Our Civil Rights

As African American civil rights are threatened with increasing segregation, a writer for a noted African American publication analyzes the situation.


The surest way to prevent seditions is to take away the matter of them; for if there be fuel prepared, it is hard to tell from whence the spark shall come that shall set it on fire.-Lord Bacon

SEATED almost under the shadow of our nation's capitol, with Howard University at arm's length, and Charles Sumner's picture over my desk, my mind naturally reverts to my race in the far distant Southland, where my kindred and my all find home and shelter, and in which I expect to live and die. With those thoughts in my mind it is but natural that my subject is as selected.

One can scarcely comprehend how our civil rights are abridged and denied till he has dwelt even for a day in the free balmy air of Indiana, or among the freedom4oving patriots of Ohio. Here we have no separate coaches, or separate theater seats, the hotels are free from colorphobia; a man can sit in the finest hotel in America and what he likes, although, his skin be as black as the ink that prints this page; and in public places it is as much as a franchise is worth to make distinction. And yet thirty years ago it was at the risk of his life that a black man claimed public privileges; sentiment was worse here than it is now down South.

Why this change? How comes it that these Northerners esteem the equality of rights as the first of rights? I ask the pictured lips above my desk. Charles Sumner's countenance is rightly dear to every American patriot and freeman, for it was he who fought sturdy battles for our nation's freedom with rebel brigadiers and accursed traitors to our native land. I ask of him who never faltered, fearful of the assassin's bullet or the coward's club, but fought the battle of civil rights in the nation's legislative halls till victory perched upon his banners, Why are we black men freemen here amid the snow and ice of a Northern clime, and almost serfs in the land of our fathers amid the dales and valleys of the sunny South?

In fancy those deep loving eyes shine regretfully-one can almost hear a sigh as he weeps for the degradation of his native land-and his firm, freedom-loving lips bid us to be calm and peaceful while manfully asserting our rights, and remind us that he whom the gods design to slay they first make mad. In trumpet tones he has told us what we all know to be our right and our sacred privileges.

He did not then, nor do we now, affirm that the social question is contended for; none of us claim the right to force our acquaintance upon others, but we claim as a sacred right that others should not be forced upon us. All that any black man contends for is equal rights in public places.

Social equality, these Democratic demagogues know, is not our contention; that is a mere bugaboo, a scarecrow invented to frighten the uninformed. When we ride in the same cars, eat at the same hotel, listen to the same theatrical performance in the same row of seats, we no more involve the social question than we do when we write the same language, peruse the same book, breathe the same pure air, warm under the rays of the same sun, or stand shivering homeless amid the same snow which falls, in all its cleanliness and purity, alike on the palace of the black and the hovel of the white. When our civil rights are manfully asserted, it no more involves the social relations of the races than it does when black soldiers die defending the same flag, praying to the same God, or dying in the same world; yet how many thousands dread leaving the slave-loving, freedom-hating landmarks of their ancestors, and emerging into the light of a national patriotism that rests on the foundation of mutual obligations.

We all know, and are teaching it to our youth, that it was our black ancestors that cleared those forests, tilled those fertile lands that caused the wealth of our Southern oppressors; we know that our fathers toiled and gave ofttimes their life-blood that the beautiful Southland should blossom as a rose; but we have written the memory of those wrongs in water! We know, too, that public lands are given to railways, and that they are, therefore, public, not private property. They get their franchise from the State and are incorporated for the good of the State. We know public places have certain public rights, for the good of the general public. The right of discrimination between the clean and the unclean, the bad and the good, is an inherent one. There are whites who require soap and water just as there are blacks in the same condition. We do not admire the unclean habits, nor desire the owner's proximity any more than does the clean white citizen. Common sense teaches us that the happiness of one race should not be infringed on because of the prejudices of the other; it is neither just nor right. Our sense of smell is just as acute as that of most Democrats. When Democratic black politicians assert that black men claim social equality they lie; it is the basest subterfuge; that no social equality worth having can ever be enforced by law, every sensible man knows.

Texas, Arkansas and the Carolinas once fired cannon, made speeches and lauded Judge Taney to the skies because of his accursed decision; and in a few years the hearthstones alike in the cabin and the palace of the selfsame States were devastated by a cruel war, waged because of and on the identical and damnable principles Judge Taney twenty years before had enunciated. Those principles, which he prostituted his manhood to utter, have rightly caused him to be regarded by succeeding generations as a. traitor to his ancestors, his country and his God.

As Taney and his Court declared we had no human rights, and as treason and bloodshed followed, just as truly as God's mills grind will retribution and sorrow follow Judge Bradley's infamous and traitorous ruling that we had no civil rights that white men are bound to respect-unless public conscience is awakened to the fact that we have rights to maintain. The States that rejoiced at Taney's decision suffered most for its iniquity; may the States that found such joy in Bradley's ruling and our subsequent degradation, and continue to heap unjust and uncalled-for legislation on the most patient and forgiving race God's bright sun shines upon, never have cause to lament its errors in sackcloth and ashes.. These memories, kind friends, are mentioned more in sorrow than in anger, more from regret than bitterness, by one of a race that has been left naked and defenseless before the ruthless onslaught of a pitiless, vulgar and malignant prejudice. The abridgment of our civil rights does not cause us to love our country the less or our oppressors the more; on the contrary, it builds up a black Ireland in this "land of the free and home of the brave."

Patriots know that this caste spirit so rapidly growing is a threat, and more, at the very life of the republic that many of our fathers fought and died to save.

