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T. Thomas Fortune, the Afro-American AgitatorA Collection of Writings, 1880-1928$

Shawn Leigh Alexander

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780813032320

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813032320.001.0001

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Are We Brave Men or Cowards?

Are We Brave Men or Cowards?

Chapter:
(p.153) 14 Are We Brave Men or Cowards?
Source:
T. Thomas Fortune, the Afro-American Agitator
Author(s):

Shawn Leigh Alexander

Publisher:
University Press of Florida
DOI:10.5744/florida/9780813032320.003.0014

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents an essay written for the short-lived Monthly Review, edited by Charles Alexander. The essay was Fortune's strong condemnation of the race for failing to support the Afro-American League in particular and, more generally, to organize for their “civil, political, or commercial welfare.” He called on the race to stop looking for the assistance and guidance of whites and to organize from within. Moreover, he called on the race to set aside their egos and create an organization of both leaders and followers for the betterment of the community. He believed that organization was possible, but he wonders if the leadership and the masses were up for the challenge.

Keywords:   whites, African American community, Afro-American League, political activity, race, organization

Written for the short-lived Monthly Review, edited by Charles Alexander, this essay is Fortune's strong condemnation of the race for failing to support the Afro-American League in particular and, more generally, to organize for their “civil, political, or commercial welfare.” He calls on the race to stop looking for the assistance and guidance of whites and to organize from within. Moreover, he calls on the race to set aside their egos and create an organization of both leaders and followers for the betterment of the community. He believes that organization is possible, but he wonders if the leadership and the masses are up for the challenge.

Are We Brave Men or Cowards? —Monthly Review 1, no. 6 (1894): 178–81

It is the very general disposition of mankind to regard with a degree of suspicion or contempt men or races who wait for others to do for them what they can and ought to do for themselves. It is a remarkable fact that in the United States and in the British West Indies the African has been more largely the recipient of the benevolence of other races than as the architect of his own fortunes. Especially is this true in the matter of human freedom, except in the island of Hayti; the boon of freedom has come to him as the result of the agitation and labors of others rather than his own. It cannot be for lack of courage, for in comparatively recent times the African in Africa has demonstrated a courage of warfare which has commanded the respect and admiration of universal mankind. But it remains a fact that West Indian emancipation and American emancipation and Brazilian emancipation have come through the agitations and efforts directed largely without instead of within the forces of the African masses.1

(p.154) In the United States, it is true, there are instances where the slave made a valiant and commendatory effort to throw off the yoke which doomed him to a life of servile and unrequited toil. But the great anti slavery conflict which resulted in his emancipation was, in the main, the inception and the development of Anglo-American rather than Afro-American genius and persistence.

In the accomplishment of the magnificent result, it is true, we took an honorable, and in the final analysis, a decisive part in peace and in war; but the forces were directed and controlled by others than ourselves. Since the war we have looked to treacherous parties to enforce for us Constitutional guarantees of citizenship and manhood rights, without comporting ourselves with the necessary wisdom and foresight to insure the cession of what we clamored for. As a consequence, with a population which entitles us to forty-four representatives in the National Congress, we have but one, and in State and Municipal Governments we have representations which may be regarded as a parody upon what we are entitled to and what any other race would insist upon having. In matters of education we have relied almost entirely upon the philanthropy of others to supply the sinews of war, which has brought out a Christian expression of unselfishness which must remain the admiration of all times. Our most commendable effort had been displayed in religious activity, which has resulted in more than three millions of church membership, with thousands of church edifices, and not one banker, or merchant, or manufacturer of the first magnitude in all the Republic.

