of wealth, his eagerness and capability for education, and even
in his political intelligence- and parliamentary skill. Even
under the artificial and undiscriminating pressure of public
caste he is developing social ranks with wide moral and intel-
lectual differences, from the stupid, idle, criminal, and pain-
fully numerous minority at the bottom, to a wealth-holding,
educated minority at the top ; each emerging, or half emerging,
from a huge middle majority of peace-keeping, but unedu-
cated and unskilled farmers, mechanics, and laborers, yet a
majority unestranged from the more cultured and prosperous
minority of their own race by any differences of religion, conflict
of traditions, or rivalry of capital and labor, and hearkening to
their counsels more tractably than the mass listens to the few
amongst any other people on the continent. He is not open to
the charges urged against the Indian or the Chinaman ; he does
not choose to be a savage, as the one, nor a civil alien and a
heathen, as the other, is supposed to choose. He accepts educa-
tion, sometimes under offensive, and sometimes under expensive,
conditions. He proposes to stay in this country, and is eager to
be in all things a citizen. His religion is Christianity ; and if it



WHAT SHALL THE NEGRO DO? 631

is often glaringly emotional and superficial, so, confessedly, is
the Christianity of his betters the world over. He only shares
the fault, after all, in large and gross degree, amply explained by
his past and present conditions; and in many leading features a
description of his faith and practice, worship and works, would
differ but little from the history of religion among our white
settlers of the Mississippi Valley scarcely seventy-five years ago.
3. Thus far has the nation come, and in view of these develop-
ments the old but still anxious question, What shall be done with
the Negro ? makes room beside it for this : What shall the Negro
do ? For, as matters stand, it seems only too probable that until
the Negro does something further, nothing further will be done.
And, indeed, are not the times and the question saying, them-
selves, by mute signs, that the day has come when the Negro,
not the rice-field savage, but you, the educated, law-abiding, tax-
paying Negro, must push more strenuously to the front in his —
in your — own behalf, and thus in the behalf of all your race in
the land? In particular, then, What can — what shall — the
Negro do?

You can make the most of the liberty you have. You have
large liberty of speech, much freedom of the press, of petition,
of organization, of public meeting, liberty to hold property, to
prosecute civil and criminal lawsuits, a perfect freedom to use
the mails, and a certain — or must we say an uncertain — freedom
of the ballot All these are inestimable liberties, and have been,
and are being, used by you. But are they being used faithfully
to their utmost extent?

Freedom of public organization, for instance. From the
earliest days of his emancipation the Negro has shown a zest and
gift for organization, and to-day his private, public, and secret
societies, which cost him money to maintain, have thousands of
members. Yet only here and there among them is there a club
or league for the advocacy and promotion of his civil rights.
There is probably no other great national question so nearly
destitute of the championship of an active national organization,
with officers, treasury, and legal counsel The causes of this are
plain enough. As long as it was the supreme political issue it
was left, after our American fashion, entirely to the heated







632 WHAT SHALL THE NEGRO DO?

treatment of the daily press, the stump, and the national and
State legislatures. From them a large part of the question
passed into a long period of suspense in the Supreme Court
Only the matter of casting and counting votes kept, and keeps r
the attention of parties, and this with a constant loss of power,
showing that partisan treatment is no longer the question's only
or chief need.

In the politics of a great nation even the greatest questions
must take their turns, according as now one and now another
gains the lead in the public attention, and the more sagaciously
and diligently any worthy question is pressed to the front by the
forces that dictate to the daily press, the stump, and the national
and State legislatures, the sooner and oftener will its turn come-
round to lay uppermost hold upon the national conscience and
policy. There always was good reason, but now there is the-
greatest need, that you give and get this kind of backing for
the question of your civil and political rights. We say give
and get, because every endeavor should be used to secure by
personal solicitation not the patronage — there has been enough
of that — but the friendly countenance and active co-operation of
white men well known in their communities for intelligence and
integrity. A certain local civil-rights club of colored men that
had thought this impracticable at length tried it, and soon num-
bered among its active members some of the best white citizens
of its town. And naturally, for it declared only such aims as-
any good citizen ought gladly to encourage and aid any other to-
seek by all lawful means.*

* After stating that any adult male citizen of the United States may become
a member, it declares its object to be " to foster and promote, by every lawful
use of the pen, the press, the mails, the laws, and the courts, by public assem-
blage and petition, and by all proper stimulation of public sentiment : 1. Both
the legal and the conventional recognition, establishment, and protection of
all men in the common rights of humanity and of all citizens of the United
States in the full enjoyment of every civil right, without distinction on account
of birth, race, or private social status. 2. The like recognition of every man's
inviolable right to select and reject his social companions and acquaintances-
according to his own private pleasure and conscience, limited in the family
relationship only by laws made under the full enjoyment of equal civil rights
throughout the whole community coming under such laws ; and in the social
circle only by the same inviolable right in others."



