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The Negro's Franchise




Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt Takes Issue with Dr. Donald's Tuskegee Address—The Thirteenth Amendment of Little Value Without the Fourteenth and Fifteenth—The Negro Must Continue to Appeal to the North for Help—A Stirring Article

I have been asked by the Transcript to express any thoughts which may occur to me upon the very interesting and thoughtful address of Rev. Dr. Donald of Trinity Church, delivered at the dedication of Dorothy Hall, Tuskegee Institute, and published in a recent number of the Transcript, and in which the speaker expresses certain views with regard to the future of the Negro and the value of the franchise in connection therewith. As the subject is one of vital importance, perhaps a few reflections upon certain points brought out by Dr. Donald; by one who, like himself, is groping for light upon this vexed problem, may not be out of place nor without interest to your readers.

It is indeed a compliment to be considered worthy of commenting upon what Dr. Donald has said. Every word that he says about the work done at Tuskegee I can heartily indorse, and I have been there to see. It is a great institution, a monument to enlightened philanthropy, guided and directed by the genius of a remarkable man, whose diversified talents and unselfish devotion to a cause have long since won the cordial recognition of the American people in all parts of the country. I do not believe that anywhere else in the world can be found so inspiring an example of the capabilities of a race long despised and held incapable of grasping the opportunities or exercising the privileges of an advanced civilization.

But in the conclusion which Dr. Donald and some other good friends of the colored race seem to have reached, or to which they seem to have been forced by recent events, that education for awhile take the place of the franchise, so far as the Negro is concerned, I cannot for a moment concur. Dr. Donald's address was delivered to an audience of colored students in Alabama, and while an ideal one for that latitude, it is a question whether it should be accepted in Boston as a solution of the race problem. Nothing has seemed more astounding to me that the manner in which the people of the North have passively permitted themselves to be persuaded by the South that the enfranchisement of the freedmen was a colossal blunder. To my mind it was one of the finest acts of statesmanship ever recorded. It was the righting of a great wrong: had it been logically and consistently followed up by appropriate legislation, as the constitutional amendment provided, it would long since have been acquiesced in by the Southern whites. That the white South should approve it was not to be expected; that they should condemn it was to be looked for; that they should seek to overthrow it, and, failing in that, to circumvent it, was not at all unnatural. But that the North should unconcernedly submit to the nullification, within thirty years, of a large part of the results of the Civil War, has been to me not only a matter of profound sorrow, but of astonishment equally great. With all the criticisms of reconstruction, so common in our day and time, no one has yet suggested a better plan to confirm the freedom of the slaves. The bestowal of the franchise was a choice between difficulties, which those upon whom the responsibility rested had to meet. They chose what seemed to them best, in view of all the circumstances. Their critics, who, in the light of subsequent events, condemn their action, have as yet suggested no alternative which would have promised better—even in the light of subsequent events. The thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments mark the most glorious onward step in the cause of human liberty that history discloses—a past generation recognized this fact, and future generations will echo their verdict. The franchise was not extorted by the sword, in the hands of the oppressed, as the French peasant won it, nor forced, like Magna Charta, from the reluctant hand of a sovereign. It was a generous gift, freely bestowed, in response to an impulse of conscience and humanity, which was no less strong because it happened to coincide with what was deemed wise politics. Instead of regretting this deed and slurring the memory of those who did it, it should be held as the crowning glory of our history.

