The New Emancipation
RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE NEGRO
By MRS. RUBY B. STUTTS LYELLS, Alcorn A. & M. College, Alcorn, Miss.
Delivered at Emancipation Day Exercises, Vicksburg, Miss., January 3, 1944
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 349-352.
MR. CHAIRMAN, Ladies and Gentlemen: I want to thank the Executive Committee of the Jackson Street Y.M.C.A. for the invitation to speak to you upon this eighty-first anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
A few years ago when I first served on the Faculty of the Institute for Town and Rural Pastors at Alcorn A & M College, an old man, who would be called ignorant by this literate but not necessarily educated generation, said to me at the end of the final session* "Mrs. Lyells, We enjoy your talks. You give us a new way of thinking." I have never received a higher compliment in my life. If I can say something tonight which will influence just one person's thinking to the end of better behavior, I shall be amply rewarded for my effort.
I am not a preacher. I have never aspired to the ministry. I have even dared my husband to preach. So I must apologize to the ministers present for using a scriptural background for my speech. But I could not think of a more appropriate starting point than the following from the Revelations: "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away: . . . for the former things are passed away: . . . He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. . ."
Roi Ottley, a Negro author, expressed the sentiment of this scripture in the naming of his new book "New World A-Comin." Tonight I shall attempt to express the same sentiment. I shall depart somewhat from the traditional Emancipation Day speech, which would be content to catalog the many achievements of the Negro since Emancipation. The label for what I shall talk about is "The New Emancipation."
Far be it from me to disparage the practice of coming together once a year to enumerate our gains. The practice has decided value. For when we study our past and con-
template our heroes, we increase our pride; we fortify ourselves against the tendency to apologize for our racial identity. By frequently reviewing our history we come to know the heart and spirit of our race; we get a sense of our heritage; we get perspective and inspiration.
So important does W. E. B. DuBois consider a knowledge of our past in helping us to achieve status in the world that he has dedicated the rest of his life to the unearthing and making available facts which are otherwise unaccessible to us. I strongly urge you to learn the facts of our history in Africa and America. Learn them from DuBois, from the! Negro Yearbook, form the Journal of Negro History, from the statistics of the United States, and other books and periodicals by and about Negroes. I challenge you to read, to read widely and earnestly, to read with discernment and understanding that you may extend your roots into the continuing experience of our race—experiences which are not very different in their broad outline from the experiences of the human race.
Eighty-one years ago the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. While the Negro did much to bring about his own freedom, the very nature of the circumstances limited his contribution. A man in chains can do little to extricate himself!
Another peculiarity of the Emancipation of 1863 is that it reacted in unexpected ways. It was intended to give freedom to one race but it was destined to make slaves of two races. The Negro and Whites became forthwith victims of hatreds and prejudices which have crystallized into customs that make a mockery of our efforts on the battlefronts of the world; out of which have grown practices which paralleled many of the brutalities and inhumane tactics of Hitler and his Fascist legions; from which have developed more hatreds and suspicions, a mutual lack of respect, dimmed visions, and an anti-democratic mentality which, if permitted to go unchallenged will go on holding back the progressive development of both races in the South and the United States among the Nations of the world. For as long as these conditions exist they form a potential volcano from which may emit disruptive forces to destroy the very vitals of our national unity.
The first emancipation had a two-fold purpose. The imperishable document was issued as a war measure. Its immediate purpose was to strike a blow at enemies of the Federal Union; but it also gave temporary freedom to the slaves within the boundaries of states and parts of states which were in rebellion against the United States. Being a war measure, the Proclamation had to be supplemented by the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution before it had any real meaning for Negroes in the United States.
This analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation is not to depredate it; rather it is to discover its strengths and weaknesses in order that they may guide us in building the future, in our efforts to bring about a new and more comprehensive emancipation.
There is irrefutable evidence that the Negro has not been freed, that the Whites have been made slaves. It is but common knowledge that the Negro enjoys only second-class citizenship in America. It is a sad commentary on American democracy that Nazism was practiced here before Hitler was bom. We see the Nazi philosophy in many of the actions of our local, state, and National governments, in the Army and Navy, and in the "jim-crow" of Negro blood by the American Red Cross. Our men in certain Army Camps, our workers in certain industries, and other civilians "undergo humiliating experiences and mistreatment in the areas of education, travel, making a living, and fighting for our country. It is no compliment to our civilization nor our religion that a Negro draftee in the year of our Lord 1943; in this "the land of the free and the home of the brave" could pray:
Dear Lord, today
I go to war:
To fight, to die
Tell me what for?
