Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Ebb and Flow

Thus, in broadest outline, have the two races at the South been faring on their way. And now in recent years, under their separate development and with their close intermingling, have come new complications and difficulties. The tendency has been in some ways to a wider separation. The old relations between the household servants and their employers, often most kindly, and long continuing to link the two races at numberless points, have passed away with the old generation. Once the inmates of mansion and cabin knew well each other's ways. Now they are almost unacquainted. The aristocracy and its dependents had their mutual relations of protection and loyalty, and gracious and helpful they often were. Now comes democracy,—vigorous, jostling, self-assertive,—its true social ideal of brotherly comradeship being yet far from realization. The negro is in a doubly hard position; under democratic competition the weaker is thrust to the wall, yet he has not even the equality which democracy asserts, but is held in the lower place by caste. And so there is a new or a newly apparent aggression upon the weaker race.

Its most obvious form is the legal limitation of suffrage. The irregular and indirect suppression of the negro vote which had prevailed since the close of the Reconstruction period, was not thorough and sure enough to satisfy the white politicians. And the lawless habit which it fostered, and whose effects could by no means be confined to one race, alarmed the better classes. So from two directions there was a pressure toward some restriction of the negro vote which should be both legal and effective. The movement became active about the year 1895, and accomplished its end in the States of Virginia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, by constitutional amendments. The qualifications thus prescribed are so various and so variously combined that a full statement here is forbidden by limits of space, but their general characteristics are these: The requirement (in Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana) of $300 worth of property; the payment of a poll tax (in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana); the ability to read and write (in North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana); the ability, if not to read, to understand and explain any section of the Constitution (in Virginia, Mississippi); regular employment in some lawful occupation, good character, and an understanding of the citizen's duties and obligations (Alabama).[2]

These restrictions apply in theory alike to both races. But exemption from them is allowed, and the suffrage is given, to certain classes: To all who served in the Civil War (Virginia, Alabama); to all who were entitled to vote on January 1, 1867, also to the sons (or descendants) of these two classes (Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana).

In these States, if these requirements are impartially enforced, the effect is to impose on the negroes a moderate property or intelligence qualification, or the two combined; and to give practically universal suffrage to the whites. This last feature, while essentially unfair, is a practical grievance to the negroes so long and only so long as the two races stand as directly opposed forces in politics. Otherwise it is questionable whether the class who are called on to earn the suffrage by intelligence or productive industry are not really as well off as the class to whom it is given regardless of merit.

But in its practical operation the system is so elastic—and unquestionably was so designed—that it can be easily applied for the exclusion of a great part of those who nominally are admitted to the suffrage. The "character" and "understanding" tests leave virtually full power with the registration officers. There can be no reasonable doubt that in these six States the suffrage is virtually denied to negroes to an extent utterly beyond any fair construction of the law. Mr. Charles W. Chestnutt, in his paper on Disfranchisement, cites the case of Alabama, where the census of 1900 gave the negro males of voting age as 181,471, while in 1903 less than 3000 were registered as voters. And even in States like Georgia, where suffrage is by law universal, ways of practical nullification are often applied,—as for example by exclusion from the nominating primaries, in which the results are principally determined.

Without the need of legal forms, there is a practically universal exclusion of all negroes from public offices, filled by local election or appointment, throughout most of the South. Their appointment to Federal offices in that region, though very rare, is always made the occasion of vehement protest.

The theory generally avowed among Southern whites, that the two races must be carefully kept separate, is apt to mean in practice that the black man must everywhere take the lower place. At various points that disposition encounters the natural and cultivated sentiments of justice, benevolence, and the common good, and now one and now the other prevails. Thus, there have been efforts to restrict the common school education of the blacks. It has been proposed, and by prominent politicians, to spend for this purpose only the amount raised by taxation of the blacks themselves. There has appeared a disposition to confine their education to the rudimentary branches and to a narrow type of industrialism. Strong opposition has developed to the opening either by public or private aid of what is known as "liberal education" in the college or university sense. A flagrant instance of injustice is the enactment in Kentucky of a law prohibiting all co-education of the races—a law especially designed to cripple the admirable work of Berea College.

But the most serious obstacle to the black man, the country over, is the threatened narrowing of his industrial opportunities. Here has been his vantage-ground at the South, because his productive power was so great—by numbers and by his inherited and traditional skill,—that there was no choice but to employ him. At the North, where he is in so small a minority as to be unimportant, he has been crowded into an ever narrowing circle of employments. Precisely the same sentiment, though not so ingeniously formulated, which makes the white gentleman refuse to receive the black gentleman in his drawing-room, inclines the white carpenter or mason to refuse to work alongside of his negro fellow-laborer. Yet against this we have the accomplished fact, in the South, of black and white laborers actually working together, harmoniously and successfully, in most industries. We see the divided and wavering attitude of the trade-unions; some branches taking whites and blacks into the same society; others allying white societies and black societies on an equal footing; others refusing all affiliation; the earlier declarations of the national leaders for the broadest human fellowship challenged and often giving way before the imperious assertions of the caste spirit.

A race closely intermixed with another superior to it in numbers, wealth, and intelligence,—a self-conscious and self-assertive race,—suffers at many points. There are abuses tolerated by law; infractions and evasions of law; semi-slavery under the name of peonage; impositions by the landlord and the creditor. There are unpunished outrages,—let one typical case suffice: a negro farmer and produce dealer, respected and esteemed by all, in place of a rude shanty puts up a good building for his wares; the word goes round among the roughs, "that nigger is getting too biggity," and his store is burned,—nobody surprised and nobody punished. Then there is the chapter of lynchings: First, the gross crime of some human brute, then a sudden passionate vengeance by the community; the custom spreads; it runs into hideous torture and public exultation in it; it extends to other crimes; it knows no geographical boundaries but spreads like an evil infection over the country—but most of its victims are of the despised race.