The thirteenth amendment abolished slavery. The fourteenth and fifteenth amendments sought to confer civic equality. It seemed as clear then as it seems to the writer now, that the one without the other was a myth—the shadow without the substance. There is no tenable half-way ground between servitude and freedom. That a man's master is the community rather than some one individual improves the situation but very slightly; it really leaves the slave without the protection which the personal interest of the master might have given. Henry Clay, a consistent defender of slavery, once said that to emancipate the Negro from chattel slavery would be merely to make him the slave of society. If the Negro is to be deprived of every substantial guarantee of his rights and left to the mere caprice of those endowed with superior rights, this malign prophecy is likely to be fulfilled. At no time has this been more clearly apparent than since the practical disfranchisement of the Negroes in several of the Southern States. Without the ballot, with no direct representation in any law-making body, their rights are mere paper rights. With society divided on the color line, into two castes, the one laboring under the fear that the other may one day attain equality with it, the other sullen and resentful under the deprivation, by fraud or indirection, of rights solemnly conferred, earned in many cases upon the battle field, and inherent, as they have been taught to believe by their Northern mentors, in mankind, it is idle to dream that strict justice toward the weak may be looked for at the hands of the strong. Irresponsible power was the curse of slavery. Men endowed with it could not be just if they tried. Such a consummation would be contrary to human nature. Even though one man or several men in a Legislature should be animated by the noblest sentiments, if the interests, real or imaginary, of the majority were opposed to justice, justice would not prevail. Corporations, it is said, have no souls; it may be said with equal truth that a Legislature has no conscience. We are often told of the good masters who flourished in the days of slavery—and they were not myths in all instances—who sometimes showed their appreciation of faithful service by manumitting their slaves. Toward the end of the slavery régime manumission was forbidden by legal enactment. What then would have been the condition of the slave who, relying on his master's good will and kindly intentions, had let slip a good opportunity to escape from bondage? His case would have been that of the Negro of today, who, relying upon the friendship and good will of the Southern whites, should consent or submit without protest to the deprivation of so fundamental a right as the franchise, which, by the way, in most parts of the country, any ignorant foreigner may have for the asking.

The position of the Negro is anomalous. There are in the United States quite as many ignorant and poor white people as there are Negroes. No one has sought to deny these the right of suffrage. Even in Massachusetts, so often held up as the example of a restricted franchise State, the law which imposed the restriction deprived no one of the franchise who possessed it already. The door of opportunity is open wide to every one of these millions who may aspire to learning, to wealth, to civic honors, to social recognition. The Negro is by reason of his color denied these things which come to others as a matter of course. For let no friend of the Negro deceive himself: the ability to read and write will not let the Southern white man contemplate with equanimity the possible political and social equality of the Negro. It is the opinion of more than one close observer that the advancement of the Negro in education is the real moving cause of the present reaction against his enfranchisement. When every Negro has learned to read and write, unless the constitutional guarantees of his liberty are maintained, some other means will be sought to preserve intact the power and prestige of the white race. There must be a total revolution of Southern sentiment toward the Negro before equality of learning, intelligence, or ability, will make the Southerner content to share equally with his darker fellow-citizens the benefits of citizenship. Such an equality, even in the distant future, is not at all the Southern idea. Such an equality, if the Negro be worthy at all of consideration, he should never cease to seek, through education, through thrift, through industry, through agitation, and in every other honorable way. The desire for liberty, like the hope of the human race for immortality, is the best proof that it should exist.

There are many white men in the South who think themselves the friends of the Negro. There are some who would concede to him every right which a white man enjoys. I myself have met and talked with such a man within three months, who proved his faith by his works. But they are in the small minority. As a separate caste, it is the white community, and not the individual, with which the Negro's rights are concerned, and the sentiment of the white community toward the Negro is to be found in its laws. I have little faith in the friendship of a man who would condemn me, by law, to social obloquy; who would make it unlawfult to sit at table with me; who, by law, would refuse me lodgings at an inn; and who would drive me, by law, into a separate car upon a railroad train, into a separate compartment of a street-car; who would make it a penal offence to marry me, to the ninth generation inclusive; who drives me to Boston, or to the schools supported by Boston's money, to get the higher education which the State supplies freely to white young people. There are many Southerners and a class of Northerners who affect to believe that the North dislikes the Negro as much as or more than the South. Compare the laws of Massachusetts with those of Georgia, and the Negro will not hesitate for a moment as to where his best friends live. If by circumstances the Negroes at the North are mainly condemned to servitude, the majority of them are in no better case at the South. There are more colored men and women earning their living in the higher walks of life in Boston today than in Atlanta, which has many times the colored population of Boston.

