The United States and the Negro
by W.E.B. Du Bois

Originally published in Freedomways, Vol 1, No. 1, Spring, 1961

In 1861 the legal status of the American Negro was something like thus: The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in an obiter dictum, had just said that, historically, the Negro had "no rights which a white man was bound to respect." Neither a horse, nor Frederick Douglass, could get an American passport for travel. Mules and men were sold at auction in Southern cities; and, while Bob Toomb's threat to auction slaves on Bunker Hill was unpopular, the act would not have been illegal. White Americans shuddered at miscegenation, yet in 1801 there were two million colored women who had no right to refuse sexual intercourse with their white owners. That these masters exercised this right was shown by 588,000 mulattos in 1860. Kidnapping of free Negroes in the North had been made easy by the Fugitive Slave Law. All agreed that the Constitution recognized slavery as a legal institution and that the government was bound to protect it. Abolitionists were considered as contemptible for consorting with impossible radicals and recognizing Negroes as equals. Lincoln had been elected President because the South and Border split on the slave trade: Lincoln was looked upon, not as the enemy of slavery, but as opposed to its expansion. He did not want slavery to come into competition with the free Northern white workers, and the workers hated Negroes as much as slavery. Lincoln did not believe that the Negro could be integrated into the nation. He would protect slavery in the South, but he would not encourage its expansion into the North. Lincoln undoubtedly did not like slavery, but he was no champion of freedom for Negroes.

In the nation as a whole, no considerable number of citizens objected to slavery or would fight for Negro freedom. When the war opened, everybody, North and South, declared it to be a "white man's war," that is, fought by whites for objects which whites had. The wishes of Negroes were not to be taken into account. Slavery was to be protected. Northern generals went out of their way to return fugitive slaves to their masters with apologies; and, on the other hand, when General Fremont tried to free slaves in his area, he was promptly slapped down.

On the other hand, there were certain difficulties that arose. What about the slave who served his master as a servant or laborer, and helped him drive back the Northern armies? And, especially, what about the slave who ran away and took refuge in the Northern armies? The single slave might be returned; but then the slaves poured by the thousands into the Northern armies. Butler was right in considering them "contraband of war," that is, property owned by the enemy which the Union Army should at least sequester, if not use themselves.

The enthusiasm of the North for the war was not to be counted on. After all, what was the North fighting for? Certainly not to free Negroes, also, not to subdue the South. The Northern laborer, especially the foreign-born; the civil servant; farmer and small merchant, had no taste for going South for murder and destruction. The well-to-do bought their way out of the draft, which did not endear them to the laborers nor increase their general popularity. As the draft began to pinch the poor, they turned on the Negroes, who were not drafted, and who were willing to take the jobs of those whites who were. They hanged Negroes to lampposts in New York, and mobbed them in Cincinnati, and declared that they were not going to fight for "niggers."

This was a serious matter, especially, as many of the Negroes were willing to fight for themselves. Their leaders were begging to bear arms, but the government was adamant: no Negro soldiers. Moreover, Lincoln laughed. "If we put arms into their hands," he said, "next day they would be in the hands of our enemies. " Then, again, things happened whether we would or no. Down in South Carolina, for instance, we had driven a wedge into the Southern armies. We needed soldiers to guard our gains, but the War Department had no soldiers to spare. The draft was failing. So General Hunter put guns in the hands of freed slaves, drilled them in their use, and told them to shoot intruders. Congress boiled with rage. But Hunter answered: "What else could I do?" "1 am not arming slaves, but, since there are no white troops, I have put guns in the hands of free Blacks to guard what we have gained." Congress burst into laughter, and the first colored regiment was sworn into the army. That was but a beginning. Systematically, wherever the Northern armies appeared, the slaves stopped work and joined them. The generals pretended to be greatly annoyed. Here were thousands of mouths to feed, space had to be provided, and sickness cared for. They usually forgot to mention that cooking, cleaning, hard labor, and menial service were being furnished free, and in abundance, without search or wage, to armies invading a strange and hostile land. More than this, every inch of the land, every tree and river, every person and town, was known intimately to this writhing mass of people who did this work willingly, because they thought it was their own salvation. What would Alexander and Caesar have said; what would Frederick the Great and Napoleon have done, if God had sent them a gift like this?