Dear Lord, I'll fight
I do not fear
Germans, or Japs;
My fears are here
"Land of the Free."
This is the place
That troubles me.
So while I fight
Wrong over there,
See that my folks
Are treated fair.
The Emancipation has fallen short of its potentialities when most of the Negroes who leave the lower South are ashamed to own their home state; or own it apologetically— wearing it as a stigma because the disadvantages of poor schools, bad housing, improper nutrition, unfair work opportunities, humiliating travel conditions, etc. which are bound to follow them all the days of their life are known far and wide.
It hurts 1 Thoughts of it sometimes bring tears. But there is a "New world a-comin." There will be a new emancipation! What are the signs?
First, there is an identity between our reactions and those of others who want freedom. We share their emerging optimism caused by the turn of things on the war fronts in favor of the United Nations. We share the hopes of the common man everywhere that the Four Freedoms will be established. We share other liberty-loving people's fear and distrust of Nazism, even when it marches under the banner of a colored people. We want "to see real democracy established in this country, for we believe that in a government of this type, a minority group has its greatest opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Secondly, there has been some improvement in the economic and spiritual position of the Negro. The Navy and the Marine Corps have let down the bars to enlist a small number of Negroes for duties heretofore closed to them. The Maritime Commission, in putting a Negro captain in charge of the new ship, Booker T. Washington, with a mixed crew, has nullified the contention that mixed crews on American ships are impractical. In the Army three complete Negro divisions have been activated. In addition "many thousands of Negroes are serving in various branches of the United States Army, in engineering regiments, in air force units, in quarter master detachments, in medical and hospital corps, and so forth." In industry some civilian officials have taken an admirable stand in favor of the full employment of Negroes. In many areas Negroes and Whites are working side by side.
Thirdly, activity in the area of race relations mirror the new emancipation. In 1942 a group of Southern Negroes met in Durham, N. C. and drafted a statement of the aims and desires of Negroes. A few months later a group of j Southern Whites met in Atlanta and accepted the challenge to cooperate in the achievement of the goals set forth at the Durham Conference. Both the Durham and Atlanta statements are epochal and potentially significant in the march of events.
Just last month 317 educational, religious, and labor leaders from thirty-seven states issued an appeal "to the people of this country to end discrimination against Negroes in all spheres of life." New ground is being broken in other ways and in other areas, including Vicksburg and Warren County, Mississippi, which have moved to improve conditions for the Negro and to create a situation in which the two races may come to know each other to the end of elimi-
nating fear and hatred in which flourishes such vicious rumors as that of Eleanor Clubs for workers in domestic service, and the downright mean practice of compelling Negroes to wait at bus stations for hours until all white passengers have been accommodated.
Vicksburgers, Mississippians, and intelligent people everywhere know that these conditions tend to divide us and lower morale, thus making us more vulnerable to our common enemies. Intelligent people know that to win this war, even in a military sense, white people and Negroes, in the words of Mary McLeod Bethune, must "get together, fight together, and win together." And if the peace is to be more than just a brief armistice, we must heed the advice of Benjamin Franklin at the time of the American Revolution—"We must all hang together, else we shall all hang separately."
What, specifically, do we hope of white folks in the interest of the new emancipation? Simply that they will practice the religion which they profess. We could not expect more, we do not hope for less. It is our hope that they will become regenerated within; that they will become emancipated from certain habits of thinking and patterns of behavior; that they will change their outlook, so as to realize that the Negro is not the white man's competitor for power; that gains for the Negro do not mean loss for the white man; that unchristian acts towards the Negro blind the white man to the deeper significance of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man; that this, in the words of Herbert Agar, is a time for greatness, a time for moral rearmament, a time to realize with Carey McWilliams that, after all, we are brothers under the skin. In the practice of his religion, the core of which is to "do unto others as I would that they should do unto me," white people can eliminate the inconsistency between American ideals and practices.
What, specifically, are some of the Negro's responsibilities in the New Emancipation? The Negro's task is larger now than it was in 1863.
First, the Negro must not become too optimistic; he must not be overwhelmed by the evidences of change which appear on the horizon. There is no short road to democracy. Eternal vigilance is the price to pay for an increasingly larger share of freedom's blessings. To expect a quick and easy emancipation is following an illusion and can only result in bitterness and cynicism.
To state the warning positively, the Negro must have patience. I am not unaware of the distasteful reactions which are generated when Negroes are advised to be patient. I resent it, too, when it comes from one whose motive is to perpetuate his own advantageous position at the expense of the Negro. On the other hand, we must not become blind to the truth. "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." Patience is a lot to ask. But patience is essential to basic and permanent change. "Basic changes can only be made as we change American ideology on race and the problems of race." And that introduces the second responsibility of the Negro.
