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Equality Of Rights For All Citizens Black And White Alike


I Cor. 16:13. "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith,
quit you like men, be strong."

[Note 40: A discourse delivered in the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian
Church, Washington, D. C., Sunday, March 7, 1909.]

It has been my custom for many years to speak during the inaugural week
on some phase of the race question. I have done it because usually at
such times there are representatives of our race here from all parts of
the country, and an opportunity is thus afforded of reaching a larger
number than would be possible at any other time. Such occasions, it
seems to me, should be utilized in the interest of the race, in the
discussion of matters pertaining to the race. The inauguration of a
President is an event in which the whole nation is interested, and which
emphasizes the fact of citizenship, as perhaps nothing else does, coming
as it does after the election, and growing out of it. On such occasions
it is well for us, therefore, especially at this juncture of our
history, not to be unmindful of our own citizenship, of our own status
in the body politic.

We have just been celebrating, all over the country, the centennial of
the birth of Abraham Lincoln, our great war President, and this
inauguration coming so soon after, makes it especially a good time to
talk about some of the questions which grew out of the war, and which
were settled by it. And this is what I want to do this morning.

Over forty years ago the great struggle ended, the "irrepressible
conflict" came to a close. It marked an epoch in the history of our
country, and in the history of the black race in this country. Certain
great questions, which had agitated the country for years, were settled,
and settled for all time.

* * * * *

It is now no longer a question as to whether we are a nation, or a
confederation of sovereign and independent States. That question is
settled, and settled once for all by the issue of the War. It is not
likely that any Southern State will ever again attempt to withdraw from
the Union, or to act on the assumption that it has the right to do so.
Even if it is foolish enough to entertain such a view, it will be sure
never again to act upon it. The issue of the War has removed forever
from the field of serious discussion this question of the right of a
State to secede. The ghost of secession will never again arise to
disturb the peace of the Union. The Stars and Stripes, the old flag,
will float, as long as it floats, over all these States, from the
Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Lakes to the Gulf. If the time ever
comes when we shall go to pieces, it will not be from any desire or
disposition on the part of the States to pull apart, but from inward
corruption, from the disregard of right principles, from the spirit of
greed, from the narrowing lust of gold, from losing sight of the fact
that "righteousness exalteth a nation, but that sin is a reproach to
any people." It is here where our real danger lies--not in the secession
of States from the Union, but in the secession of the Union itself from
the great and immutable principles of right, of justice, of fair play
for all regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The fact that the Union has been saved, that these rebellious States
have been brought back into it, will amount to nothing unless it can be
saved from this still greater peril that threatens it. The secession of
the Southern States in 1860 was a small matter compared with the
secession of the Union itself from the great principles enunciated in
the Declaration of Independence, in the Golden Rule, in the Ten
Commandments, in the Sermon on the Mount. Unless we hold, and hold
firmly to these great fundamental principles of righteousness, of
social, political, and economic wisdom, our Union, as Mr. Garrison
expressed it, will be "only a covenant with death and an agreement with
hell." If it continues to exist it will be a curse, and not a blessing.

Our brave boys in blue, whose bodies lie moldering in the grave, but
whose souls are marching on, settled the question of the Union of the
States. It is for the patriotic men who are living to-day, and those who
are to follow in their footsteps, to deal with this larger and more
important question. It isn't enough that these States are held together,
they must be held together on right principles--principles of justice,
of equity, of fair play, of equality before the law for all alike.
Whether there is patriotism, political wisdom, moral insight and stamina
enough to lead men to forget their differences on minor matters and to
unite their forces for the attainment of this greater and more important
end, remains to be seen. There are so many who are controlled by their
petty prejudices, whose views are so narrow and contracted, that they
seem incapable of appreciating the things of prime importance, the
things that are fundamental in the life of the nation, and upon which
its future peace and prosperity depend. The fear of rebellion is forever
gone. It is not so, however, with regard to the danger of which I am
speaking--the danger of the nation divorcing itself from sound political
and moral principles.

* * * * *

In the scheme of citizenship of our country for years following the
close of the war the Negro had no part; and he had no part because he
was looked upon as an inferior. "Subordination to the superior race is
declared to be his natural and moral condition." His inferiority was
asserted to be a "great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

And this is exactly the Southern view to-day; and is exactly the
programme to which it is committed. Its whole attitude to-day is in
harmony with the great principle upon which the Southern Confederacy was
founded--the non-recognition of the Negro as an equal in any
respect--socially, civilly, politically. The South holds to this view
just as tenaciously to-day as it did when Mr. Stephens made his Great
Cornerstone Speech in 1861. The Ku Klux Klan, the White Caps, the Red
Shirt Brigade, tissue ballots, the revised constitutions with their
grandfather clauses, Jim Crow Car legislation, the persistent effort of
the South to disfranchise the Negro--all these things have grown out of
the idea that the rightful place of the Negro is that of subordination
to the white man, that he has no rightful place in the body politic.

* * * * *

But I cannot believe that the nation is always going to leave its loyal
black citizens to be despoiled of their civil and political rights by
the men who sought to destroy the Union. A better day is coming, and
coming soon, I trust.

While we are waiting, however, for the nation to come to its
senses--waiting for a revival of the spirit of justice and of true
democracy in the land--it is important for us to remember that much,
very much, will depend upon ourselves. In the passage of Scripture read
in our hearing at the beginning of this discourse, three things we are
exhorted to do, and must do, if we are ever to secure our rights in this
land: We are exhorted to be watchful. "Watch ye," is the exhortation. We
are to be on our guard. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
There are enemies ever about us and are ever plotting our ruin--enemies
within the race and without it. We have got to live in the consciousness
of this fact. If we assume that all is well, that there is nothing to
fear, and so relax our vigilance, so cease to be watchful, we need not
be surprised if our enemies get the better of us, if we are worsted in
the conflict.