Dr. Donald's advice to the Negroes is excellent. If it were any one else than he I might say that the Negro has been surfeited with advice—that if he had less advice, and a little more consideration, a little wider opportunity, he would have made a better showing. But Dr. Donald has followed the word by the deed, as his presence at Tuskegee and his well-known interest in the welfare of the race disclose; a member of his congregation, I assume, built the hall which he went to Alabama to dedicate. From his point of view the immediate, pressing need of the Negro is to qualify himself to meet the requirements of the new suffrage laws which restrict the franchise. He must learn to read, i. e., get education, presumably in the schools. The South has never been friendly to popular education; it was an exotic introduced by the hated carpet-bagger, and more than one Southerner would be glad to see the whole system abolished. The New England theory of the public school system, that it is supported by the whole community, for the good of the whole community, has never taken root in the South. According to the Southern notion, free education is a gratuity, and when given to the Negroes, a gratuity bestowed by the whites upon the blacks, who do not rightfully appreciate their own opportunity or the kindness of the whites. All taxes are held to be paid by white men, because the money passes through their hands. That the tenant, when he pays the rent, pays the taxes, is a theory that has never yet found lodgment in the Southern consciousness. Since the disfranchisement of the Negroes in certain States, strenuous efforts have been made to reduce the relative amounts appropriated for the education of Negro youth. To the credit of the South they have so far failed, as far as the law is concerned. The same end is sometimes obtained by indirection. In the State of Georgia, with a law providing for a pro rata division of the school fund between the two races, the colored schools, which enroll 48 per cent of the school population, receive but 20 per cent of the school funds. Such a result is inevitable, law or no law, where the whole power of the State is in the hands of one faction, or one caste, whose interests are felt to be antagonistic to another not in power. The colored people can no more expect equal educational facilities where they have no representation, which the franchise alone can give, than they can expect equal accommodations in the separate cars which are set aside for them in the South. To take away the franchise from the Negro, with the present unsympathetic attitude of the South toward his aspirations, is to rob him of liberty, of which it has always been the mark and crown.

It is not at all safe to assume that the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments cannot be repealed. There is a powerful minority already demanding their repeal, led by the same master minds who have engineered the recent discriminating legislation in the South. If they continue to have their way in the future as in the past, one need be surprised at nothing. With the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments repealed, the thirteenth may as well be abrogated.

Dr. Donald very wisely says that the Negro must strive to understand the social, industrial and political conditions of his day and natoin. How is he to understand them, deprived of all participation in them? He cannot acquire the knowledge of these things merely by living among the white people. If so, he would not be ignorant and socially inefficient at the end of 300 years of the slavery which it is claimed did so much for him. Barred out, by the theft of the franchise, from any participation in government; barred out by industrial jealousy from factories and workshops; barred out by race prejudice from office and counting-room, where is he to acquire this knowledge? A few may learn these things, theoretically, in the schools, but they are but a drop in the bucket compared with the millions who might learn them, if permitted, in the work of life. Missionary work is needed with the Southern whites. The Negro could do a great deal more and learn a great deal more than he has opportunity for. He must learn, it is said, self-respect, self-reliance and love of struggle. Undoubtedly. He will need them all. The struggle for existence will be harder for him than for a white man. This is no theory, but to colored men a concrete fact. He will find it hard to learn self-respect in a school where scorn and contempt is the portion of his race. Men are looked down upon according to their weakness. The Negro, even with a franchise which he cannot exercise, is feared, lest he may some time learn to use it; those who are feared are in some degree respected and their rights not wantonly disturbed. The Negro without the franchise is helpless either in fact or in theory, and is despised still more for his weakness. Scorn is a poor school in which to learn self-respect.

