The Vigilance Committee: A Call To Arms (1913)

The Vigilance Committee: A Call To Arms (1913)

There is scarcely a community in the United States where a group of colored people live that has not its vigilance committee. Sometimes this committee is organized and has a name indicating its function. Sometimes it is organized for other purposes and becomes a vigilance committee on occasion. In other cases the committee has no regular organization or membership; it springs into being on occasion, but consists of approximately the same group of persons from year to year.

The work of these vigilance committees is to protect the colored people in their several communities from aggression.

The aggression takes the form of hostile laws and ordinances, curtailment of civil rights, new racial discriminations, overtax or oversevere enforcement of the law, curtailment of opportunities, etc. Sometimes this aggression is but the careless act of thoughtless folk and needs but a word in season to correct it. More often it is a part of that persistent underground campaign centering largely among white Americans of Southern birth which is determined so to intrench color caste in the United States as to make it impossible for any person of Negro blood to be more than a menial.

Against both sorts of racial aggression organized effort is necessary. Many thoughtful colored people have sought to avoid this; to act independently and to refuse to meet organization by organization. This in most cases has been found impossible. The blows of racial and color prejudice fall on all alike, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, and all must stand together and fight.

The methods of these vigilance committees are various. The simplest action is the appointment of a committee of one or more to call on some official or person of influence; from this, action extends to letters and the press, pamphlets, legislative hearings, mass meetings, petitions, etc. In a few cases threats and violence have been attempted, but these are at present exceptional.

From this procedure on the part of tens of thousands of largely isolated groups much actual good has been done and much experience accumulated.

The time is now evidently at hand to fund and pool this nation-wide experience, and to systematize this scattered local effort into steady, persistent and unwavering pressure. As it is, unorganized local effort loses much time and energy in reorganizing for every new object: organized local efforts lack experience and knowledge of similar action elsewhere. Henceforth we must act together and we must fight continuously.

The object of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to federate local vigilance committees among colored people in every community in the United States; to coordinate their activities, to exchange experiences and to concentrate the application of funds where the need is greatest.

Hitherto we have spoken almost exclusively of the central office of the association in New York and its work. The central office is now permanently established, with executive officers and an organ of publicity read by at least 150,000 of the most intelligent colored people in the land.

We are now turning our attention to the branches in order, on the one hand, to build a sure foundation and support for the national body and, on the other hand, chiefly to federate and organize the local battle against race prejudice.

What then is a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People?

It is an organization of men and women, white and colored, working in a given locality for the overthrow of race prejudice and color caste. It should have, among other things, twelve principal functions:

  1. Legislation. It should watch hostile and discriminating legislation, hostile and discriminating administration of the law and injustice in the courts.

  2. Discrimination. It should note the barometer of racial discrimination and see that it does not fall a single degree in the matters of civil rights, in parks, museums, theatres and places of public accommodation and amusement. It should note new efforts at discrimination, have them systematically and promptly reported. It should note old habits of discrimination and have them wisely but persistently opposed. It should note the action of the police and discrimination in charitable and settlement work.

  3. Legal Redress. It should see that good test cases of the rights of Negro citizens are brought before the courts and strong decisions obtained.

  4. Laws. It should seek to secure new laws and ordinances to protect the lives and property of citizens and to prevent race discrimination. In cases where race discrimination is too strongly intrenched to be attacked at present it should secure at least equal rights and accommodations for colored citizens.

  5. Education. It should see that every colored child between the ages of 5 and 14 years is in school; that the largest possible number of colored children finish the high school; that every colored boy and girl who shows good ability goes to a good college; that careful technical training in some branch of modern industry is furnished all colored children. It should see that libraries, museums, ete., are open to colored folk and that they use them.

  6. Health. It should conserve the health and healthful habits of the colored people, particularly in the matters of fresh air, sensible clothing, good food and healthy amusement.

  7. Occupations. It should see that the colored youth have a larger opportunity for employment at better wages than now; that they have a chance of promotion according to merit; that they are urged into new and higher avenues of endeavor, especially in lines of literature, pictorial art, music, business, executive work and skilled labor of the higher sorts and scientific farming. It should see that co-operative effort to furnish capital is encouraged and wise investments extended and guarded, and capital put at the disposal of the honest and efficient.

  8. Co-operation. It should endeavor to co-operate and advise with all general philanthropic effort and have the colored people represented on boards of control.

  9. Publicity and Information. It should stop the conscious and unconscious enmity of the daily and weekly press and seek to abate scurrilous headlines and contemptuous and belittling reports; it should send letters to newspapers, answer attacks, visit the editors; furnish the papers with news of events; give facilities to reporters to see the best and follow them up; it should see that the cause of the Negro is represented on all public occasions; it should send lecturers and lantern slides to clubs and meetings, etc. It should publish pamphlets and distribute them and use every opportunity to make the Negro church a vehicle of uplifting information to Negroes.

  10. Racial Contact. It should use every opportunity to bring the best representatives of both races into helpful and enlightening contact; it should bring white lecturers on all subjects to colored audiences and colored lecturers to white audiences; it should arrange conferences.

  11. Political Action. It should see that colored people qualify as voters according to law and vote intelligently at every election. It should keep the records of legislators and Congressmen on racial discrimination and publish the record before each election with such promises for the future as can be obtained. It should discourage and expose bribery, and support only the best qualified candidates, black and white.

  12. Meetings. The branch should have an executive committee, which should meet regularly at least once a month for reports and plan of campaign. It should have a secretary with an office open each day. It should arrange at least four times a year large meetings of members and friends for lectures, reports and protests.

In fine, the local branch should try, in each community, North and South, East and West, to solve the Negro problem in that community by making the injustice of discrimination clear to all, and the need of equal opportunity plain to the most prejudiced.

Finally, let the locals support the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. We have 1,500 members. We want 10,000 members who will contribute at least a dollar apiece to the national body in order to effect the second and final emancipation of the Negro in America; in order that the national body may become a great clearing house for information and experience, and be able to concentrate money and help on particular plague spots of prejudice.

We have ten branches which are beginning work as outlined above. Who will be the next?

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1913. “The Vigilance Committee: A Call To Arms.” The Crisis. 6(1):26–29.