The Negro Citizen (1929)

This article was read before the National Inter-racial Conference at Washington, D. C., December 19, 1928. It is published here entire, with only verbal changes.

What we know about the civil and political rights of Negroes in the United States; what significance this knowledge has for social organizations whose purpose it is to improve conditions; and what further study by universities and research organizations is called for, is the subject of this paper.

Our general knowledge may thus be summarized: There is a system of color caste in the United States based on legal and customary race distinctions and discriminations, having to do with separation in travel, in schools, in public accommodations, in residence and in family relations. There is discrimination in the kind and amount of public school education and in civil rights of various sorts and in courts, jails and fines. There is disfranchisement of voters by means of various tests, including restrictions as to registration, and as to voting in primaries; and including the right of summary administrative decisions; and finally there is lynching and mob violence.

Over against this there are the war amendments of the Constitution and various civil right laws of the states and the decisions of the courts in these matters.

The results of these discriminations have been pretty carefully studied in the case of education and lynching, but have received little systematic study in the matter of voting and civil rights.

I doubt if it would be worth while to examine and expatiate on the general and pretty well-known facts of Negro citizenship and caste. I, therefore, pass to the matter of the significance of this general knowledge for social organizations whose purpose is to improve conditions.

Afraid of Facts

We are confronted not simply by lack of exact data but by a clear disposition not to investigate or even to discuss. I know of no organization that has ever proposed to study Negro suffrage.

I distinctly remember when this recoiling from the facts covered other fields. There was a time when social studies, having to do primarily with the health, physique and growth of the Negro population, were of pressing importance because of the widespread assumption that the Negro was not adapted to the American climate or to conditions of life under freedom and that he was bound sooner or later to die out.

It was necessary, therefore, to test by such scientific measurements as were available these assumptions. Yet for a long time universities and social organizations refused to touch the matter and philanthropists refused funds and encouragement when Atlanta University attempted its wretchedly restricted pioneer work. Times changed. Today, tests and measurements have gone so far that there is no further question of the survival of the Negro race in America and the physical studies connected with him are no different and demand no different technique or organization from the general physical studies carried on in the nation. The real question narrows down to matters of sanitation, hospitals and income. What has Negro suffrage to do with these?


Again, between the years 1890 and 1910, the right of the American Negro to modern education had to be established and proven. It was assumed that the ability of the Negro to assimilate a college education was at least questionable; and it was dogmatically stated that the economic future of the Negro in America was such that all that he needed was industrial training to make him a contented laborer and servant; that this class of people did not need political power and could not use it; but that on the contrary their disfranchisement would free the South so that it could divide its vote on pressing political matters; and that the South could be depended upon to guard the rights of this working caste.

The fight was bitter and long drawn out. Those of us who insisted that in modern industrial life no laboring class could maintain itself without educational leadership and political power were assailed, put out of court, accused of jealousy, and of an overwhelming desire to promote miscegenation.

Today finds the educational part of our contention answered by facts. We have twelve thousand college students, where we had less than one thousand in 1900, and we are graduating today annually 1500 Bachelors of Art, when in 1900 we sent out less than 150. It is admitted now without serious question that the American Negro can use modern education for his group development, in economic and spiritual life.

There is, however, still the feeling that the present problems of Negro education are problems of charity, good will, self-sacrifice and double taxation and not problems which depend primarily for their final solution upon political power.

So, too, in the matter of housing, recreation and crime, we seem to assume that a knowledge of the facts of discrimination and of the needs of the colored public are sufficient, with faith, hope and charity, to bring ultimate betterment; and that in presenting demands to the government of city, state and nation, we have only to prove that Negro poverty, disease and crime hurt white citizens in order to induce the lawmakers elected by white citizens to do justice to black citizens.

Political Power

In the matter of occupation and income the need of political power in any laboring class is conceded by every social student; for the American Negro or his friends to dream that he can sustain himself as a peasant proprietor, an artisan or day laborer, and secure recognition from his organized voting white fellow worker and a decent wage from his employer, without a vote, is extraordinary. It is a conceded impossibility in every modern land.

