An Open Letter (1915)

An Open Letter (1915)

To the People of the United States:

This is an appeal not for any privilege, indulgence or preference of any kind, but for simple justice.

For many years the people of the Southern States have claimed that they understand better than any one else what they call the “Negro problem,” and have insisted that they must be allowed to deal with the colored people in their communities as they think best. The same claim was made during the days of slavery, and the rest of the country, largely from indolence and the wish for a quiet life, weakly yielded and closed its eyes and ears to the horrors of slavery. To save themselves trouble the people of the United States allowed this iniquity to live and grow powerful, until four years of civil war brought upon them many times the trouble which they had tried to avoid during the years which preceded it.

Determined to root out for all time the injustice which had been punished by such a terrible penalty and after “every drop of blood drawn by the lash” had been “paid by another drawn by the sword,” the people of the United States, so far as the Constitution could do it, secured to every citizen of the country his equal rights before the law. For the first time since the Declaration of Independence was published its “self-evident truths” were recognized in practice, and a new day seemed to have dawned on this republic.

Unwarned by the experience of our fathers we are now repeating their folly. We acquiesce while the colored people of this country, entitled equally with ourselves to every legal right, are oppressed, insulted and degraded. Instead of opening wide the door of opportunity and offering them encouragement and help in their attempt to climb from slavery to independent manhood, instead of trying to make them a body of useful, intelligent citizens, we ignore our responsibility for their condition and put every obstacle in their way, permitting men whose views are warped by the traditions and prejudices of slavery to dictate our policy.

What are the consequences? If our colored fellow-citizens wish to cast their votes they are met by every legal and illegal obstacle, and in large sections of the country the colored vote is suppressed. Not only can they not vote for what they want, but their white neighbors cast the votes of the colored men for what the colored men do not want. As they count in the basis of representation and yet are denied the ballot, they are not only not represented but they are misrepresented, and the power of those who would perpetuate injustice is doubled.

The Southern leaders say that the Negroes are ignorant and degraded, but they will not give them the education that they need. It is notorious that the schools provided for the colored children are far worse than those enjoyed by the whites in large sections of the country, and it is also true that the path of those who would teach them is beset with difficulties and often serious dangers. In Florida no white man is allowed to teach in a colored school, and the supply of competent teachers is therefore largely reduced. The spokesmen of the South openly avow their purpose to keep their colored neighbors ignorant and fitted only for employment as laborers.

If Negroes would acquire property and make themselves useful citizens, they find in one place an agitation to prevent their buying farms, in others violent attempts by nightriders and like ruffians to drive them from the farms which they have bought, and to prevent their laboring in the fields. Segregation ordinances are proposed in many cities to restrict their places of residence, and this movement derives support from the action of the Federal Government which undertakes in the public offices, the property of us all, to separate white from colored in the service of the United States, deliberately changing conditions which have continued without objection for fifty years.

If Negroes are suspected of crime their lives may be taken by mob violence without trial, and the men who murder them, nay more, torture them with barbaric cruelty, whether in Springfield, Illinois, in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, or in countless southern towns and villages, go absolutely unpunished though perfectly well known, while their action is approved by the communities where these cruelties are committed.

If colored men or women acquire an education, positions are denied them because they are colored. Banks and offices will not receive them. If they would travel, hotels and restaurants are closed to them, and public corporations offer them grossly unfit accommodations.

Laws are proposed to control their marriage with white persons though intercourse between the races has always prevailed, and the result of such laws must be to put colored women at the mercy of white men, and to deprive them of the very slight protection which the law now gives them, while a generation of innocent children is degraded and stigmatized. Many labor unions will not admit them, nor let them work as non-union men.

In Miami, Florida, a Negro chauffeur who presumes to drive his master’s car from Palm Beach is nearly killed by a mob of white chauffeurs. The theatres admit plays grossly misrepresenting colored folk and appealing to race prejudice and passion. Public parks and places of amusement are largely closed to them. In Northern schools and colleges they are often unwelcome. At every turn and in every attempt to rise they are met by this wicked prejudice. The man in whose veins flows only a trace of Negro blood, who inherits from his white ancestors their ambitions and their tastes, is treated as if he were hopelessly degraded, and all over the country the attempt is made to hold them down as an inferior class, denied those equal rights and equal opportunities which are the birthright of every American citizen.

This state of things is absolutely intolerable and it cannot continue without bringing upon this country the most serious calamities. No community can treat any considerable body of citizens unjustly without suffering the consequences. The attempt of the French Government to hold Dreyfus in undeserved imprisonment nearly overthrew the republic.

The problem before this country is not a Negro problem only but far more a white man’s problem. We all suffer, white and colored alike, and as there are more white, so they suffer more while the present conditions continue. It is time for all who believe in justice and humanity to organize and to resist race prejudice wherever it lifts its head.

We appeal to the people of the South who profess to be civilized and Christian, and ask how long they will allow their fair name to be blackened and degraded by unpunished lynching, and the attempt to keep the Negroes down. While it continues the Southern states cannot rank among civilized communities. Are they content to hold this position?

We appeal to the Christian church and ask where in the teachings of its Founder it finds any warrant for treating human beings with cruelty and injustice.

We appeal to the lawyers whose mission it is to enforce the law and secure to everyone his just rights, and ask them if they are content to see lynch law take the place of proper judicial procedure.

We appeal to the judges who hold the scales of justice, and urge them to keep the balance true between men, no matter what their race or color.

We appeal to the colleges and schools whose teachers so largely control the future of this country not to deny education to any one who seeks it.

We appeal to every warm-hearted, high-minded man or woman in this country, and urge them to organize a new anti-slavery movement. We beg them by voice, vote and example to rouse their neighbors and to make our public men feel that their political careers are not to be advanced by yielding to the advocates of discrimination. We must organize our political, our religious, our educational, nay all our forces to the end that our country may be relieved from the influence of all who believe that they help themselves up by keeping others down. Our motto is “All men up” and that spirit must conquer, or terrible disaster awaits the country which we all love.

Citation: Storey, Moorfield. 1915. “An Open Letter.” The Crisis. 10(2):132–133, 136.