W.E.B. Du Bois


January 1, 1914

The Negro problem is undoubtedly reaching a degree of spiritual complication which makes the onlooker hesitate between tears and hysterical laughter. A National Conference of Charities and Correction recently met in a great southern city. It is a conference that numbers in its membership practically every great name in American social reform. It stands for advance and uplift, help and development in all lines of human endeavor. It met in Memphis. Memphis has a population of 142,619 with 52,441 Negroes and is the geographical center of the largest Negro population in the western world. The traveler from Altruria would surely assume that the problems touching these darker thousands and the relations of white and black would have been a matter of serious, thoughtful consideration. Not so. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People pleaded for the inclusion of such subjects as matters of general discussion. But as the Survey says, the Negro problem was “not invited” and appeared but rarely and quite incidentally on the program.

The excuse given by the officials was that the subject was too controversial and that the Southern Sociological Congress, meeting during the sessions of the Charities Conference, would discuss these matters. Very good. But would not this same traveller from Altruria assume that at least every effort would be made to interest colored people in the general work of the conference? Here were matters touching the saving of children, the reduction of crime, increased cleanliness, the protection of mothers, conditions of labor, etc., all of which touched the colored people very closely in their every-day life. One would have thought that the highways and hedges would have been scoured to make the colored people of Memphis, and particularly their teachers, preachers, professional men and business men, become acquainted with modern philanthropic effort. This was not done. On the contrary, at the peremptory demand of the local white committee all Negroes were segregated in the gallery and, as a result, not a dozen Negroes attended the week’s sessions of this mighty conference. How could they and retain their self-respect?

It is doubtless the courteous and proper thing for the National Conference to defer, in many things, to the wish and opinion of the local entertaining committee. But are there no limits to such deference? Is there no place where decency and principle can make a last stand?

In contrast to the moral cowardice of the northern leaders of social reform, the Southern Sociological Congress to whom the local colored committee also appealed for decent consideration in the matter of accommodation, decided that they might be admitted to the ground floor of the theatre where both associations were holding their main sessions. The proprietors of the theatre thereupon objected and the Sociological Congress changed the place of meeting. So that hundreds of colored people attended the meeting of this Congress.

If, however, anyone thinks that this has been a happy solution of the difficulty, let them listen to Mr. Clarence Poe, of North Carolina. Mr. Poe, in declining re-election to the Executive Committee of the Congress, says: “In the first place, I ought to explain that while I attended some of the sectional meetings of the Congress in Atlanta last year, I did not attend the general session or the race problem meetings, and it was not until I attended this year’s meetings in Memphis that I discovered that white men and white women, Negro men and Negro women are all admitted on terms of equality as members and as participants in the Congress. At Memphis, moreover, the seating of both whites and Negroes on the first floor and the- crowding out of white ladies by Negro men became so offensive (cultured ladies from my own town, for example, were escorted to their seats by Negro ushers) that the local Memphis committee could not endure it, and passed a resolution asking the officers to have the Negroes seated separately in the first balcony. And then it was that ‘the officers of the conference’ the daily papers said—I do not know what officers, for you had just left town, I believe, and so far as I know, the Executive Committee was not consulted—but at any rate, the ‘officers,’ in order to keep the Negro members right with the whites, left the Orpheum Theatre, which our Memphis hosts had provided, and adjourned to a separate theatre for a final meeting on the Negro problem at which one white man, one Negro, and one mixed-breed entertained the mixed assemblage of members.”

This means that advanced opinion of the South has a fight on its hands and that in the next ten years it is going to be determined whether or not the South can have two opinions concerning the Negro: one, the reactionary suppression of Poe, and the other, social uplift in “The Human Way.” Moreover, the North, characteristically, has deserted the advanced South at just the moment when the South needed it. If Graham Taylor, the President, and the Executive Committee of the Conference of Charities had said, “This conference is going to admit every decently behaved human being, who wishes to h'ear its deliberations, on equal terms,” then the Sociological Conference could have taken its stand with the moral backing of the best of the nation. As it is now, a brave devoted band find themselves holding a lonely outpost while their northern white brothers are bravely scuttling to the rear.

If now these southern social radicals look for help to the radical movement in the South they find that movement largely in the hands of demagogues like Blease and Vardaman, and radical on everything except the Negro problem. On that they are reactionary, vindictive, and positively indecent to a degree which is almost inconceivable. A paper like the Harpoon of Austin, Tex., which is supposed to represent exceptional democracy and abolition of privilege, never reaches its prefer depths of vile vituperation until it discusses the Negro, as it does most ot the time, and yet it imagines itself in harmony with the forward movements of the world!

Consider, then, these five elements: the struggling, emerging Negro, the cowardly white North, the advanced white southern reformers, the Negro hating southern radicals and the reactionary Poes. Can one imagine a more mischief-making combination?


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1914. “Muddle.” The Crisis 8 (3): 125–26.