The Federal government, for the most part, laughed, jeered and complained. They told funny stories about the "darkeys" as they ate their biscuit and sent them on as spies. Then, too, the South was having difficulties. There was no "solid South." The South was a small group of rich and near rich slave owners and landowners. The majority of poor whites had nothing, neither land or employment, and were now asked to fight for slavery, when they hated the slaves, who got the work and food that belonged to them. Also, they hated the masters who got everything; and they began to desert from the Southern armies. Then, too, the plight of the elegant slave owner before the world was not happy. England, after fostering the slave trade for a century, found it wise and more profitable to free the seized African and stop the African slave trade to America. France had carried on a revolution for freedom, equality and brotherhood, but did not propose to include among her brothers the Black slaves of Haiti. So the slaves killed the French and ran them off the island. Now, Britain and France needed the cotton raised in the southern United States. The South tried to appease them. It promised not to revive the slave trade, at least, not at once. But Frederick Douglass, talking in England and Ireland, told the factory workers how the Black slaves were suffering, and the British workers refused to recognize the slave South.

On the other hand, the northern United States, refusing still to fight for abolition, nevertheless, began to use Negroes as troops and workers and spies, and explained that they were working for the "Union," and by Union they meant control of slavery's cotton crop and its sale to France and Britain at the highest possible price. otherwise, the South, itself, would sell the crop abroad, and the Northern factories would close. Here a curious contradiction was seen as the war went on. The Northern armies cut the South in two, but they did it only by using the teeming Negro slaves of the Mississippi Valley. They marched from Atlanta to the sea, but only with the help of the Black throngs of Georgia who cleared the path and stole the food for them. The grateful Northern armies, when they reached the sea, gave the Negroes land, but the Federal government, when it later gained full control, took this land away and gave it back to its former slave-holding owners. The Negroes sang in the sea-swept darkness, "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen." General Howard wept.

The war reeled on. Black men were used as shock troops and slaughtered by the thousands to make way for victorious white feet. In the end, 300,000 Negroes were used as servants, stevedores and spies. There were 200,000 armed Negro troops, and in the background, peering from the sidelines, were three million more Negroes, ready to fight for freedom. No wonder freedom came. The Southern leaders were frightened. If Black soldiers continued to be drafted and fought as they had fought at Fort Wagner, Port Hudson and Petersburg, then the North with its supplies, and ships, and the hesitation of Europe, would beat the South to its knees. The South tried every expedient, even seeking to enlist the slaves on their side; and, failing, surrendered.

Meantime, the North had had a vision, not the whole North, but the North of thinkers, dreamers, abolitionists and free Negroes. Uncle Tom's Cabin had done its work. "John Brown's Body" was a-moldering in the grave, and the eyes of poets had seen the "Coming of the Lord." At last, then, there was a reason for this senseless war, and that was the freeing of the slaves. Lincoln came to a decision. He would try to make the border states agree to a gradual emancipation; and he would challenge the recalcitrant South with immediate freedom of the labor which was supporting it.

It was a wise brave word which Karl Marx and his First International Workingmans Association sent Lincoln in 1864:

"When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe for the first time in the annals of the world 'Slavery' on the banner of armed revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first declaration of the rights of man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European Revolution of the eighteenth century, when on those very spots counter-revolution, with systematic thoroughness, gloried in rescinding 'the ideas entertained at the time of the formation of the old Constitution' and maintained 'slavery to be a beneficial institution,' indeed, the only solution of the great problem of the 'relation of capital to labor,' and cynically proclaimed property in man 'the cornerstone of the new edifice' — then the working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes, for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warnings, that the slaveholders' rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy war of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic... They consider it an earnest sign of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggles for the rescue of the enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world."

