From "NEGRO SUFFRAGE IN A DEMOCRACY" by Ray Stannard Baker
Now, the essential principle established by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was not that all Negroes should necessarily be given an unrestricted access to the ballot; but that the right to vote should not be denied or abridged 'on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. ' This amendment wiped out the color-line in politics so far as any written law could possibly do it.
Let me here express my profound conviction that the principle of political equality then laid down is a sound, valid, and absolutely essential principle in any free government; that restrictions upon the ballot, when necessary, should be made to apply equally to white and colored citizens; and that the Fifteenth Amendment ought not to be, and cannot be repealed. Moreover, I am convinced that the principle of political equality is more firmly established to-day in this country than it was forty years ago, when it had only Northern bayonets behind it. For now, however short the practice falls of reaching the legal standard, the principle is woven into the warp and woof of Southern life and Southern legislation. Many Southern white leaders of thought are to-day CONVINCED, not FORCED believers in the principle; and that is a great omen.
Limitations have come about, it is true, and were to be expected as the back-currents of the revolution. Laws providing for educational and property qualifications as a prerequisite to the exercise of the suffrage have been passed in all the Southern States, and have operated to exclude from the ballot large numbers of both white and colored citizens, who on account of ignorance or poverty are unable to meet the tests. These provisions, whatever the opinion entertained as to the wisdom of such laws, are well within the principle laid down by the Fifteenth Amendment. But several Southern States have gone a step further, and by means of the so-called 'grandfather laws, ' have exempted certain ignorant white men from the necessity of meeting the educational and property tests. These unfair 'grandfather laws, ' however, in some of the states adopting them, have now expired by limitation.
Let me then lay down this general proposition: -
Nowhere in the South to-day is the Negro cut off LEGALLY, as a Negro, from the ballot. Legally, to-day, any Negro who can meet the comparatively slight requirements as to education, or property, or both, can cast his ballot on a basis of equality with the white man. I have emphasized the word legally, for I know the PRACTICAL difficulties which confront the Negro votes in many parts of the South. The point I wish to make is that legally the Negro is essentially the political equal of the white man; but that practically, in the enforcement of the law, the legislative ideal is still pegged out far beyond the actual performance.
Now, then, if we are interested in the problem of democracy, we have two courses open to us. We may think the laws are unjust to the Negro, and incidentally to the 'poor white' man as well. If we do, we have a perfect right to agitate for changes; and we can do much to disclose, without heat, the actual facts regarding the complicated and vexatious legislative situation in the South, as regards the suffrage. Every change in the legislation upon this subject should, indeed, be jealously watched, that the principle of political equality between the races be not legally curtailed. The doctrine laid down in the Fifteenth Amendment must, at any hazard, be maintained.
But, personally, -and I am here voicing a profound conviction, -I think our emphasis at present should be laid upon the practical rather than upon the legal aspect of the problem; I think we should take advantage of the widely prevalent feeling in the South that the question of suffrage has been settled, legally, for some time to come: of the desire on the part of many Southern people, both white and colored, to turn aside from the discussion of the political status of the Negro.
In short, let us for the time being accept the laws as they are, and build upward from that point. Let us turn our attention to the practical task of finding out why it is that the laws we already have are not enforced, and how best to secure an honest vote for every Negro and equally for every 'poor white' man, who is able to meet the requirements, but who for one reason or another does not or cannot now exercise his rights. I include the disfranchised white man as well as the Negro, because I take it that we are interested, first of all, in democracy, and unless we can arouse the spirit of democracy, South and North, we can hope for justice neither for Negroes, nor for the poorer class of white men, nor for the women of the factories and shops, nor for the children of the cottonmills.
Taking up this side of the problem we shall discover two entirely distinct difficulties: - First, we shall find many Negroes, and indeed hundreds of thousands of white men as well, who might vote, but who, through ignorance, or inability or unwillingness to pay the poll-taxes, or from mere lack of interest, disfranchise themselves.
The second difficulty is peculiar to the Negro. It consists in open or concealed intimidation on the part of the white men who control the election machinery. In many places in the South to-day no Negro, how well qualified, would dare to present himself for registration; when he does, he is rejected for some trivial or illegal reason.
Thus we have to meet a vast amount of apathy and ignorance and poverty on the one hand, and the threat of intimidation on the other.
First of all, for it is the chief injustice as between white and colored men with which we have to deal, -an injustice which the law already makes illegal and punishable, -how shall we meet the matter of intimidation? As I have already said, the door of the suffrage is everywhere legally open to the Negro, but a certain sort of Southerner bars the passage-way. He stands there and, law or no law, keeps out many Negroes who might vote; and he represents in most parts of the South the prevailing public opinion.
What other force, then, is to be invoked? Shall the Negro revolt? Shall he migrate? Shall he prosecute his case in the courts? The very asking of these questions suggests the inevitable reply.
We might as well, here and now, dismiss the idea of force, express or implied. There are times of last resort which call for force; but this is not such a time.
What other alternatives are there?
Accepting the laws as they are, then, there are two methods of procedure, neither sensational nor exciting. I have no quick cure to suggest, but only old and tried methods of commonplace growth.
The underlying causes of the trouble in the country being plainly ignorance and prejudice, we must meet ignorance and prejudice with their antidotes, education and association.
Every effort should be made to extend free education among both Negroes and white people. A great extension of education is now going forward in the South. The Negro is not by any means getting his full share; but, as certainly as sunshine makes things grow, education in the South will produce tolerance. That there is already such a growing tolerance no one who has talked with the leading white men in the South can doubt. The old fire-eating, Negro-baiting leaders of the Tillman-Vardaman type are swiftly passing away: a far better and broader group is coming into power.