We can point with some pride to what has been accomplished in the courts in breaking down caste and establishing Negro citizenship, and in the abolition of mob law and lynching. But we are still uncertain in estimating the cause and effects of such actions.

I have heard a number of plausible and attractive explanations of the decline of lynching from 226 in 1896 to 11 in 1928. Some attribute it to prayer, and others to inter-racial resolutions; but I see it differently. I see lynching increase and decrease indifferently, until in 1919 a nationwide agitation was begun by the N.A.A.C.P., backed by statistics, advertisements and meetings. The curve of mob murder fell lazily. Then suddenly in a single year it dropped 75%. I study the occurrences of that year, 1922. And that study leads me to believe that the effective check to lynching was the organized political power of Northern Negroes that put the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill through the House of Representatives January 26, 1922, by a vote of 230 to 119.

The Filibuster

The bill was forced through a senate committee and reported to the Senate with a majority pledged to its passage. The only way that the South accomplished its defeat was by refusing to allow the government of the United States to function. Knowing that such high-handed measures were going a bit too far, the South promised to stop lynching and it has pretty nearly kept its word. And yet consider the cost: there has not been in Poland or in Haiti, in Russia or in the Balkans, a more open, impudent, and shameless holding up of Democracy than the senators of the Bourbon South, holding office on the disfranchised Negro vote, accomplished in November, 1922.

The success which we have had before the courts in abolishing the hereditary right to vote which the “Grandfather” clauses bestowed on white Southerners; the fight against segregation in residence and its spread in schools; the fight against the white primary and numerous Civil Rights cases have not simply been brought to successful issue because of our present small but increasing political power, but are without significance unless they point to fuller political power.

I do not for a moment argue that political power will immediately abolish color caste, make ignorant men intelligent or bad men good. We have caste and discrimination in the North with the vote and social progress in some parts of the South without it. But there is this vast difference: in states like New York where we are beginning to learn the meaning and use of the ballot we are building a firm and unshakable basis of permanent freedom. While every advance in the South unprotected by political power is based on chance and changing personalities and may at any time be vetoed by a hostile voting group. I maintain that political power is the beginning of all permanent reform and the only hope for maintaining gains.

The Negro Vote

There is today a surprisingly large number of intelligent and sincere people, both white and black, who really believe that the Negro problem in the United States can ultimately be solved without our being compelled to face and settle the question of the Negro vote.

Nearly all of our social studies apparently come to this conclusion, either openly or by assumption, and do not say, as they ought to say, and as everyone knows in the long run they must say, that granted impulse by philanthropy, help by enlightened public opinion, and the aid of time, no permanent improvement in the economic and social condition of Negroes is going to be made so long as they are deprived of political power to support and defend it.

Nowhere else in the world is there any suggestion that a modern laboring class can permanently better itself without political power. It may be a question, it certainly is a question, as to just how labor is going to use this power ultimately so as to raise its economic and social status. But there is no question, but that such power must be had and today the world over it is being used.

With all the research that has gone on formerly, and especially in the last few years with regard to the American Negro, with singular equanimity, nothing has been said or done with regard to the Negro vote. I am, therefore, stressing in this paper the significance and the danger of this omission and I am seeking to say that of all the questions that are before us today that of political power on the part of the American Negro occupies, to my mind, the key position, and is the question which peculiarly tests the good faith of the American people, the honesty of philanthropy in America toward the Negro, and the sincerity of the National Inter-racial Conference.

A Debate

I listened yesterday with mounting astonishment to a discussion of school betterment in the South. I am convinced that in no other civilized country in the world could such a discussion have taken place. The crucial problem was that of raising local funds for schools and of having the National Government supplement those funds in the poorer states: and the essential point in the whole matter was surely the selection of local officials who would spend the money as the local voting population wished; would raise funds by local taxation fairly placed on local wealth and would expend National monies equitably. In any other land the first point of the debate would have been the question of the selection of such proper officials and of the democratic control of their actions.

That question in the debate to which I listened was never raised. It was assumed that, although there were to be separate schools for Negroes, Negroes were to have no voice in the selection of local officials, no control of their own taxation, no vote on expenditure; and that despite this through philanthropy and good will you were going to get and maintain a decent and adequate school system for them.