(2) We are exhorted to stand fast in the faith. In the faith we feel
that, as American citizens, we are entitled to the same rights and
privileges as other citizens of the Republic. In this faith we are to
stand, and stand fast. We are not to give it up; we are not to allow
anyone, white or black, friend or foe, to induce us to retreat a single
inch from this position.

(3) We are exhorted to quit ourselves like men, to be strong. And by
this, I understand, is meant that we are to stand up in a manly way for
our rights; that we are to seek by every honorable means the full
enjoyment of our rights. It is still true--

"Who would be free himself must strike the blow."

And, if we are ever to be free from invidious distinctions in this
country, based upon race, color, previous condition, we have got to be
alive, wide-awake to our own interest. If we are not, we have no right
to expect others to be; we have no right to expect anything but failure,
but defeat. And we deserve defeat if ours is the spirit of indifference,
of unconcern. We are not going to secure our rights in this land without
a struggle. We have got to contend, and contend earnestly, for what
belongs to us. Victory isn't coming in any other way. No silent
acquiescence on our part in the wrongs from which we are suffering,
contrary to law; no giving of ourselves merely to the work of improving
our condition, materially, intellectually morally, spiritually, however
zealously pursued, is going to bring relief. We have got, in addition to
the effort we are making to improve ourselves, to keep up the
agitation, and keep it up until right triumphs and wrong is put down. A
programme of silence on the part of the race is a fool's programme.
Reforms, changes in public sentiment, the righting of wrongs, are never
effected in that way; and our wrongs will never be. A race that sits
quietly down and rests in sweet content in the midst of the wrongs from
which it is suffering is not worth contending for, is not worth saving.

This is not true of this race, however. We are not sitting down in sweet
content, let it be said to our credit. I thank God from the bottom of my
heart for these mutterings of discontent that are heard in all parts of
the land. The fact that we are dissatisfied with present conditions, and
that we are becoming more and more so, shows that we are growing in
manhood, in self-respect, in the qualities that will enable us to win
out in the end. It is our duty to keep up the agitation for our rights,
not only for our sakes, but also for the sake of the nation at large. It
would not only be against our own interest not to do so, but it would be
unpatriotic for us quietly to acquiesce in the present condition of
things, for it is a wrong condition of things. If justice sleeps in this
land, let it not be because we have helped to lull it to sleep by our
silence, our indifference; let it not be from lack of effort on our part
to arouse it from its slumbers. Elijah said to the prophets of Baal,
while they were crying to their god, "Peradventure he sleepeth." And it
may be that he was asleep; but it was not their fault that he continued
asleep, for they kept up a continual uproar about his altar. And so
here, sleeping Justice in this land may go on slumbering, but let us see
to it that it is due to no fault of ours. Even Baalam's ass cried out in
protest when smitten by his brutal master, and God gave him the power to
cry out, endowed him miraculously with speech in which to voice his

It is not necessary for God to work a miracle to enable us to protest
against our wrong; He has already given us the power. Let us see to it
that we use it. If we are wise we will be able to take care of
ourselves. If we are not wise, however, if we adopt the policy of
silence, and if we continue to feel that it is our duty to follow
blindly, slavishly, any one political party, we will receive only such
treatment as is accorded to slaves, and will go on pleading for our
rights in vain. The only wise course for us to pursue is to keep on
agitating, and to cast our votes where they will tell most for the race.
As to what party we affiliate with is a matter of no importance
whatever; the important thing is our rights. And until we recognize that
fact, and act upon it, we will be the football of all political parties.
John Boyle O'Reilly, in speaking on the race question years ago, said:
"If I were a colored man I should use parties as I would a club--to
break down prejudice against my people. I shouldn't talk about being
true to any party, except so far as that party was true to me. Parties
care nothing for you, only to use you. You should use parties; the
highest party you have in this country is your own manhood. That is the
thing in danger from all parties; that is the thing that every colored
man is bound in duty to himself and his children to defend and protect."
And that is good advice. It embodies the highest political wisdom for us
as a people.

The exhortation of the text is, "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit
you like men, be strong." And this is the message that I bring to you,
who are here this morning, and to the members of our race all over the
country. We must be watchful; we must hold firmly to our faith in our
citizenship, and in our rights as citizens; and we must act the part of
men in the maintenance of those rights. In the end the victory is sure
to be ours. The right is bound, sooner or later, to triumph.

"Before the monstrous wrong he sits him down--
One man against a stone-walled city of sin.
For centuries those walls have been a-building;
Smooth porphyry, they slope and coldly glass
The flying storm and wheeling sun.

"No chinks, no crevice, lets the thinnest arrow in.
He fights alone, and from the cloudy ramparts
A thousand evil faces gibe and jeer him.
Let him lie down and die; what is the right
And where is justice in a world like this?

"But by and by earth shakes herself, impatient;
And down, in one great roar of ruin, crash
Watch-tower and citadel and battlements.
When the red dust has cleared, the lonely soldier
Stands with strange thoughts beneath the friendly stars."

And so, in the end, will it be with this great evil of race prejudice
against which we are contending in this country, if, like the lonely
soldier, we show the same earnestness, the same patient determination,
the same invincible courage. A better day is coming; but we have got to
help to bring it about. It isn't coming independently of our efforts,
and it isn't coming by quietly, timidly, cowardly acquiescing in our

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