It is rare that any writer or speaker when discussing any phase of the Southern question does so with entire absence of prejudice and passion, and applies a strictly judicial temperament in the stating of his views. In the case of not a few Northern writers, they are likely to condemn the South for acts of omission or commission. In the case of the Southern writers, they are likely to condemn both the North and the Negro for some real or supposed weakness. The average Negro who discusses the subject is rarely less passionate than the other two classes to which I have referred. The man, black or white, whose mind and heart are open to conviction on this subject, and who is seeking after truth, and is willing to follow where truth leads, I repeat, is rare.
For some time I have used methods by which I could see everything that is printed upon matters relating to the South and the Negro, and, notwithstanding the large bulk of such matter that comes to me almost daily, I find that I can dispose of it within a few minutes and get all the information that it contains. A glance at the name of the publication, or the title of the article, or the name of the writer, usually informs me pretty accurately as to the writer’s or speaker’s point of view. This is another way of stating that there has been so little calmness shown in the discussion of the questions growing out of the presence and the influence of my race in this country, that a large proportion of what is spoken and written is discounted by the average reader. It is refreshing, as well as encouraging, to find a writer who discusses the South and the race question with the temper of a judge and in the manner of a scholar, and especially is this true when the writer is Southern white man. In his book The Present South, Mr. Edgar Gardner Murphy makes statements and draws conclusions with which neither the Northern or Southern white man, nor the Negro will agree, but I believe all will respect his sincerity and fine temper. With much that he says, all whose opinions are worthy of respect will heartily agree. Nothing in the way of a “review” can do the book justice; it should be read if one would be informed and helped by it.
The country has been made familiar with the sincere and courageous words of the Bishop Haygood and of the late Dr. J. L. M. Curry. Now that these men have passed away, it is a great satisfaction to hear words equally as wise and strong from a younger set of Southern men of whom Mr. Murphy is a good type.
In the first chapter, Mr. Murphy brings to the attention of the reader a phase of the Southern question not often thought of, or, if thought of, very little discussed, — that is, the rapid growth of the South during the last few decades from aristocracy toward democracy. The point that will most interest the reader is the insistence upon the fact that the white South had to grow from an aristocracy into a democracy before it could be expected to include the Negro in any large measure in its new life. The fact that a large proportion of the white South had been left out of the real life of the South is shown by the fact that previous to the civil war, in North Carolina, for example, twenty-one per cent of the white voting population were illiterate and had very little part in government. As Mr. Murphy expresses it, “As a class the non-slaveholding white men had been outside the essential councils of the South.” The first task of the South, Mr. Murphy maintains, was to make the “non-participating” white man an active part of its new life—a real part—politically, educationally, industrially, and socially. Now that this result has been largely achieved by “the arrival of the common man,” Mr. Murphy holds out strong grounds for hope that the Negro will in the near future be incorporated into the democracy of the South by the volunteer efforts of the white South in a much larger degree than has been true in the past. This, he argues, can be done without social intercourse and without fusion of races. In proof of what he asserts, Mr. Murphy calls attention to the distance the South has already gone in the matter of incorporating the colored man into its new life politically and educationally; on this point I quote his own words: —
“Democracy does not involve the fusion of races any more than it involves the fusion of creeds or the fusion of arts. It does not imply that the finality of civilization is in the man who is white or in the man who is black, but in the man—white or black—who is a man. Manhood, in a democracy, is the essential basis of participation.
“We hear upon every hand that the South has refused its recognition to this principle. As a matter of fact, and under their amended constitutions, tens of thousands of black men are to-day registered voters in the Southern states, voters registered not against the consent of the South, but by the South’s free and deliberate will. In view of the brief period of time since the Negro’s emancipation, and in the light of the Negros political history, this voluntary registration of black men in the South, this partial but increasing acceptance by the South of the qualified Negro as a participant in the functions of government, is of far greater significance in the essential history of democracy than any temporary record of exclusion or injustice. The Negro common school—nearly one million six hundred thousand Negro children are enrolled in public schools supported by the Southern states—the Negro common school, with its industrial and political significance, is of greater import in the history of our institutions than any temporary or partial denial of political privilege.”
On the question of the education of the Negro Mr. Murphy speaks in no uncertain terms. He comes out emphatically in favor of the very best education in common schools, industrial schools, colleges, and professional schools. To those who claim that the education of the colored people has been in any degree a failure, Mr. Murphy says: “At least let us not condemn the policy of Negro education until we have established it, and until the Negro has tried it. One who will carefully and accurately investigate the real conditions of Negro life may well maintain that those among them who have really tried it, who really know something, and who can really do something, are, on the whole, a credit to themselves, the South, and their country.”
In this connection emphasis is laid upon the fact that one can hardly expect a whole race to be educated when the schools in the rural districts, where the majority of the colored people live, are in session, on an average, but for a period of three or four months annually. He tells the South and the country with rare pointedness and power that the danger of the South is not that the Negro will be spoiled as a “field hand” by education, but that the real danger consists in the fact that so few of the colored people are as yet fitted to be anything else than field hands.
On the subject of the cost of educating the Negro, Mr. Murphy calls attention to a phase of this subject seldom referred to by Northern or Southern writers, and that is the large indirect tax that the colored people pay toward their own education. I quote again a portion of his own strong words on this point: “Out of its poverty the South has given much. The Negro, too, has given directly or indirectly. As has already been suggested, the rents pay the taxes, and the Negro helps pay the rents.” Attention should be called to the further fact that in not a few countries and towns of the South, the liquor dispensary exists, and the profits from these dispensaries, which are often large, go into the school fund. The greater part of this money comes from the lower class of colored people. Again, in Alabama for example, last year the profits to the state from the work of the convicts was not far from $250,000. At least four fifths of the people who earned this money for the state were colored.
In my opinion it is in the sixth chapter of The Present South that Mr. Murphy shows his keenest insight into the life of the Negro, and speaks his strongest and bravest words. After speaking of the great advance that the race has made in its home life, Mr. Murphy adds a sentence which I will quote because it is one which I wish every white American might read. “But one of the tragic elements in the situation lies in the fact that of the most honorable and most hopeful aspect of Negro life the white community North or South knows practically nothing. Of the destructive factors in Negro life, the white community hears to the uttermost, hears through the press and police court; of the constructive factors of the Negro’s progress—the Negro school, the saner Negro church, the Negro home—the white community is in ignorance. Until it does know this aspect of our Negro problem it may know more or less accurately many things about the Negro, but it cannot know the Negro.”
On the subject of lynching, Mr. Murphy speaks with the same frankness, and makes the point with force that, instead of curing an evil, experience shows that lynchings breed crime and demoralize both the white and black races, and from no point of view can they ever be justified. He urges with equal earnestness that the leaders among the colored people see to it that crime is always condemned and that criminals are not shielded.
Speaking more broadly concerning the progress of the black race, the author of The Present South says: “So long as any element of the population is, as a class, in a position of marked economic dependence upon stronger factions or classes, it will certainly suffer—however unfortunately or unjustly—from the pressure of civil and political prejudice.” This is a fundamental truth which the friends of the Negro are beginning more and more to appreciate.
On the question of the political rights of the Negro, Mr. Murphy says that the present conditions prevailing under the amended constitutions, while not perfect, are to be preferred to the old system. At the same time he reasserts the principle that he ahs always held to, that whatever restrictions are placed upon the ballot should be made to apply with equal force and certainty to both races. He rightly contends that this policy is the only wise one, — that it is best for both races; and no patriot can fail to agree with his argument.
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