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Civil Rights And Social Equality


[Note 9: A speech delivered in the House of Representatives,
February 3, 1875.]

The House having under consideration the civil-rights bill, Mr. Lynch

Mr. Speaker:

I will now endeavor to answer the arguments of those who have been
contending that the passage of this bill is an effort to bring about
social equality between the races. That the passage of this bill can in
any manner affect the social status of any one seems to me to be absurd
and ridiculous. I have never believed for a moment that social equality
could be brought about even between persons of the same race. I have
always believed that social distinctions existed among white people the
same as among colored people. But those who contend that the passage of
this bill will have a tendency to bring about social equality between
the races virtually and substantially admit that there are no social
distinctions among white people whatever, but that all white persons,
regardless of their moral character, are the social equals of each
other; for if by conferring upon colored people the same rights and
privileges that are now exercised and enjoyed by whites indiscriminately
will result in bringing about social equality between the races, then
the same process of reasoning must necessarily bring us to the
conclusion that there are no social distinctions among whites, because
all white persons, regardless of their social standing, are permitted to
enjoy these rights. See then how unreasonable, unjust, and false is the
assertion that social equality is involved in this legislation. I cannot
believe that gentlemen on the other side of the House mean what they say
when they admit as they do that the immoral, the ignorant, and the
degraded of their own race are the social equals of themselves and their
families. If they do, then I can only assure them that they do not put
as high an estimate upon their own social standing as respectable and
intelligent colored people place upon theirs; for there are hundreds and
thousands of white people of both sexes whom I know to be the social
inferiors of respectable and intelligent colored people. I can then
assure that portion of my Democratic friends on the other side of the
House whom I regard as my social inferiors that if at any time I should
meet any one of you at a hotel and occupy a seat at the same table with
you, or the same seat in a car with you, do not think that I have
thereby accepted you as my social equal. Not at all. But if any one
should attempt to discriminate against you for no other reason than
because you are identified with a particular race or religious sect, I
would regard it as an outrage; as a violation of the principles of
republicanism; and I would be in favor of protecting you in the exercise
and enjoyment of your rights by suitable and appropriate legislation.

No, Mr. Speaker, it is not social rights that we desire. We have enough
of that already. What we ask is protection in the enjoyment of public
rights. Rights which are or should be accorded to every citizen alike.
Under our present system of race distinctions a white woman of a
questionable social standing, yea, I may say, of an admitted immoral
character, can go to any public place or upon any public conveyance and
be the recipient of the same treatment, the same courtesy, and the same
respect that is usually accorded to the most refined and virtuous; but
let an intelligent, modest, refined colored lady present herself and ask
that the same privileges be accorded to her that have just been accorded
to her social inferior of the white race, and in nine cases out of ten,
except in certain portions of the country, she will not only be refused,
but insulted for making the request.

Mr. Speaker, I ask the members of this House in all candor, is this
right? I appeal to your sensitive feelings as husbands, fathers, and
brothers, is this just? You who have affectionate companions, attractive
daughters, and loving sisters, is this just? If you have any of the
ingredients of manhood in your composition you will answer the question
most emphatically, No! What a sad commentary upon our system of
government, our religion, and our civilization! Think of it for a
moment; here am I, a member of your honorable body, representing one of
the largest and wealthiest districts in the State of Mississippi, and
possibly in the South; a district composed of persons of different
races, religions, and nationalities and yet, when I leave my home to
come to the capital of the nation, to take part in the deliberations of
the House and to participate with you in making laws for the government
of this great Republic, in coming through the God-forsaken States of
Kentucky and Tennessee, if I come by the way of Louisville or
Chattanooga, I am treated, not as an American citizen, but as a brute.
Forced to occupy a filthy smoking-car both night and day, with
drunkards, gamblers, and criminals; and for what? Not that I am unable
or unwilling to pay my way; not that I am obnoxious in my personal
appearance or disrespectful in my conduct; but simply because I happen
to be of a darker complexion. If this treatment was confined to persons
of our own sex we could possibly afford to endure it. But such is not
the case. Our wives and our daughters, our sisters and our mothers, are
subjected to the same insults and to the same uncivilized treatment. You
may ask why we do not institute civil suits in the State courts. What a
farce! Talk about instituting a civil-rights suit in the State courts of
Kentucky, for instance, where decision of the judge is virtually
rendered before he enters the court-house, and the verdict of the jury
substantially rendered before it is impaneled. The only moments of my
life when I am necessarily compelled to question my loyalty to my
Government or my devotion to the flag of my country is when I read of
outrages having been committed upon innocent colored people and the
perpetrators go unwhipped of justice, and when I leave my home to go

Mr. Speaker, if this unjust discrimination is to be longer tolerated by
the American people, which I do not, cannot, and will not believe until
I am forced to do so, then I can only say with sorrow and regret that
our boasted civilization is a fraud; our republican institutions a
failure; our social system a disgrace; and our religion a complete
hypocrisy. But I have an abiding confidence--(though I must confess that
that confidence was seriously shaken a little over two months ago)--but
still I have an abiding confidence in the patriotism of this people, in
their devotion to the cause of human rights, and in the stability of our
republican institutions. I hope that I will not be deceived. I love the
land that gave me birth; I love the Stars and Stripes. This country is
where I intend to live, where I expect to die. To preserve the honor of
the national flag and to maintain perpetually the Union of the States
hundreds, and I may say thousands, of noble, brave, and true-hearted
colored men have fought, bled, and died. And now, Mr. Speaker, I ask,
can it be possible that that flag under which they fought is to be a
shield and a protection to all races and classes of persons except the
colored race? God forbid!

* * * * *

In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, I say to the Republican members of the House
that the passage of this bill is expected of you. If any of our
Democratic friends will vote for it, we will be agreeably surprised. But
if Republicans should vote against it, we will be sorely disappointed;
it will be to us a source of deep mortification as well as profound
regret. We will feel as though we are deserted in the house of our

friends. But I have no fears whatever in this respect. You have stood by
the colored people of this country when it was more unpopular to do so
than it is to pass this bill. You have fulfilled every promise thus far,
and I have no reason to believe that you will not fulfill this one. Then
give us this bill. The white man's government Negro-hating democracy
will, in my judgment, soon pass out of existence. The progressive spirit
of the American people will not much longer tolerate the existence of an
organization that lives upon the passions and prejudices of the hour.

I appeal to all the members of the House--Republicans and Democrats,
conservatives and liberals--to join with us in the passage of this bill,
which has its object the protection of human rights. And when every man,
woman, and child can feel and know that his, her, and their rights are
fully protected by the strong arm of a generous and grateful Republic,
then we can all truthfully say that this beautiful land of ours, over
which the "Star-Spangled Banner" so triumphantly waves, is, in truth and
in fact, the "land of the free and the home of the brave."

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