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A Multitude of Counselors

BY CHAS. W. CHESNUTT, ESQ.

The colored people of this country are just now passing through a trying period in their history, a history full of trying situations--a dark and gloomy record, with only here and there a flash of light. Even now they are scarcely in the twilight of their liberties. All over the country they are the victims of a cruel race prejudice, the strength and extent of which none but cultivated, self-respecting colored people can rightly apprehend. It pervades every department of life-politics, the schools, the churches, business, society--everywhere, tho not always in the same degree. There is actually no single locality in the United States where a man avowedly connected by blood with the Negro race can hold up his head and feel that he is the recognized equal of other men (in the broad sense of the term), or where he is not taught to feel every day of his life that he is regarded as something inferior to those who were fortunate enough to be born entirely white. Colored people who think have long since recognized that in the more intimate and personal relations of men, society can have but one opinion, and that the Negro is under the ban of society. They feel that as long as any considerable part of the United States denies them any right or any privilege, something will be lacking to the completeness of their citizenship everywhere else in the United States.

But it is a far cry from slavery--from the Dred Scott decision--to the time when the ghost of negrophobia will be laid. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof: and the crying evil of to-day is the outrageous manner in which the colored people of the South are deprived of the elementary rights of citizenship-the right to the protection of life and limb, the right to trial when accused of crime, the right to assist in the choice of their rulers and the making of their laws, and the right to equal treatment on railroads and in places provided for the accommodation of the traveling public. These are not social privileges; they are public rights, to which these people are entitled under the law. There are other rights of which they are deprived, but which they have not chosen to assert; but the manifest disposition on their part to claim and exercise the rights enumerated, has stirred the Negro-hating spirit of the South to the dregs, and given occasion for a series of outrages within the last month which is without a parallel in number or malignity since the downfall of the Ku Klux organization, if the disbanding of that organization after complete success in the object sought by it can be called a downfall.

Mr. George W. Cable advises the colored people to unite and by every peaceable means-by word, by voice, by pen, to forward their own cause. One writer advises the colored people to emigrate to Mexico or South America, another tells them not to yield their tardily acknowledged birthright, but to work out their salvation in the United States. A writer prominently identified with the cause of the colored people advises them to forget the fact that they are Negroes, and to endeavor to feel that they are simply men and citizens. One counselor advises them to emigrate largely from the South, and thus relieve that section of the strain caused by the fear of Negro majorities. Another advises them to stay in the South and retain their majorities, on the theory that a bird in hand (even if the hand is shackled) is worth two in the bush. One friend finds a specific for every race trouble in the division of the colored vote; another, many others in fact, see no hope for the Negro except in the supremacy of the Republican Party; they believe, in the language of Frederick Douglass, that to the Negro "the Republican Party is the ship; all else is the ocean." Judge Tourgée openly predicts a guerilla warfare of races, and can only advise the colored people to defend themselves in an uneven and hopeless conflict.

When the colored man has read with hopeful eagerness the conflicting advice which his friends have given him, he is apt to reach the conclusion that his counselors are as much in the dark as to what is best for him to do, or as to what will be the outcome of his presence in the United States, as he himself is.