The weakness of the race had been shown to a distressing extent in the inability of the race to organize in any way for its civil, political or commercial welfare. This inability, coupled with the vast amount of charity, of which we have been the recipients, has had the natural effect of producing in the minds of our fellow-citizens the belief that we are what Goldsmith aptly described as “children of a larger growth,”2 hence to be regarded as children are regarded, as “wards of the nation,” as objects of charity, as footballs of politicians, as victims of lust and the playthings of depraved individuals who have no respect for law and order and no regard for human life. This condition had produced the following results: (1) We are disfranchised in every Southern State and exercise, consequently, little influence in States where we are not disfranchised. (2) Mob and lynch law prevails to such an extent that a black-man is murdered every day in the year without any process of law, and the country at large regards the extraordinary phenomenon as a matter of course. (3) Although our taxes go into the common fund, we are, (p.155) in most cases, forced to attend separate and inferior schools with terms less by far than those our white fellow-citizens enjoy. (4) In most of the Southern States we are compelled to ride in separate cars, which have become infamous as “Jim Crow cars,” because they are inferior beyond the power of expression, and filthy and indecent to the lowest degree. (5) In all of the Southern States there are separate marriage laws, which place a premium upon the dishonorable relations of the sexes and fill the country with a race of children without respectable parentage, leading necessarily to a loose system of morality, which vitiates the whole system. (6) The penal system of every Southern State is a blot upon the honor of the Republic, and is a fruitful school-house of immorality and crime, and leads to the imposition of long terms of imprisonment for trivial offences, for the purpose of supplying cheap contractors. It is a notorious fact that in the convict camps of the South there is no proper separation of the sexes, and it has been shown by more than one investigation that the white guards of these camps have assisted in degrading the females placed in their charge.

It would be useless to include in these major designations the vast number of minor ways by which the whites have succeeded in degrading blackfree-men to a condition in comparison of which the condition of black slaves was a happy one. I am sure that this statement is not an exaggerated one; I am sure from observation of my own and from a close study of the conditions covering a period of a quarter of a century. The entire legal machinery of the Southern States has been twisted by white men who control it to degrade black-men and women under the forms of law. The press and the pulpit are in league in this matter, so that condonation and extenuation of barbarous and criminal practices have become so common that it is no longer possible to get the truth out of the mouths of either of these prime factors in the moulding of public opinion; and the press and the pulpit of the north are almost as bad as those of the south in suppressing the truth or apologizing for the condition upon which the truth abides. Indeed, we may reasonably conclude that a conspiracy had been entered into on the part of those who mould public opinion to ignore the extraordinary condition of affairs which has been built upon the tradition of slavery. The protest of one woman in Great Britain did more in ninety days to arouse the press and pulpit of the United States than the protests of one million agencies here during the past twenty years.3 Why? Because the nation's honor and credit abroad have been damaged.

The great need of the times is well directed agitation which will vex the soul of the nation until it shall be aroused to a sense of its duty. Who is to (p.156) provoke this agitation? There are no white William Lloyd Garrisons4 and Horace Greeleys5 in journalism, or Wendell Phillips6 and Anna Dickinsons7 upon the lecture platform, or Thaddeus Stevens8 and Charles Sumners9 in legislative halls to do it. The white men of the north have buried the bloody shirt, have forgotten the crime of rebellion, and in the pursuit of commercial and political gain have allowed Henry W. Grady10 to declare in Fanueil Hall that the whites of the south would rule the south, and brook no outside interference, even as they allowed Bob Toombs11 to call the roll of his slaves at the foot of Bunker Hill monument. Under the circumstances, it is useless for us to look to white men to fight for black man's rights. If we don't do it ourselves it will not be done. How shall we do it? We can only do it through the medium of organization, the approved method of reaching the consciences of men. Can we have such organization? I once believed we could, and undertook, through the Afro-American League, to supply it. The venture was not an absolute failure, but it never accomplished anything of what its promoters intended that it should accomplish. Why? Because the men who had aforetime been regarded as the leaders of the race refused to give it their countenance and support. Why? The answer is short and pointed, and it is nothing of honor or of glory to their reputations. While the masses cried for justice, they looked on in amusement, even as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and the masses seeing the indifference of the leaders, and having no one to guide them in the matter, were distrustful, and gave nothing of support calculated to make the movement a success. But all this was four years ago. We have learned much and we have suffered much during that time. The steel has entered deep into our souls. Are we ready to do what we refused to do four years ago? We shall see. An effort will be made to get an authoritative expression of the masses in this matter. A League, national in character, with a hundred thousand members who would support it loyally, could in time bring about the correction of every wrong, of every injustice, of every outrage perpetrated upon the race. But to do this we must have men good to lead, and men good to follow, all of whom will back up their protestations with money necessary to keep the legal machinery of the nation hot, working in our behalf. The opportunity is ours. Will we improve it?

Notes

(1.) Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) wrote a strong critique of Fortune's essay, claiming that the editor had gone too far in his characterization of the race. See Mary Church Terrell, “Re: Are We Brave Men or Cowards,” Woman's Era 2 (1895): 3–4.