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 sounded like more than it was. Negroes were not "henceforward and forever free." But Emancipation certainly began. The abolitionists gave up. Since the Negro was free what more was there to be done? The Liberator stopped publication. Lincoln saw a way out. He proposed a further step toward complete emancipation by enfranchising the elite of the Negro mass; the rich, the educated, the soldiers; small in number, but encouraging in prospect. The South bluntly refused.

Then, after Lincoln's death, came a poor white from Tennessee, who, after being cajoled by the former masters, agreed to hurry them back in the saddle with full control over their former slaves. A series of Black Codes were adopted which made the nation gasp. Stevens and Sumner came forth with plans which made sense, but they could not command a majority in Congress. Stevens said: give the Negro a Freedman's Bureau, give each slave 40 acres and a mule, and give them special legal protection. Sumner said and reiterated: give them the vote, nothing else is democracy; the Negro must have the vote.

Meantime, the mass of Northerners were neither in favor of freedom for Negroes nor votes for freedmen, and least of all, for any distribution of capital among them. What the conventional North saw, and the farmers and the factory builders, was the South walking back into Congress, threatening to lower the tariff, to attack the monopoly of gold, and to bring down prices. On top of this, they saw the spawn of war, thieves and grafters, like Tweed, start on a rampage of public theft. Industry and reform got together, and the conquered slave aristocracy got their ear. They made many of them believe that the theft and graft which was sweeping the North, was also rampant in the South because of the emancipated slaves. This was untrue, and everybody who really studied the situation knew it was untrue. Schurz and Trowbridge and others who looked at the South saw the truth. It was the educated free Negro of the North, working hand and glove with the freed Negro leader of the South, who, together, tried desperately to rescue the South from the accumulated disasters of war. The Negroes wanted free popular education. It was their talisman, their star of hope. Probably never in the world have so many oppressed people tried in every possible way to educate themselves.

The best conscience of the North rose to help them. The 8th Crusade of School Marms sent an endless column of teachers into the South. The white South reviled them, and spit upon them. When it could it drove them out and killed them. But they, the Negro politicians and the Negro masses, established the first system of free, popular education which the South ever saw, and they welcomed to the door of the school room, white and Black, men, women, and children, rich and poor. Beyond that, they took over the social uplift which the South had left to the slave plantations and the whim of the slave barons. They established a system of hospitals which still exists. They built decent jails, poorhouses. They began to build orphanages and insane asylums. But the landholders refused to pay the increased taxation and felt justified in stealing and cheating governments carried on by the help of their former slaves. To these were added "carpet-baggers" who were lured South by the high price of cotton and cheap labor. The thieves and grafters came, and the white South pretended to see no difference between the uplifter and robber; but they quickly made friends with the railroad manipulators and "financiers" and the white carpet-baggers, shook hands with the Negro leaders; and, in the end, when land had been stolen and debts piled up for railroads, Negroes were blamed for the financial disaster that fell on the nation in 1873; and freedmen suffered for all the disaster that followed in the South.

The few Negro leaders did, for the most part, a splendid job. Even the slave South praised men like Cardoza of South Carolina, Dunn of Louisiana, Lynch of Mississippi and Gibbs of Florida. These men led reform in South Carolina. They led reform in Louisiana. They fought graft it Florida and Alabama. But, instead of getting the sympathy and cooperation of the Northern leaders of reform, they got obloquy and contempt or concerted oblivion; while Northern industry and religion and the Southern aristocracy blamed every misfortune which came from the attempt to abolish slavery in the United States upon the slaves who were freed.