From one point of view scarcely any of the courses proposed are practicable for the ten million colored people in the United States, or any considerable proportion of them, to follow. Take, for instance, a wholesale emigration of the colored people to South America, or Mexico. It is questionable whether they would be welcomed in any such mass. The expense of transportation, the loss of time, the withdrawal of so many laborers, would cost the country as much as the late War, and would be infinitely more injurious to the South than they at one time imagined the loss of their slaves to be. No such movement has been known in history; the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, the flight of the Tartar tribe which De Quincey has immortalized, would be mere preparatory sketches for such a gigantic movement of population. When it is considered that it has taken four hundred years of immigration and a century of unparalleled national growth, to give the United States a population of sixty millions, the preposterousness of colonizing the whole colored population of the United States is apparent, even supposing no other obstacle than mere numbers in the way of it. A wholesale emigration to any State or Territory is open to similar objections, and to the still stronger one that no State or Territory capable of supporting a large population would be left to the exclusive occupation of the colored people. The lesson of Oklahoma is recent enough to demonstrate this. It is not at all likely that even Africa will be left to the Negro; it is not, indeed, desirable that it should be left entirely to him. But supposing every obstacle to such an emigration removed, the Southern whites would not let the colored people go. This modern Pharaoh, "the white South," is quite as obdurate as his Egyptian prototype. The Negro problem seems to worry the people of Georgia more than those of any other State; and yet the laws of Georgia, to say nothing of public opinion, are such as to render it absolutely impossible for any organized movement for emigration to be successfully carried out. Cheap, abundant and easily managed, white labor is not so readily procured that the Southern white planters would take their chances of getting along without colored labor. The Negroes must, as a mass, remain in the South. A more practicable emigration, that of the Southern whites, who are more able to go, strange to say, does not seem to meet with much favor in their eyes, and yet, if, as they are so fond of asserting, it is impossible for the two races to live together on terms of equality, this is more likely to be the ultimate outcome.

The division of the colored vote is equally impracticable. The whites do not, at present, desire it on such terms as they could get it, that is, the recognition of the Negroes' rights under the law. It could be easily effected on that basis; but that any considerable number of colored people in the face of the torrent of vilification and abuse, to say nothing of physical outrage, to which they are subjected, should support the party which at the South justifies and at the North excuses such a course toward them, it is difficult to see; they do not do it, and will not do it. A colored editor in New Orleans, who turned Democrat, for the reason, as he asserts, that he thought the condition of his race would be improved by such changes of politics, and another in Ohio who forsook his party for similar reasons, have both returned recently to the Republican Party; even patriotism, or venality, or whatever their motive may have been, could not resist the arguments of the past month. They have declared that the lives and liberties of their people are above every other consideration, and that there is neither prospect nor hope for the preservation of either in the Democratic Party. It is joined to its idols, the bigotry and lawlessness of the Bourbon Democracy of the South.

That the colored people will ever inaugurate anything that could be seriously called a race war, is not likely. They have the experience of the past to warn them. Never but once in history have they come out victorious in such a struggle, and the conditions under which they were successful in San Domingo are not apt to be repeated. Even supposing them equal in numbers and intelligence to the Southern whites, they know from painful experience that the spirit of slavery is not dead at the North, but that in the event of any widespread conflict, Southern whites would be re-enforced by their sympathizers at the North. The people who are characterized as "Ignorant, degraded and brutal," know quite enough to appreciate the lessons of the draft riots in New York, the Cincinnati riots, and the active Copperheadism of the War period.

That the colored people can improve their condition by a general organization, like that of the Irish National League for instance, is hardly possible. The recent troubles in Mississippi grew out of an attempt to organize a colored Farmers' Alliance. If a peaceful organization for industrial protection is discouraged in so emphatic a way--by the estimated murder of at least a hundred colored people, among them the leaders of the organization--what kind of reception would a similar political organization meet?

The advice that colored people should have nothing to say in the prevailing discussion is doubtless intended in the best possible spirit. The writer who gave it is evidently friendly to those whom she would advise. But it is asking too much of poor human nature. Perhaps white people, with centuries of culture behind them, have reached that point of self-control where they could endure in silence such indignities and wrongs as are heaped upon the Negro--tho no such fact is apparent from the study of their history. Indeed, the fact that they have always loved liberty, have spoken and fought to maintain it, is the noblest characteristic of the English speaking race. The colored people were denied the right to fight for their freedom until the rebellion was substantially over, but that they should now be denied the right to speak for themselves, that they should continue to be the passive bone of contention between North and South, is asking them to be false to Nature, false to humanity, false to every tradition of human liberty.

But since the colored people can do none of these things, what can they do? Perhaps, after all, these conflicting and impracticable opinions can be reconciled in such a manner as to avoid confusion, and thus, after all, to lead to safety.