Against the worst outrages the best men of all sections are arrayed in condemnation and resistance. But of its own essential and final social superiority the white South brooks no question. It expects its social code to be observed by the nation's representatives. It forgets that the nation's representatives are cognizant of the general code of the civilized world,—that breeding, manners, and intelligence, constitute the gentleman. So when President Roosevelt entertains as his guest the foremost man of the negro race,—easily one of the foremost half-dozen men in the country,—the white South indulges in a mood which to the rest of the world can only appear as prolonged hysteria.

Before this whole wide range of the unjust treatment of the black race in America, the observer is sometimes moved to profound discouragement. "Was it all for nothing?" he asks, "have all the struggle and sacrifice, the army of heroes and martyrs, brought us to nothing better than this?" But such discouragement overlooks the background of history, and the vital undergrowth of to-day. We see the present evils, but we forget the worse evils that preceded. Turn back sixty years,—read, not Uncle Tom's Cabin if you distrust fiction, but Fanny Kemble's Life on a Georgia Plantation, or Frederick Law Olmsted's volumes of travels. Glean from the shelves of history a few such grim facts, and let imagination reconstruct the nether world of the cotton and sugar plantations, the slave market, and the calaboose; the degradation of women; the hopeless lot to which "'peared like there warn't no to-morrow",—and see how far our world has moved into the light since those days. A race is not developed in an hour or a decade or a generation.

In the present are facts of solid reassurance, in that the best spirit of the South is facing the besetting ills, is combating them, and being thus aroused must eventually master and expel the evil spirit. The South has a burden to carry which the North does not easily realize. There the negro is not a remote problem of philanthropy; he is not represented by a few stray individuals; it is a great mass, everywhere present, in its surface manifestations often futile, childish, exasperating; shading off into sodden degradation; as a whole, a century or several centuries behind its white neighbors. To get on with it peaceably, to rightly apportion with it the opportunities and the burdens of the community, to keep the common movement directed upward,—this demands measureless patience, forbearance, wisdom, and persistence. Against the more flagrant abuses, the leaders of Southern society are making strong head. Governor Vardaman of Mississippi, though a reactionary as to negro education, has struck terror to the hearts of the lynchers. The attitude of the official class in certain peonage cases is thus described by Carl Schurz: "These crimes were disclosed by Southern officers of the law, the indictments were found by Southern grand juries, verdicts of guilty were pronounced by Southern petty juries, and sentence was passed by a Southern judge in language the dignity and moral feeling of which could hardly have been more elevated." As to disfranchisement on grounds of race, representative Southerners are anxious to demonstrate that the only real disqualification is for ignorance and unfitness; and we must look to them to give practical effect to their professions, which can be done if the existing statutes are applied in a spirit of justice. It is especially as to education that the better sentiment and purpose of the South is apparent. The heavy cost of maintaining public schools for the blacks has been steadily met. It is estimated by the United States Commission of Education that for this purpose since the beginning $132,000,000 has been spent. The reactionaries in education, like Governor Vardaman, seem to be overborne by the progressives like Governor Aycock of North Carolina. There is a notable growth of the higher order of industrial schools, mainly as yet by private support, but with a general outreaching of educational leaders toward more practical and efficient training for the common body at the common expense. In the general discussion of race matters, in periodicals and books, the old passionate advocacy is in a degree giving place to broader and saner views. Such writers are coming to the front as John S. Wise, with his frank criticism of the political Bourbons and his forward look; and Edgar Gardner Murphy, whose book The Present South is full of the modern spirit. There are others, especially among educators, not less pronounced and serviceable in the forward movement. It is in these quarters, and not among politicians or party newspapers, that we must look for the brightening day.

But it is to be recognized that a right solution of the South's difficulties will not be reached without a sharp and prolonged antagonism between the good and the evil tendencies. Mr. Schurz states the case none too strongly: "Here is the crucial point: There will be a movement either in the direction of reducing the negroes to a permanent condition of serfdom—the condition of the mere plantation hand, 'alongside of the mule,' practically without any rights of citizenship—or a movement in the direction of recognizing him as a citizen in the true sense of the term. One or the other will prevail." And he adds, "No doubt the most essential work will have to be done in and by the South itself. And it can be."

When President Hayes withdrew the Federal troops from the South, it marked the formal restoration of that local self-government which is a vital principle of the American Union. Of slower, deeper growth, has been the spirit of mutual good-will and confidence, with the free concession to each member of its individual life. Numberless delicate cords have been reuniting the severed sections. Railways, commerce, literature, the tides of business and pleasure travel, the pressure of common problems, the glory of common achievements, the comradeship of the blue and the gray on Cuban battlefields, the expositions of industry, the throb of human feeling as the telegraph tells its daily story of heroism or tragedy—all have done their part. It is by their nobler interests that the sections are most closely united. Beyond the squabbles of politicians is the power of such conferences as those of the Southern Education Commission where meet the best brains and consciences, the gifts of the liberal, the plans of the wise, and the energy of the stout-hearted.

The education of a slave into a man, the harmonizing of two races, the common achievement of a great national life,—it is a long work, but it moves on.

"Say not, The struggle naught availeth,

The labor and the wounds are vain,

The enemy faints not nor faileth,

And as things have been they remain.

"For while the tired waves vainly breaking,

Seem here no painful inch to gain,

Far back, through creeks and inlets making,

Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

"And not through eastern windows only,

When daylight comes, comes in the light,

In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,

But westward, look, the land is bright!"