It was a contemptible transaction. Because, after all, it was the Negro, and the Negro alone, who restored the Union after the violence of 1861 to 1864. Indeed, who else but the Negro could have restored the Union? The mass of the Southern white population was too poor and ignorant to be of use, and they had no leaders. Their leaders had become slave owners and their ambition was to destroy the Negro whom they hated and feared. On the other hand, the Negroes had leaders. The best of the house servants, the educated free Negro from the North, and the white Northern teachers and missionaries. The enfranchisement, then, of the Negroes, was not an act of grace on the part of the North; it was the only thing they could do. If the Southern freedmen, with their leadership, could carry on the functions of the state, they could, if protected by military force and legal guardianship, restore the Southern states to their seats in Congress on such conditions as the victors laid down. This was done; and, instead of the anarchy and failure which the white South expected and the North was prepared to see, the South staggered to its feet; and what the leaders of the whites feared, was not the failure of these freedmen's governments, but their increasing success. They, therefore, offered the North, and especially its business leaders, a compromise. They would accept tariffs on imports, which soon reached the highest in the nation's history; they would let the national war debt be paid in monopolized gold; they would drop the demand for payment of the Southern war debt and for emancipated slaves. One thing they insisted on was the complete control of labor and the disfranchisement of the freedmen, and that they easily got from a complacent North, now on the way to immense wealth and power. Calmly, the North withdrew military protection, winked at the mob violence of the Ku Klux Klan, and promised to let the freedmen be disfranchised with only token opposition. They even gave up control and oversight of Southern voting for federal officials. This will destroy democracy, said some. Others answered: democracy is already dead.

Lynching and mob law now swept the South, and, of course, could not be allowed to continue. By 1880 the leaders of the nation began to look about to see how far they could get the Negroes themselves to assent to a caste condition in the United States based on color and race. They found, at last, such a leader in Booker Washington. Not that Washington believed in caste, not that Washington wanted anything less than other Negro leaders; but that he assented to compromise because he saw no other way. He was willing to let the whites believe that Negroes did not want social equality or the right to vote or education for the higher professions, but ask only for whatever the whites offered, and would be patient and quiet under a caste system. Industry poured millions into their propaganda; and, as a result came disfranchisement and color caste. There followed the Niagara Movement of Negroes in 1905 and the establishment of the NAACP in 1910. The Southern states and some of the Northern states passed laws forbidding intermarriage, limiting employment, establishing ghettos, discriminating in transportation, and taking away the vote of most of the Negroes in the United States. It was an impossible condition to which no people, if they were really human, would consent. The NAACP was established by radical whites, reinforced by an increasing number-of thinking Negroes, and it finally made a frontal attack upon lynching and mob law which brought the nation to its feet.

After all, a civilized nation could not continue publicly to murder one Negro each week without giving him a trial. It looked as if the chief industry of white women in the South was that of being raped by burly Negroes. The white women, themselves, at last, protested, and an anti-lynching law was nearly forced through Congress, but finally failed.

Then the front of attack changed. Trusts appeared and organized wealth disguised in corporations began to take over control of the nation. They seized the West Indies, Central and South America. They consorted with imperial Europe. When imperial colonialism drove Europe to war, the United States found it could make money by following. The First World War came and posed the fundamental question of Negro citizenship. The Supreme Court, after years of hesitation, sustained it. But the Negro was allowed to go into war as a stevedore, rather than as a soldier, and was treated with every indignity. After this war came wild speculation and severe depression; Franklin Roosevelt, with Harry Hopkins, began to socialize the nation, in order to beat back the power of the trusts and industrial monopolies. They did not wholly succeed; but they began just as the unexpected Second World War burst on civilization.

In this Second World War the Negro was registered in the ranks of' the Army and the Navy and in the Air Corps, and their success only made clearer their caste condition in the nation. This, in the succeeding cold war, became so threatening a phenomenon that the Supreme Court in 1954 declared race discrimination, especially in , schools, unconstitutional. The former slave South was furious, but was soon appeased by the assurance that the decree would not be enforced. The South could use "deliberate speed" which meant do little or nothing. That, again, aroused the Negroes. It led to bus strikes like that in Montgomery, and to, student sit-ins, where the Negroes began to assert rights which had never been taken from them by law, but only yielded to in custom. This still goes on.

The world regards us with amazement: we are leading the "Free World." We champion "Democracy" and for this we stage Little Rock, drive Negroes from the polls, chase Black students with bloodhounds and throttle free speech. On top of this Africa arises and our FBI trains a "Peace Corps" to guide it.

Copyright © W.E.B. Du Bois, 1961.

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