Free, White and Twenty One


W.E.B. Du Bois


January 1, 1914

We will suppose, dear reader, that you are “Free, white and twenty-one;” that you are reasonably patriotic and would rather the world grew better than worse.

What should be your first duty? Will you pardon us for suggesting membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as your first and greatest duty?

Does the advice sound in your ears a bit grotesque and certainly myopic?

Pause, then, and consider:

Freedom is a state of mind: a spiritual unchoking of the wells of human power and superhuman love. Is there anything in America that is so strangling brotherhood and narrowing humanity and encouraging hatred, lust and murder as race prejudice? Is there any conceivable crime that it does not daily excuse? Any conceivable inhumanity that it may not deify? If you want freedom, then join this association and fight race hatred.

You are “white.” You want to remain “white.” You want your children to be “white.” Very well. Your wish on this point may seem to some of us of slightly less than infinite importance and yet this is your wish, and the wish of any human being must be respected.

But do you realize that the one certain way to insure a future mulatto world is to despise black folk? Do you realize that if you make this world a hell for Africans and Chinese and Malays that the result will be the rapid disappearance of race differentiation and that, too, largely and predominantly by amalgamation?

If then you want to preserve the special characteristics of white peoples, make it possible for darker peoples to preserve their racial characteristics without loss of freedom and self-respect.

You are twenty-one—i. e., you can vote. Or at least you think you can. Or if you are really wise you know what a farce voting is in this land. Why? Because a Southern voter has from twice to seven times the power of a Northern voter and South Carolina far outweighs Illinois in political significance. Because political democracy cannot be linked with industrial despotism, else the result is the rule of the rich. Now industrial despotism is founded on slavery and peonage, rack rent and low wages. Negroes were slaves, they are peons, they are rack rented and receive less than can support them in decency. Against them white workingmen must compete and the votes stolen from Negroes are used by white capitalists to keep the laborer in bondage. Is your vote safe then as long as disfranchisement and peonage are in the land?

Wherefore, as one who, is “Free, white and twenty-one,” come and join us and help accomplish freedom, safeguard legitimate pride of being and make democracy real.


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1914. “Free, White and Twenty One.” The Crisis 7 (3): 134.