Your Negro Neighbor

To the People of the United States of America,

Citizens and Patriots:

Our country is still in the midst of the greatest war in the history of mankind.

Already our sons and brothers have died in Europe. While the sacrifice is great, and each day comes home more closely to us, there must be no ceasing of the conflict until victory is assured. The principles of Christ must prevail, and democracy must be given some chance in the world. Because we believe this, because we love our country, because we wish to see our country truly noble and great, I am once more asking your attention to the vital subject of the place of the Negro in our American life.

We feel that we may not unreasonably ask a hearing at this time. In the war now raging we have fully done our part, if indeed any American could venture to say that he has done his part. Whether as officers or stevedores our men have borne their share of the brunt of battle. Let it not be supposed that many of them did not enter the conflict with misgiving. They could not readily forget that under our country’s flag crimes unspeakable had been committed against them. They could not help remembering that even as they went forth to fight, their sisters and their wives did not have the full protection of the law. They still had faith, however, in the great heart of the American people; and they could not believe that when the nation’s finest manhood was being given for the principles of democracy and Christianity, deliberate injustice would indefinitely be tolerated.

We remember of course at this time that public sentiment with reference to the Negro has undergone a great change within fifty years. Immediately after the Civil War there was a spirit, in the North at least, to give him a helping hand, though even here he was not always wanted as a laborer. In a period when feeling ran high there was a tendency to base his rights on the fundamental principles of the republic. Recently, however, in the stress of commercialism, the status of the Negro, along with many other grave moral questions, has been much in the background. Suddenly the war burst upon us and gave us a new era of soul-questioning.

The period of industrialism was formally signalized by one of the most telling speeches ever delivered in this or any other country, all the more effective because the orator was a high-minded, patriotic gentleman. In 1886 Henry W. Grady addressed the New England Club in New York on “The New South.” The two preceding decades had been an era of great scandal in the public life of the United States. Grady spoke to practical men, and he knew his ground. He asked his listeners to bring their “full faith in American fairness and frankness to judgment” upon what he had to say. He pictured in brilliant language the Confederate soldier, “ragged, half-starved, heavy-hearted,” who wended his way homeward to find his house in ruins and his farms devastated. He spoke kindly also of the Negro: “Whenever he struck a blow for his own liberty he fought in open battle, and when at last he raised his black and humble hands that the shackles might be struck off, those hands were innocent of wrong against his helpless charges.” But Grady also implied that the Negro had already received too much attention and sympathy from the North. Said he: “To liberty and enfranchisement is as far as law can carry the Negro. The rest must be left to conscience and common sense.” Hence he asked that the South be left alone in the handling of its grave problem. The North took him at his word. Result: Disfranchisement, segregation, and a lynching record that leaves us very little to say about the Turk in Armenia.

To-day the Negro daily suffers such indignities as make the very words Liberty and Democracy a travesty. If he rides in a trolley-car in the South he is assigned a few rear seats. If his part of the car is crowded and seats near the front are vacant, he must still stand. If he takes a train he must ride in a dirty half-coach, the other half being the baggage car; and he enters the railway station by a side-door. In all the cities, even some of the largest, there is a persistent endeavor to restrict his residence to some unfavorable part of the town; witness the segregation struggles in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Baltimore. Places of refinement and refreshment, libraries, parks, etc., are regularly closed to him. If Negro children go to school they stand only a fraction of a chance of getting an education—or a seat. In Massachusetts, of the children from six to fourteen years of age, 93 per cent. are in school. In Louisiana 68.4 per cent. of the white children are in school and 37.4 per cent. of the Negro children. In Birmingham there is a public high school to which Negro students have to pay to go; in all Georgia there is no public high school for Negroes at all. Not long ago a colored man of excellent character and standing boarded a train between Birmingham and Chattanooga, accompanying his sister. Some white men invaded the coach and proceeded to smoke. The colored man protested to the officials, and forthwith both he and his sister received a beating. Such are the incidents that drive the iron into the Negro’s soul. We submit that they are altogether unjust and entirely at variance with the principles for which we are at war.

Not only at home, however, do we have to consider the problem. The war has brought us as never before face to face with the whole foreign policy of the United States, especially as regards the mixed races and colored peoples with whom the National Government has to deal. With one country after another the question is raised whether, under her imperialistic policy and the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has acted with the honor and the diplomatic courtesy that the cases demanded. Already, as is well known, in spite of repeated professions of friendship, the whole of South America views the great country at the North with suspicion; and the ultimate reason for the feeling is that in South America the color line is a vanishing quantity, whereas in the United States it is a very definite reality. Chile has not forgotten the gratuitous insults of 1891, nor Brazil our arrogance in 1893. The conscience of the nation is not yet satisfied that we did not for selfish reasons in 1898 force war upon a weaker nation; and the treatment of Colombia in the matter of the Panama Canal Zone was so infamous that ten years afterwards the United States was still wondering just what sum of money would hush the mouths of the Colombian people. In Santo Domingo we have taken away from the people the right to handle their own money; and two years ago in Hayti, ostensibly for the suppression of a revolution, the country was seized, American officers installed, and a Southern white man appointed minister to the country, by tradition one especially jealous of its integrity as a nation. More recently we have purchased St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix, on which islands, let us remember, the population is made up almost entirely of Negroes. In this connection we recall the Indian, remembering that Osceola was captured under a flag of truce. It is the cold, hard truth that the treatment by the United States of all colored or mixed races has been one marked by arrogance, injustice, and lack of honor. Said L.C. Wilson, in writing from Porto Rico to the American Missionary: “When the Americans came to the island sixteen years ago there was very little color line, but now it is well established. It has probably been hastened by the presence of many officials from the Southern States. Even the Y.M.C.A. has been compelled to recognize it, and the fine new building is only for white young men.”

In the face of such things we go back to fundamentals. The Declaration of Independence says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, or by any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But above even such noble utterances as these stand the words of Him whom we profess to follow: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.”

And who is my neighbor?

We feel that the United States can not long remain in the dilemma of fighting for democracy while at the same time she denies the fundamental principles of democracy at home. We cannot much longer pluck the mote from our brother’s eye unmindful at the same time of the beam in our own.

Meanwhile, however, the Negro goes quietly about his work. He has picked cotton and pulled fodder, scrubbed floors and washed windows, fired engines and dipped turpentine. He is not quite content, however, to be simply the doormat of American civilization. Twelve million people are ceasing to accept slander and insult without a protest. They have heard about freedom, justice, and happiness, though these things seemed not for them. They can not quite see the consistency of fighting for outraged Belgians or Armenians so long as the rights of citizens at home are violated. In the words of Foraker, “They ask no favors because they are Negroes, but only justice because they are men.”

Yours for liberty and democracy,

Benjamin Brawley.


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