For instance, if the colored people cannot emigrate en masse, they can gradually spread over the country. The advantages of such dispersion are obvious. It would hasten the ultimate assimilation of the two races, which would be quickest where race prejudice is weakest. It would keep the colored people in touch with their friends, who are most numerous at the North where colored people are fewest-not, indeed, as the Southern whites assert, because they know least about the Negro, but because slavery and proscriptive laws and the supposed exigencies of partisan politics have not benumbed their consciences, or warped their love of liberty. The descendants of the Puritans, who direct the public sentiment of the North and West, would, if confronted with such a condition, find some other method than assassination and disfranchisement to counteract the alleged dangers of Negro ascendancy. There is already a large movement of colored people toward the North. But unfortunately for those who remain, it is a movement of the younger and more aspiring element, who can find in the North larger opportunities for development. For in spite of the assertive Southern white people and their apologists, race prejudice at the North does not entirely prevent colored people from climbing up into the higher walks of life. The writer of this article lives in a city where there are about five thousand colored people--about one in fifty of the population. And he is not guessing when he says there is no colored man in the city qualified to follow any special pursuit requiring special knowledge, who cannot, by reason of race prejudice, find employment at it; and with few exceptions, no pursuit which he cannot, for that reason, qualify himself to follow. With such a state of public opinion, which is true of a large part of the North, it is not strange that young colored people should leave the South. Their departure will better their own condition, and, after all, the progress of any race is dependent on the advancement of individuals. One Vanderbilt, one Stewart, one Depew, one Edison, one leader in any department of human endeavor, would do more to enlarge the opportunities of colored people than double the same aggregate of wealth, or talent, or labor, scattered among a hundred or a thousand of them.

If they cannot combine all over the South for the purpose of securing their rights they can in certain localities. They can at the North. By a proper organization of their voting strength, which in many localities and in half a dozen States constitutes the balance of power, they can compel the local recognition of such rights as are still denied them, and force upon the attention of Congress and the Administration the condition of their brethren at the South. The whole machinery of the Government was once put in motion to procure the return of fugitive slaves; it is strange that the combined wisdom of Congress cannot devise some plan whereby the Constitution will be a shield rather than a sword to these struggling millions.

The colored people will instigate no race war. But when they are attacked, they should defend themselves. When the Southern Negro reaches that high conception of liberty that would make him rather die than submit to the lash, when he will meet force with force, there will be an end of Southern outrages. The man who will offer a personal indignity to another who has not injured him, is a tyrant and a coward, and will not continue a conflict with no odds in his favor. History is full of inspiration, and of illustrious example, for the defenders of liberty. The memory of those who die for liberty is cherished; the names of tyrants become the synonyms for all that is basest in human nature.

The colored people can speak out for themselves, and ought to whenever they can safely do so. The right of free speech is as sacred to a freeman as any other right, for through it he sets in motion the agencies which secure his liberty. Whether or not he can exercise his rights is not to the point; he should nevertheless assert them. The Declaration of Independence was not the cool utterance of a nation secure in its position; it was the indignant remonstrance of an outraged, disorganized people; and coming from the heart it went to the heart, and not only inspired Americans to heroic effort, but enlisted the sympathy and admiration of lovers of liberty the world over. Rash and intemperate expression on the part of colored people, where the consequences can easily be foreseen, is to be deplored. But a just self-respect requires that they should let the world know that they are not "dumb, driven cattle," but that they know, and know better than any one else can, the extent to which they are oppressed and outraged. If the colored people of the South could voice in one cry all the agony of their twenty-five years of so-called freedom, the whole world would listen, and give back such an indignant protest as would startle this boasted land of the free into seeing itself, for a moment at least, as others see it--as a country where prejudice has usurped the domain of law, where justice is no longer impartial, and where the citizen deprived of his rights has no redress.

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Chesnutt, Charles W. "A Multitude of Counselors" The Independent 43 (Apr. 2, 1891): 4-5.