(p.157)

(2.) Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774); although Fortune is attributing the line to Goldsmith, it is also often linked to John Dryden (1631–1700), All for Love.

(3.) Fortune is referring to Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) and her 1893 and 1894 trips to England, where she spoke about the horrors of lynching. For more on Wells-Barnett, see Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, ed. Alfreda M. Duster (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Wells-Barnett, Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900, ed. Jacqueline Jones Royster (Boston: Bedford Books, 1996); Linda O. McMurry, To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); and Patricia A. Schechter, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880–1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

(4.) William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) was an abolitionist, editor of the Liberator, and founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.

(5.) Horace Greeley (1811–1872) was founder and editor of the New York Tribune.

(6.) Wendell Phillips (1811–1884) was an abolitionist who associated with William Lloyd Garrison.

(7.) Anna Dickinson (1842–1932) was an abolitionist who became the first woman to speak before Congress in 1864.

(8.) Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) was a representative from Pennsylvania who was a vocal antislavery advocate and leader of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

(9.) Charles Sumner (1811–1874) was a senator from Massachusetts who was a vocal antislavery advocate and a leader of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Fortune gave a strong address in memory of Charles Sumner, in which he also promoted the need for the creation of a civil rights organization. See Hartford Telegram, January 11, 1884; and New York Globe, January 19, 1884. For more on Sumner, see chapter 6, note 5.

(10.) Henry W. Grady (1850–1889) served as managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution in the 1880s and used his position to promote the New South program of northern investment, southern industrial growth, diversified farming, and white supremacy. Grady was one of Fortune's constant targets. See, for example, New York Age, November 30, December 21 and 28, 1899.

(11.) Robert A. Toombs (1810–1885) was a Georgia politician who became a leading secessionist in the U.S. Senate on the eve of the Civil War and was the major architect of Georgia's redemptive constitution in 1877. For more on Robert Toombs, see Ulrich B. Phillips, Life of Robert Toombs (New York: Macmillan Company, 1913); and William Y. Thompson, Robert Toombs of Georgia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966).

Notes:

(1.) Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) wrote a strong critique of Fortune's essay, claiming that the editor had gone too far in his characterization of the race. See Mary Church Terrell, “Re: Are We Brave Men or Cowards,” Woman's Era 2 (1895): 3–4.

(p.157)

(2.) Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774); although Fortune is attributing the line to Goldsmith, it is also often linked to John Dryden (1631–1700), All for Love.

(3.) Fortune is referring to Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) and her 1893 and 1894 trips to England, where she spoke about the horrors of lynching. For more on Wells-Barnett, see Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, ed. Alfreda M. Duster (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Wells-Barnett, Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900, ed. Jacqueline Jones Royster (Boston: Bedford Books, 1996); Linda O. McMurry, To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); and Patricia A. Schechter, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880–1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

(4.) William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) was an abolitionist, editor of the Liberator, and founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.

(5.) Horace Greeley (1811–1872) was founder and editor of the New York Tribune.

(6.) Wendell Phillips (1811–1884) was an abolitionist who associated with William Lloyd Garrison.

(7.) Anna Dickinson (1842–1932) was an abolitionist who became the first woman to speak before Congress in 1864.

(8.) Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) was a representative from Pennsylvania who was a vocal antislavery advocate and leader of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

(9.) Charles Sumner (1811–1874) was a senator from Massachusetts who was a vocal antislavery advocate and a leader of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Fortune gave a strong address in memory of Charles Sumner, in which he also promoted the need for the creation of a civil rights organization. See Hartford Telegram, January 11, 1884; and New York Globe, January 19, 1884. For more on Sumner, see chapter 6, note 5.

(10.) Henry W. Grady (1850–1889) served as managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution in the 1880s and used his position to promote the New South program of northern investment, southern industrial growth, diversified farming, and white supremacy. Grady was one of Fortune's constant targets. See, for example, New York Age, November 30, December 21 and 28, 1899.

(11.) Robert A. Toombs (1810–1885) was a Georgia politician who became a leading secessionist in the U.S. Senate on the eve of the Civil War and was the major architect of Georgia's redemptive constitution in 1877. For more on Robert Toombs, see Ulrich B. Phillips, Life of Robert Toombs (New York: Macmillan Company, 1913); and William Y. Thompson, Robert Toombs of Georgia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966).