Strong as this nation is without its black left arm, it can accomplish more with than without it. Low down in the scale of humanity, as many maligners place him, it is no foreordained fact that he will remain there forever. The friendship of the black hosts that swarm in the miasmatic Delta and amid the dales and valleys of my own beloved Lone Star State, humble though such friendship may now be, it is preferable far to their indifference. Patriots should always recollect that history repeats itself, and what Jackson did at New Orleans, some future general may again and again have need to do. When Lincoln called for black men to defend the principles of Washington and Jefferson, one hundred thousand blackskinned, though lion-hearted heroes responded to the cry, and fought as only freemen know how to fight and die. History continually repeats itself, and what Jackson and Lincoln had need to do, Harrison or Stanley may have also need to perform. How can men fight for a country whose flag means not, freedom to them?

When our country a few weeks ago was on the threshold of a war with Chile, we listened in vain, amid the noise and clamor of a hundred white offerings, for the offer of black volunteer companies to fight for the Yankee flag. Why was this? Black men are not cowards; the reason was different. Our civil rights had been sacrificed on the altars of prejudice; we did not care to fight for a country, in a greater portion of which we have no civil rights; our reason was plain and just. He "skulked" not from cowardice, but from a praiseworthy and patriotic reason.

Let me mention an instance-a bright ray, as it were, on the horizon of our civil world. South Carolina, for a century in the lead so far as bloodthirsty pro-slavery legislation was concerned, is leading again; but, by God's grace, the serpent of State sovereignty is forgotten; colorphobia, traditions, precedents, all are forgotten; and she sets herself on the eternal hills of time, bright, full in the view of mankind as an exemplar of right and justice, against the hydra-headed monster of prejudice and oppression-South Carolina defeated a separate coach bill! All hail such a signal departure from the traitorous counsels of the past! The old time oppressors not seeking to stay the march of progress, seems a miracle; and "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," goes up as an anthem from ten thousand thousand throats. Such Christian justice will be remembered long after our posterity has forgotten to curse the infamous, though obsolete statutes of A.D. 1890.

The causes which actuated this patriotic act were neither trivial nor common. In my humble judgment, no national event, for several years, surpasses it in the magnitude, importance and significance of its consequences.

If any State required such an infamous act, South Carolina, undoubtedly, is the one; yet the world sees the measure defeated. A thoughtful investigation of the causes presents a forcible idea. In Carolina the blacks vote the Democratic ticket in large numbers, and, indeed, to such an extent, that it was feared they would rule the Democratic primaries. It looks, therefore, as if the civil rights of my dark-skinned brothers in Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee are abridged or denied morally as a retaliatory measure, rather than because they once were slaves. Does it not seem, therefore, that measures, not men, principles, not party, is the only solution of this civil rights problem? Before we send men to Minnesota, is it not preferable to first find out if they indorse measures such as the separate car bill, or kindred infamies?

We are often advised to let these matters alone, and they will right themselves in time; we should pray and make money; we ought not to manfully and earnestly assert our rights. Let me say that my twenty-five years of life prove such advice to be fallacious and wrong. I believe now, as I have always believed, that the highest duty man owes to himself is to be absolutely true. In pursuance of that policy, we must forget rewards or punishments; aye, even cease to dream of honor and power, disgrace and poverty. Make our choice, take our stand; and wherever our brain and heart lead, always let our footsteps follow.

Is there a remedy for us? Do the gates stand ajar? May we, can we enter? And as I look up into Charles Sumner's face for an answer, I can almost see an approving smile as he points to his mortal utterance, "Equal rights is the first of rights."

There is a patriot up amid the freedom-breathing atmosphere of New York, who, by his pen and voice, has nobly championed our cause, and who, venerable though he is, yet, with the fire and confidence of youth, presents a way. Retired after years of public service on field and in State, his clarion-toned ideas of civil freedom weekly penetrate the tough hide enveloping the ear and brain of rebeldom and bourbonism-he is a worthy successor to the mantle of freedom and equal rights so long worn by Charles Sumner. He has formed a plan, differing from the Loyal Leagues, Protective Associations, etc., etc., in that in it there is no political ambition to be subserved; the organization has but one idea, and that is enunciated by its name, "Equal Rights Association." In it, Judge Tourgie, its founder, makes no distinction as to membership-white as well as black swell its numbers. It believes that Christians do not sanction murder, abrogation of rights nor that the color of skin changes injustice into righteousness. It is designed to, and will, fight the battle of civil rights and freedom, with or without our aid. They patriotically forsee that your republican institutions cannot last with the spirit of caste abroad in the land.

Let us question ourselves and see if it is not a duty we owe to posterity, to assist in manfully battling for our civil rights; and iet us straightaway do our duty. Do not procrastinate, but commence at once. What is worth doing now, should not be delayed. Organize your home association. If you know not how, address Albion H. Tourgie. Esq., Maryville, N. Y., and he will gladly send instructions. The "Equal Rights Association" is strong already; it numbers hundreds of thousands from the ranks of the most just, humane, most civilized and intelligent citizens of this republic. No fees nor charges required to join, only the knowledge that one more strong right arm is enlisted on the side of right and justice against the enemies of liberty, progress and freedom.

Is the South wronged by such an appellation? But is it not borne out by the facts? Do not the proscriptive laws of the Southern States against black skins prove that they do not comprehend the spirit of our age? Can these States, trammeled by such accursed doctrines as the separate coach line enunciates, ever reach the grandeur and glory, the mission and destiny of the remainder of the republic? The courts of history will record that the case of Civilization vs. Barbarism came up for trial again and again, and also that wealth and intelligence, coupled with malignant prejudice, secured the defendants many a new hearing; but the courts of heaven will never sustain a verdict for the defendant against right and reason, human and divine laws.

Washington, D. C.

About this Document

  • Source: African Methodist Episcopal Church Review
  • Author: African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • Publisher: African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • Citation: Pages 406-411, Volume 8, No. 4.
  • Date: April 4, 1892