WHAT SHALL THE NEGRO DO? 633

You can as urgently claim the liberty to perform all your civil
duties as the liberty to enjoy all your civil rights. The two must
be sought at the same time and by the same methods. They
should never be divided. You must feel and declare yourself no
longer the nation's, much less any political party's, still less your
old master's, mere nursling ; but one bound by the duties of citi-
zenship to study, and actively to seek, all men's rights, and the
public welfare of the nation, and of every lesser community —
State, county, city, village — to which he belongs. Nothing else
can so hasten the acquisition of all your rights as for you to make
it plain that your own rights and welfare are not all you are striv-
ing for, but that you are, at least equally with the white man,
the student of your individual duty toward every public ques-
tion in the light of the general good. Holding this attitude, you
can make many things clear, concerning the cause of civil rights,
that greatly need to be made so. For instance, that this cause
is not merely yours, but is a great, fundamental necessity of all
free government, in which every American citizen is interested,
knowing that they who neglect to defend any principle of lib-
erty may well expect to lose its substance. Or, for another in-
stance, that the demand for equal civil, including political, rights
is by no means a demand for supremacy, much less for the suprem-
acy of one race over another. Or, again, that this demand is not
for a share in the popular power by a mass knowing and caring
nothing about the popular welfare. Or, yet again, that it is not
the demand of an irresponsible herd deaf to the counsels of its
own intelligent few and of any other. Or, that the demand for
equal unpolitical civil rights is not that public indecency and
unrespectability enjoy all the rights of decency and respecta-
bility, but that mere color be not made the standard of public
decency and respectability. Or, that equality in these unpoliti-
cal civil rights is urged, not for the difference in comfort, but
for the effect upon the inward character of those qualified to
enjoy it, and for its power to awaken, even in those yet with-
out them, aspirations that should not be lacking in the mind
of any citizen. Or, lastly, you can make it clear that the Negro
is not the morally and mentally nerveless infant he was fifteen
years ago.



634 WHAT SHALL THE NEGRO DO?

Bat there is a negative side to what the Negro may do.

4. You can proclaim what you do not want We have
already implied this in what goes just before. There are tens of
thousands of intelligent people who to-day unwittingly exagger-
ate the demands made by and in behalf of the Negro into a vast
and shapeless terror. Neither he, his advocates, nor his opponents
have generally realized how widely his claims have been, some-
times by and sometimes without intention, misconstrued. He
needs still to make innumerable reiterations of facts that seem to
him too plain for repetition; as, for example, that he does not
want " Negro supremacy," or any supremacy save that of an
intelligent and upright minority, ruling, out of office, by the
sagacity of their counsels and their loyalty to the common good,
and in office by the choice of the majority of the whole people ;
that, as to private society, he does not want any man's com-
pany who does not want his; or that, as to suffrage, he does
not want to vote solidly, unless he must in order to maintain
precious rights and duties denied to, and only to, him and all
his.

There is another thing which the Negro must learn to say, and
feel, that he does not want It is hard for a white man to name
it, for it is principally the fault of white men that it is hard for
the Negro to say it It is our — the white man's — fault that the
only even partial outlet for the colored man from a menial pub-
lic status, in the eyes of the white man, is political offica Even
when he attains a learned profession he attains no such consider-
ation as he gains in political office, superficial and tawdry though
it be. Yet, self-regard has grown ; scholarly callings win for him
more and more regard from both whites and blacks ; in the
whole national mind the idea has wonderfully grown — scarcely
current at all when the Negro began his political life — that pub-
lic office is not the legitimate 'spoils of party and the legitimate
reward of mere partisan loyalty and activity, to be apportioned,
jpro rata, to each and every race, class, and clique among the par-
tisan victors ; and the time has come when the Negro, for his own
interest, must learn to say : " My full measure of citizenship I
must and will have; but I yield no right of public office or
emolument to any man because he is white, nor claim any



WHAT SHALL THE NEGRO DO? 635

because I am black ; and I do not want any office that does not
want ma" Such an attitude will win better rewards than the
keeping of doors and sweeping of corridors.