If the present rulers of Russia had heard this debate they would have gone into gales of laughter; and if any government had attempted to carry on a debate on these lines in the English Parliament, the German Reichstag or the French Chamber of Deputies, the government would have been thrown out forthwith. Every Englishman, Frenchman and German would have said, without qualification, that education today can not be carried on as a matter of philanthropy and good will: that it is the duty of the State and that back of the State must stand some effective democratic control.


Most nations would have made this control the ballot in the hands of all adult citizens and even Italy and Russia and Turkey would affirm that this is the ideal toward which they consistently and steadily march.

It is of extraordinary significance that in an intelligent and open-hearted assembly, such a clear and obvious point was either not thought of or worse yet, the members did not have the courage to make it.

In the question of the lack of public funds for growing expense in education one cannot assume that Americans do not know what the public thought of the world in the most progressive countries is doing, in insisting that wealth bear a greater burden of taxation and that poverty be exempt. The United States is the one great country of the world where wealth is escaping taxation and where the burden of public contributions that falls upon the farmer, the small householder, the laborer and particularly the black laborer is crushing in its incidence; and yet how little is said of drafting by universal suffrage sufficient wealth for the public good to pay every reasonable expense and of putting the people, black and white, back of such draft.

I hold this truth to be self evident, that a disfranchised working-class in modern industrial civilization is worse than helpless. It is a menace, not simply to itself, but to every other group in the community. It will be diseased; it will be criminal; it will be ignorant; it will be the plaything of mobs, and it will be insulted by caste restrictions.

So far we are upon old ground. This argument has been urged many times in the past. It has failed to impress the people of the United States simply because so many folk do not care about the future of American Negroes. They once almost hoped that the problem would be settled by the Negroes dying out or migrating, or bowing in dumb submission to any kind of treatment that the people of the United States decided to give them.

But, today, the matter is changed, and it is changed because those Americans who have any ability to see and think are beginning slowly to realize that when Democracy fails for one group in the United States, it fails for the nation; and when it fails for the United States it fails for the world. A disfranchised group compels the disfranchisement of other groups. The white primary system in the South is simply a system which compels the white man to disfranchise himself in order to take the vote away from the Negro.

The present extraordinary political psychology of the Negro in the South; namely that the voluntary disfranchisement of intelligent and thrifty black men is helping to solve the Negro problem, is simply putting into the hands of scoundrels and grafters white and black the meagre remains of those political rights which 200,000 black civil war soldiers fought to gain.

The Bourbon South

All this has led to extraordinary results. In the past we have deplored disfranchisement in the South because of its effect on the Negro. But it is not simply that the Negro remains a slave as long as he is disfranchised, but that Southern white laborers are dragged inevitably down to the Negro’s position, and that the decent white South is not only deprived of decent government, but of all real voice in both local and national government. It is as true today as it ever was that the nation cannot exist half slave and half free.

Today, in the South, politicians have every incentive to cut down the number of voters, black and white. The Republican organization, in nine cases out of ten, becomes simply the tail to the Democratic kite. Party government disappears. Political power is vested in the hands of a clique of professional politicians, white and black, and there is nothing that has been done in dirty politics by Tammany in New York, by Thompson in Chicago, or Vare in Philadelphia, that you cannot find duplicated by the political oligarchies which rule the Southern South.

Political ignorance in the South has grown by leaps and bounds. The mass of people in the South today have no knowledge as to how they are governed or by whom. Elections have nothing to do with broad policies and social development but are matters of the selection of friends to lucrative offices and punishment of personal enemies. Local administration is a purposely disguised system of intrigue which not even an expert could unravel.

Today, a small group of Western Congressmen, to the dismay of East and South, are investigating the sale of offices by black Republicans in the South; but offices from the highest to the lowest have been regularly sold by white Republicans and white Democrats in the South and are being sold today.

And yet, of all this, there must be no criticism, no exposure, no real investigation, no political revolt, because decent white South lacks the moral courage to expose and punish rascals even though they are white and to stand up for democracy even if it includes black folk.