We must re-educate the white people. There has recently been organized the Association for Tolerance in America which has for its purpose the propagandizing of the common white man in an attempt to change his pattern of thinking on race. Fortunately, in this task, we have the support of science and history.
Science has undermined the myth of a superior race and as more people acquire a higher education there are diminishing numbers to subscribe to a philosophy which is not intellectually respectable. History also favors our efforts—for this country has already fought three great wars for the ideals of equality, and liberty and justice. Gunar Myrdal (who has conducted a two-year study of the Negro in the United States for the Carnegie Corporation) states the present situation succinctly when he says the following about this fourth struggle for freedom: "This war is crucial for the future of the Negro and the Negro problem is crucial in the war. . . . America, for its international prestige, power, and future security, needs to demonstrate to the world that American Negroes can be satisfactorily integrated into its democracy."
In this job of re-educating white people, we can all make a contribution. You and I, the ordinary folk, the man on the street, as it were, can do more than the big-wigs. In words of one syllable, we can watch our step. We must, by our daily conduct, disprove the traditional concepts of the Negro as happy-go-lucky, irresponsible, boisterous, and uncouth. If we have jobs we must perform them so well that the boss will hesitate to fire us even for a white man. If we do not have a job, then get one. Work goes a long way towards making one feel and act grown-up. It gives one a sense of pride which lifts him above the street corner loafers. It also increases ones status with other people. Jobs are plentiful now. If yours isn't the job you want, keep it until you can find a better one. But by all means work and save for the rainy day which is sure to come.
The average Negro needs to pay attention to his dress, his manners, and his speech. I have no objection to clean fun and wholesome amusement, but there is such a thing as appropriate time and place for jitterbugging. Vulgar speech betrays a vulgar character. Loudness in dress and speech does not commend one, rather it makes one contemptible in a refined society. Our boys are proving on the war fronts that we deserve equality. We, on the homefront, must in all things prove ourselves good Americans and desirable citizens. Then other good Americans cannot long maintain the silly barriers which crush men and mock democracy.
Thirdly, we must not lose our sense of humor. Some of the incidents of jim crowism try our souls but we must not let them make us cruel and bitter. For we are obligated to practice the same religion which we exact of white people. The Negro's ability to laugh at other people and himself, and to see the humor in grave situations has served him well over the years. We must continue to say with Langston "jes' laugh."
Hughes "White People do the Funniest Things" and "I Fourthly, the Negro must broaden the base of his thinking. He must see himself, first, as a man, with "the same basic needs, problems, and potentialities as other men, and being involved with them in the same network of worldwide social relationships. . . . Only secondarily do Negroes have special problems and special expectations as Negroes."
Finally, the Negro must maintain his faith in God. It has been alleged that the Negro's religion has made him submissive and unaggressive. We shall not argue that point. The Negro's religion has helped him to survive. It has given him hope and perspective without which life would have become unbearable. It was our slave grand-parents' belief in God and the ultimate triumph of right which enabled them to endure slavery, hoping not so much for a miracle in their own freedom, but for the progressive development of events which would result in the freedom of their progeny. They hoped for a change and had the courage to endure until it came. When a man loses hope he may commit suicide. A race without hope may resort to suicidal practices. While the Negro works "for complete integration into the processes of democracy," he must hold to God's unchanging hand-mat is, to fundamental principles and ultimate objectives. Otherwise he will become fanatical over immediate gains or temporary reverses.
The new emancipation will not be written by a singlestroke of the pen; it will be more than a military measure; it will not be complete any one time or in any one place; it will always be characterized by gains and set-backs; each generation will face new problems and must fight to regain lost ground. The new emancipation will free whites and blacks simultaneously—whites from racial bigotry, intolerance, prejudice; and blacks from the evils which result therefrom.
Lord, God of hosts, be with us yet; lest we forget, lest we forget. Lest we forget that Thou art our Father and we, white and black, are brothers under the skin; lest we forget that this is a time for greatness; a time for new ways of thinking about things; a time to surpass ourselves in bearing our share of the responsibility in bringing about the new heaven and the new earth. God, we pray for thy guidance lest we get lost in the wilderness; for sometimes we are tossed and driven; sometimes we know not where to roam. We've heard of a city called heaven—a world where races and nations can live together, a world where a man will be a man because he is a man and not because he is a member of any particular racial, religious, or economic group; a world wherein the Four Freedoms can function. Help us, O God, to bring these things to pass. Help us to escape the reactionary forces which seem now to be developing to delay the new emancipation.
With Thee, God, all things are possible. Amen!