Has the Emancipation Act Been Nullified by National Indifference, February 1, 1913

REEL 47_0781.jpg
REEL 47_0782.jpg



IN his remarkable book Democracy and Reaction Leonard T. Hobhouse points out a far-reaching reaction in the temper of the times which has, during the last sixty years, gradually penetrated every department of thought and life. He illustrates this by the changed attitude towards slavery, which he asserts is partly traceable to want of concrete acquaintance with the thing itself. Our fathers and grandfathers were nearer to it as they were nearer to many other political abuses; the principles of reform to which they appealed had a very real meaning to them in their struggles, just as today personal liberty means more to a Russian than to an Englishman who has never been without it, and he concludes that "Many principles which they established we have let slip merely for want of imagination enough to realize what the denial of such principles would mean in practice."

Although our very prosperity and political [tranquility] were achieved through the efforts of the previous generation of reformers, it is our mood to accept their work with a nod of recognition for its sacrifices but with no sense of obligation to carry on the strenuous task. Does our mood repeat that world-wide yielding to race antagonism, or does it partake of the growing self-assertion of the so-called "superior" races who exact labor and taxes from black and yellow men with the easy explanation of "manifest destiny?"

Scrutiny of reactionary developments are, of course, valuable only as they indicate possible ways of escape, otherwise they were best left untouched. But is it not possible at this fiftieth anniversary of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, that most compelling and far-reaching document of democracy, to seriously test our national trend, using as a touchstone our attitude towards those whose freedom was achieved with such an expenditure of moral energy and devotion?

What have we done to bring to the status of full citizenship the people Lincoln's proclamation raised from the conditions of slavery, who were thereby [page 2] enabled at once to legitimate family life and to make contracts, but who inevitably looked forward to the civil and political rights implied in the great document? How far are we responsible that their civil rights are often rendered futile, their political action curtailed, their equality before the law denied in fact, industrial opportunities withheld from them and, above all, that for twenty-five years they have been exposed to the black horrors of lynching? How far has the act of the great emancipator been nullified by our national indifference?

It would be difficult to state just when the tide of indifference set in but certainly we would all admit that the attitude both in the North and South towards colored men has been responsible for strange inhibitions and limitations operating on the spirits of the entire white population. If we would carefully study the souls of white folks to discover the cause of this spiritual bondage, it would not be difficult to find in the South a loyalty to a lost cause, to those who died in its behalf and to those who surviving suffered and dedicated all to it; the necessity for admitting that those who thus died or suffered might appear to be in the wrong, in itself tends to confuse the issue whenever the Negro demands political equality.

Memories of a caste relationship which permitted great intimacy but perpetuated differences in opportunity, blind whole communities to the inconsistencies [practiced] in many parts of the South today. Whenever southern men thoughtlessly brand every black man as a menace to the virtue of white women, they forget the loyal protection given by a black men to white women and children during the war while they, the white men, were striving to perpetuate a system involving the continuance of Negro slavery. Conditions of the shameful carpet-bagger and the corrupt political practices after the war are still used by the young South to justify a similar system of political corruption and oppression toward those whom the northerner so unwisely befriended. These, among other things, account for the treatment of the blacks by the white South when education, economic opportunity, civil rights, personal justice and political capacity are in practice often successfully, and apparently conscientiously, denied to the Negro.

But what of the white North, which ignoring the glory of its inheritance, careless of the principles for which the war was fought at such terrible cost, submits to the chains forged, not by the southerner as is often asserted, but by its own indifference. The consequence of such bondage upon the life of the nation can be formulated only when we have a wider and more exact knowledge. What has been and is being lost by the denial of opportunity and of free expression on the part of the Negro, it is now very difficult to estimate; only faint suggestions of the waste can be perceived. There is, without doubt, the sense of humor, unique and spontaneous, so different from the wit of the Yankee, or the inimitable story telling prized in the South; the Negro melodies which are the only American folksongs; the persistent love of color expressing itself in the bright curtains and window boxes in the dullest and grayest parts of our cities; the executive and organizing capacity so often exhibited by the head waiter in a huge hotel or by the colored woman who administers a complicated household; the gift of eloquence, the mellowed voice, the use of rhythm and onomatopoeia which is now so often travestied in a grotesque use of long words.

Much more could be added to the list of positive losses suffered by the community which puts so many of its own members "behind the veil." It means an enormous loss of capacity to the nation when great ranges of human life are hedged about with antagonism. We forget that whatever is spontaneous in a people, in an individual, a class or a nation, is always a source of life, a well-spring of refreshment to a jaded civilization. To continually suspect, suppress and to fear any large group in a community must finally result in a loss of enthusiasm for that type of government which gives free play to the self-determination of a majority of its citizens. Must we admit that the old abolitionist arguments now seem flat and stale, that, because we are no longer stirred to remove fetters, to prevent cruelty, to lead the humblest to the banquet of civilization, therefore we are ready to eliminate the conception of right and wrong from political affairs and to substitute the base doctrine of "political necessity and reasons of state?"

February 1, 1913.