I yield to no man in my admiration for what the new young South is doing in liberalizing race relations and humanizing thought, but I maintain that until the liberal white south has the guts to stand up for democracy regardless of race there will be no solution of the Negro problem and no solution of the problem of popular government in America. You cannot build bricks of molasses.

Nor is this all. Because of the rotten boroughs of the South, real Democratic government is impossible in the North. The Democratic Party cannot become a liberal body because the bulk of its support depends upon disfranchisement, caste and race hate in the South. It depends on minimizing participation in politics by all people, black and white, and stifling of discussion. It is the only part of the nation where the woman suffrage amendment is largely ignored and yet the white women do not dare to open their mouths to protest.

So long as this party holds this grip on 114 electoral votes despite argument, with no reference to dominant political questions and with no reference to the way in which votes are actually cast, this party cannot be displaced by a Third Party. With no Third Party corrective for a discredited minority, democratic government becomes simply impossible without something resembling revolution.

Recent Eletions

When in 1912 Roosevelt tried to appeal to liberal thought in the United States against the reactionary Republicans and the bourbon Democrats, he only succeeded in putting the Democrats in power. When La Follette tried to do the same thing in 1924, he simply scared the country into larger reaction, since they realized that they had to choose between bourbon Democracy and organized privilege.

In 1928, we had an extraordinary spectacle. It is too well-known for me to comment. I only remind the reader that the right of Southern white men to vote as they wished on public questions was openly and vehemently denied and the right of dominant political cliques holding their power by disfranchising four million white and black voters, to make their own election returns as to the vote cast, without state or national investigation or inquiry, was successfully maintained. This is the only modern nation in the world which does not control its own elections.

The Future

How is all this going to be remedied? How are we going to restore normal democracy in the United States? It is not a question of the millennium; of being able through democratic Government to do everything immediately. But it is a question, and a grave and insistent question, whether the United States of America is going to maintain or surrender democracy as the fundamental starting point of permanent human uplift. If democracy is still our corner stone, must it be smashed because of twelve million Negroes? Better cut their throats quickly and build on.

On the other hand, if Democracy fails in the United States, and fails because of our attitude toward a darker people, what about Democracy in the world, and particularly in India, in China, in Japan and in Egypt? We have got a chance today, and an unrivaled chance, again to rescue and guide the world, as we did at the end of the 18th Century. And we have the same kind of dilemma.

In those days when we started to build a nation of equal citizens, Negro slavery could have been abolished; its abolition was begun even in the South; but the respectable people, the smug people, sat down before it and organized the American Colonization Society, which was the interracial movement of that day; and instead of fighting evil they were content to congratulate themselves on the good already accomplished. In the long run, they did less than nothing.

So today it is fortunate that people can sit down at Interracial Conferences and find so much to congratulate themselves about in the improved relation between races, and the increased knowledge which they have of each other. But all of this is going to be of no avail in the crisis approaching unless we take advantage of the present desire for knowledge and willingness to study and willingness to listen, and attack the main problem which is and has been the question of political power for the Negro citizens of the United States.

I do not for a moment minimize the difficulty of inaugurating in a land but a generation removed from slavery, of universal suffrage which includes children of slaves. It is extraordinarily difficult and calls for patience and tolerance. But my point is that the sooner we face the goal the quicker we will reach it. We are not going to make democracy in the South possible by admitting its impossibility and refusing to study and discuss the facts. Let us first of all say, and broadcast the fact, that all Americans of adult age and sufficient character and intelligence must vote and that any interference with or postponement of this realization is a danger to every other American—a danger to be attacked now and continuously and with dogged determination with a clear avowal of intention by every open-minded man.

What then is called for? Facts. A foundation of actual fact concerning the political situation of Negroes; their voting, their representation in local, state and national government; their taxation, their party affiliation and subserviance to political machines; the economic nexus between political power and occupation and income.

This study beginning with Negroes should extend to whites. We must lift the curtain from democracy and view it into the open. We must insist that politics is no secret, shameful thing known only to ward heelers and political bosses, and to the corporations who buy and sell them. Here is the greatest and most insistent field of scientific investigation open to the social reformer.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1929. “The Negro Citizen.” The Crisis. 36(5):156–157, 171–173.