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The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 1995, Memorial Issue.

Part 8 out of 8

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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 cottonmills.

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

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

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

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

'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

'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

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.


by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Atlantic Monthly 11 (April 1863): 473-481.

by Frederick Douglass
Atlantic Monthly 18 (1866): 761-765.

by Frederick Douglas
Atlantic Monthly 19 (Jan. 1867): 112-117.

by James B. Runnion
Atlantic Monthly 44 (1879): 222-230.

by Frederick Douglass
The Century Illustrated Magazine 23, n.s. 1 (Nov. 1881): 125-131.

by Charles W. Chesnutt
Atlantic Monthly 60 (Aug. 1887): 254-260.

by Charles W. Chesnutt
Atlantic Monthly 61 (1888): 605-611.

by Charles W. Chesnutt
Atlantic Monthly 64 (1889): 500-08.

by Booker T. Washington
Atlantic Monthly 78 (1896): 322-328.

by Charles Dudley Warner
Atlantic Monthly 78 (1896): 311-321.

by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois
Atlantic Monthly 80 (1897): 194-198.

by Charles W. Chesnutt
Atlantic Monthly 82 (1898): 55-61.

by Charles W. Chesnutt
Atlantic Monthly 84 (1899): 648-654.

by Booker T. Washington
Atlantic Monthly 84 (1899): 577-587.

by Charles W. Chesnutt
Atlantic Monthly 83 (1899): 49-56.

by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois
Atlantic Monthly 83 (1899): 99-104.

by J. Taylor Wood
Atlantic Monthly 86 (1900): 451-463.

by W. D. Howells
Atlantic Monthly 85 (1900): 699-701.

by Jerome Dowd
Century Magazine 61.2 (Dec. 1900): 278-281.

by Booker T. Washington
Century Magazine 59 (1900): 472-478.

by Charles W. Chesnutt
Century Magazine 61.3 (Jan. 1901): 422-428.

by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois
Atlantic Monthly 87 (1901): 354-365.

by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois
Atlantic Monthly 90 (1902): 289-297.

by Booker T. Washington
Atlantic Monthly 92 (1903): 453-462.

by Oswald Garrison Villard
Atlantic Monthly 91 (1903): 721-729.

by Charles W. Chesnutt
Atlantic Monthly 93 (1904): 823-830.

by Quincy Ewing
Atlantic Monthly 103 (1909): 389-397.

by Ray Stannard Baker
Atlantic Monthly 106 (1910): 612-619.

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