Radicals and the Negro (1925)

Radicals and the Negro (1925)

Most Americans having secured the right to vote, the principle of free public schools, the right to trial by jury and the right to travel without insult are proceeding to use these foundation rights for the purpose of accomplishing economic freedom, more effective education, the abolition of crime and like reforms. Among such liberal and radical thinkers any reference to the right to vote, the abolition of lynching or admission to the public schools sounds archaic. It brings to them no recognition of the fact that these demands should be part of a radical program because their own program for white people has swept so far beyond these initial demands that these demands are no longer “radical”—they are almost reactionary.

If, therefore, you speak to the ordinary liberal minded white man of helping to secure to the Negro the right to vote, he immediately begins to discourse upon the inefficacy of voting among whites and the disappointment of the democratic movement which began with the right to vote. If you ask him to help stop lynching he inquires if lynching really does take place. He is then inclined to think that it must be very sporadic and at any rate he adds that there are many worse things in the modern industrial organization than lynching. If you are interested in securing elementary rights to common school education for black children you are reminded of the wretched school system in the city of New York; and if you wish to abolish the daily insult of “Jim Crow” cars you are talking about something that your auditor has never seen and cannot conceive of. And yet conceive the language of such a man if his vote were taken away, his children excluded from school and his wife compelled to travel in a smoking car!

Thus in a country where a tenth of the population has most of its voters illegally deprived of any voice in their government, where each week for forty years at least one of their fellows accused of crime has been lynched without semblance of a trial, where no schools at all are provided for a majority of the group’s children, where no attempt is made to deal out even ordinary and primitive justice in the courts or in jail to large numbers of the group, and where discrimination in every walk of life is for them the ordinary rule,—in such a country you can have a program of public minded radicals which does not in any way touch a single one of these wrongs except possibly by indirect inference,

The point which such radicals forget is that the oppression of the Negro in the United States is not simply the misfortune of the Negro. Even if that were not true surely the right of twelve million black people would call for at least as much space as 250,000 Indians. But the case is worse than this. Political cheating in the United States is directly traceable to cheating Negro voters in the South. The impossibility of securing a clear popular verdict in the United States on any question is directly chargeable to the rotten borough system of the Southern states. Education with us has been twisted out of its proper channels very largely because of the necessity of using it as a vehicle of propaganda against “inferior” races. There is no sense in a peace program which takes no account of the world wide economic war upon colored peoples. The insult to Japanese, Jews and southern Europeans in the pending immigration bill is a logical deduction from the American past-time of Negro-baiting. It is absolutely certain that the future of liberal and radical thought in the United States is going to be made easy or impossible by the way in which American democracy treats American Negroes. Under these circumstances it seems to me impossible for any group of Radicals to write down any program which will in the slightest degree convince the world of its sincerity without touching the plight of American Negroes.

A simple statement that one of their objects is the “political, social and economic emancipation of the Negro” would meet the issue; or they could go into further detail.

The main needs of the colored people in their struggle for emancipation fall under these heads:

  1. The education of the children and the discovery and encouragement of talent.

  2. Employment without color discrimination on the part of employers or on the part of trade unions.

  3. The right to vote and hold office

  4. The abolition of civil discrimination in the administration of the law and in courts of justice and especially in matters of racial lynching and travel.

  5. The rebuttal of persistent propaganda on the inferiority of certain races especially the Negro race.

It is not always easy to say just how these various needs and disabilities can be met, but most of them call for:

  1. Investigation
  2. Publicity and agitation
  3. An appeal to the courts and the legislatures

It is astonishing that Radicals are not always eager and determined to put into their program planks covering these matters.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1925. “Radicals and the Negro.” The Crisis. 29(5):199–200.