The advice that the Negro devote himself to the upbuilding of character, the acquirement of education, the accumulation of wealth, is sound advice for any people. But the implication, and in the case of a recent sermon by Dr. Parkhurst, the direct statement that it would be better for the Negro to stop agitating the question of his rights and his wrongs, is one with which I beg to take issue. There is a place for everything and a time for everything under the sun. The Negro of the South does not say, publicly, a great deal about his rights or his wrongs; he does not dare to be too outspoken. On the contrary, some of the things written by colored men in the effort to please the whites are profoundly depressing. Nor does it follow that because one man, who occupies a conspicuous position in connection with one line of effort, does not seek to promote some other, he does not consider the other of vital importance. Mr. Washington, whose abstention from politics is cited by Dr. Donald as an example to be followed, has undertaken a great educational work and carried it on with wonderful success— and adjectives are not misplaced in speaking of it. To have accomplished this in the South was incompatible with political activity. There is no high political career anywhere in the United States for a man of color. But to draw from his diplomatic silence, where to speak might easily alienate the sympathies of the progressive Southern whites, whose moral support he needs in order to enhance the usefulness of his work, the inference that he regards nothing else but industrial education as of importance to his people, is unfair to the reputation for wisdom which he so deservedly has won. The place for the Negro to get money and education is wherever his lot may be cast; for some, perhaps for most, the better field may lie in the Southern States. The place for the Negro and his friends to agitate the question of his rights is in the North, where he can exercise freedom of speech and secure a hearing. The South is sensitive to Northern opinion. Southerners fill the Northern magazines with articles in which they seek to win the sympathy of the North to themselves and alienate it from the Negro. The Negro should let no right, great or small, go by default. He is either a citizen or not a citizen, and our laws and the theory of our government recognize, so far, no halfway ground. He should endeavor to see that his own case be not taken to establish a precedent for a curtailed citizenship. If he be a citizen, then he should be entitled, as an individual, without regard to his race or color, to every right that any man enjoys by virtue of his citizenship. And it should not be left to individual white men to say whether or not he shall enjoy them. It should be the part of society, represented by government, to see that he enjoys them. If the Supreme Court of the United States had sustained the war amendments, instead of emasculating them in half a dozen decisions, the Negro would have been much farther along the path of progress. If the white South could have been made to understand that the war amendments would be enforced they would long since have accommodated themselves to the new order, and have secured by fair means the ascendancy they have at length obtained by the high hand. The Negro can secure education and wealth, can learn self-reliance and self-respect, and do this all the better, while clinging to the elective franchise. Its value to him may be measured by the frantic efforts which have been made to deprive him of it. He needs the friendship of the Southern whites, but the best fruit of friendship is justice and fair play, and a friendship without these is of no real value. To obtain these he still needs the sympathy and moral support of the North.

Where a Negro should live depends upon the individual. For some colored men the North offers opportunities which the South does not; for others the South offers greater material benefits. But so long as the traditions of the past remain, and until the North has changed much more than it has, the Negro will feel that the North is more friendly to his aspirations than the South.

I do not regard the Negro's cause as hopeless, nor do I underestimate the difficulties which he must face. He has reserve powers which have not been fully appreciated. I believe that even under the present Southern theory of a separate and distinct race which must work out its own destiny in as wide a separation from the whites as is practicable, the Negro will slowly but surely rise. But to my mind the best thing is the right thing, the fine thing. I will leave it to the diplomats to establish a modus vivendi. My solution of the race problem is an old cry, replete with historic significance. It has been wrought out in blood in other lands; it may quite as easily be enforced by peaceful means: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"; liberty to all, on equal terms; equality to every man as soon as he shall have won it—nay, more, for every man at all times equality with those who are no wiser or better than he; fraternity, for only with this can equality or true friendship exist.