But it is equally important to say that there are other things
for the negro to do that must by no means be either negative or
passive.

You must keep your vote alive. This means several things.
It means that, without venality or servility, you must hold your
vote up for the honorable competitive bid of political parties.
A vote which one party can count on, as a matter of course, and
the opposite party cannot hope to win at any price, need expect
nothing from either. In no campaign ought the Negro to know
certainly how he will vote before he has seen both platforms and
weighed the chances of their words being made good. You will
never get - your rights until the white man does not. know how
you are going to vote. You must let him see that the " Negro
vote "can divide whenever it may, and come together solidly
again whenever it must

Keeping your vote alive means, also, that while to be grateful
is right and to be ungrateful is base, you must nevertheless stop
voting for gratitude. The debts of gratitude are sacred, but no
unwise vote can lighten them. A vote is not a free-will offering
to the past ; it is a debt to the present

Again, keeping your vote alive means voting on all ques-
tions. What makes great parties if it be not the combination of
men of various political interests consenting to concern them-
selves in one another's aims and claims for the better promotion
of those designs in the order of their urgency and practicability ?
Now, here is the negro charged, at least, with rarely — almost
never — making himself seen or heard in any widespread interest
except his own. Small wonder if other men do not more hotly
insist upon his vote being cast and counted. The negro may be
not the first or principal one to blame in this matter, but he is
largely the largest loser.

Last, keeping the vote alive means casting it You must vote.
You must practically recognize two facts, which if white men
had not recognized in their own case long ago you would be in
slavery still to-day : that there is an enormous value in having



636 WHAT SHALL THE NEGRO DO?

votes cast; first, even though they cannot win; and, secondly,
even though they are not going to be counted. A good cause
and a stubborn fight are a combination almost as good as victory
itself ; better than victory without them ; the seed of certain
victory at last. Even if you have to cope with fraud, make it
play its infamous part so boldly and so fast that it shall work its
own disgrace and destruction, as many a time it has done before
negroes ever voted. Vote ! Cast your vote though taxed for it.
Cast your vote though defrauded of it, as many a white man is
to-day. Cast your vote though you die for it. Let no man cry,
" Liberty or blood ; " leave that for Socialists and Parisian mobs;
but when liberty means duty, and death means one's own extinc-
tion, then the cry of " Liberty or death " is a holy cry, and the
man who will not make it his own, even in freedom is not free.
Seek not to buy liberty with the blood either of friends or of
enemies ; it is only men's own blood at last that counts in the
purchase of liberty. Whatever may have been the true phi-
losophy for more ferocious times, this is the true philosophy for
ours. Cast your votes, then, even though many of you die for
it Some of you havedied, but in comparison how few ; three
hundred thousand white men poured out their blood to keep you
bound, other three hundred thousand died to set you free, and
still the full measure of American freedom is not yours. A
fiftieth as much of your own blood shed in the inoffensive activ-
ities of public duty will buy it Keep your vote alive ; better
nine free men than ten half free. In most of the Southern
States the negro vote has been diminishing steadily for years, to
the profound satisfaction of those white men whose suicidal
policy is to keep you in alienism. In the name of the dead,
black and white, of the living, and of your children yet unborn,
not as of one party or another, but as American freemen, vote !
For in this free land the people that do not vote do not get and
do not deserve their rights.

5. And you must spend your own money. No full use of the
liberties you now have can be made without co-operation, how-
ever loose that co-operation may have to be ; and no co-operation
can be very wide, active, or effective without the use of monej^
This tax cannot be laid anywhere upon a few purses. Faffing



WHAT SHALL THE NEGRO DO? 637

upon many, it will rest too lightly to be counted a burden.
White men may and should help to bear it ; but if so, then all
the more the negro must spend his own money. Half the amount
now idled away on comparatively useless societies and secret
■orders will work wonders. i

Money is essential, especially for two matters. First, for the
stimulation, publication, and wide distribution of a literature of
the facts, equities, and exigencies of the negro question in all
its practical phases. This would naturally include a constant
and diligent keeping of the whole question pruned clear of its
dead matter. From nothing else has the question suffered so
much, at the hands both of friends and of foes, as from lack of
this kind of attention. And, secondly, money is essential for


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Online LibraryGeorge Washington CableWhat shall the Negro do? → online text (page 1 of 2)