Always articulate and memorable, the venerable W.E.B. Du Bois was especially eloquent and forthright on this 1946 evening in Columbia, South Carolina. The evocative preface added in the pamphlet version of the speech that was published by SNYC details the setting of the occasion as well as the presentation made to the elder scholar/activist prior to his speech. The large audience drawn to the event demonstrated the high esteem in which Du Bois was held by both young and old in the southern black community. This was especially important in light of the antiradical repression that impacted Du Bois's career in subsequent years and ultimately led to his repatriation to Ghana. In the speech, the PanAfricanist located the center of struggle for African Americans to be in the southern farming economy, but he was careful to contextualize his analysis within the broader fight for colonial independence worldwide. Naturally, he conveyed these ideas in a particularly inspired, poetic fashion, as only Du Bois could do.
W.E.B. Du Bois, “Behold the Land”
The text which follows, for all its brevity, or possibly because of it, bears all the marks of a classic statement of one of America's most persistent problems. In slightly more than two thousand words, the author, with the in-comparably brilliant insight which characterizes all his works, illuminates the basic nature of the social, political and economic life of the South.
As notable as his analysis of socio-economic forces in the South is, Dr. Du Bois' hardly equaled appeal and challenge to the South's youth, white and black. With the full force of his great intellectual and combative powers, (p.182) the renowned scholar, teacher, and people's leader sounds the democratic tocsin for the emerging generation.
And these two salient features of the work—the analysis of the South's condition and the exhortation to its youth—are couched in language whose grandeur and simplicity explain why Dr. Du Bois is regarded as one of the great literary stylists of our times.
The reader will be interested in the circumstances under which the address was delivered. At the closing public session of the Southern Youth Legislature, 861 delegates, Negro and white, crowded into Antisdel Chapel of Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. They were joined by a large and sympathetic public who stood in the aisles, jammed the doors and listened through loudspeakers outside the auditorium.
A hush fell over the audience as youth prepared to express “the great obligation of reverence and respect which (they) cherish for … the senior statesman of the American Negro's liberation struggle … the noble and peerless patriarch of our steady climb out of slavery's darkness into the light of full freedom.”
Softly, the Organ swelled with the tones of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And throughout the spellbound room a Voice was heard to say:
“White Men said that Black Men could never be their equals because they were the Sons of the condemned Ham; and many Black Men believed them.
But in frosty New England a Hamite was born who did not believe the White Men. His mother named him William Edward Burghardt and his family's name was Du Bois. William at an early age decided to prove the White Men liars by attaining a wisdom and a culture equal to that of the most learned among them.
Thus armed, he said to the White Men, ‘Am I not the equal of your finest?’ But the White Men scoffingly replied: ‘You are a phenomenon, a miracle, an accident. Can you not see that your fellows are still hewers of wood and drawers of water? Cannot you see that you are alone?’
And William was sorely hurt and disappointed. However, other Ham-ites had been inspired by his aim and determination. These he called around him and bound them together as the Talented Tenth and gave them a mission to create a Movement with the force of Niagara to fight for the recognition of the equality of Black Men.
(p.183) William was no longer alone; but his group was alone. And the White Men when asked for equality for Black Men still pointed to the countless Black Men who could not solve the mysteries of the symbols which made sound and those which determined measures.
William was challenged.
And down from the Ivory Towers of the Talented Tenth came swiftly the sensitive, suffering, crusading William; down from the Ivory Towers to the Good Earth. Here he mingled with the laborers of the fields, of the mines, of the factories; laborers who stank with sweat made sweet by honest toil. He touched them tenderly, passionately, brotherly.
He asked them to let him join them in the struggle for their daily bread and a fuller life; and to join with him in the great struggle for Equality.
They smiled him a warm welcome.
Then he turned to the Talented Tenth who had watched him with misgiving and cried: ‘I am now without the Veil! The Talented Tenth Alone will never prove the White Men liars. But with all of us working together the truth will establish itself. Together we can challenge destiny and move the Earth; separately each of us shall perish!’
A voice in the multitude cried, ‘Close ranks!’ And God smiled.”
As the Voice and the Organ returned the chapel to a tense silence, Dr. Du Bois rose to the accompaniment of enthusiastic applause and received from the hands of Miss Esther Cooper, retiring executive secretary of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, youth's award for his “unparalled achievements … monumental labors … and principled struggle … on behalf of the Negro people of the United States and the unfree peoples of the world.”
Setting aside a book of reverence signed by all the delegates of the Southern Youth Legislature, Dr. Du Bois then delivered the address which follows.
Behold the Land
The future of American Negroes is in the South. Here three hundred and twenty-seven years ago, they began to enter what is now the United States of America; here they have made their greatest contribution to American (p.184) culture; and here they have suffered the damnation of slavery, the frustration of reconstruction and the lynching of emancipation. I trust then that an organization like yours is going to regard the South as the battleground of a great crusade. Here is the magnificent climate; here is the fruitful earth under the beauty of the Southern sun; and here if anywhere on earth, is the need of the thinker, the worker and the dreamer. This is the firing line not simply for the emancipation of the American Negro but for the emancipation of the African Negro and the Negroes of the West Indies; for the emancipation of the colored races; and for the emancipation of the white slaves of modern capitalistic monopoly.
Allies in the White South
Remember here, too, that you do not stand alone. It may seem like a failing fight when the newspapers ignore you; when every effort is made by white people in the South to count you out of citizenship and to act as though you did not exist as human beings while all the time they are profiting by your labor; gleaning wealth from your sacrifices and trying to build a nation and a civilization upon your degradation. You must remember that despite all this, you have allies and allies even in the white South. First and greatest of these possible allies are the white working classes about you. The poor whites whom you have been taught to despise and who in turn have learned to fear and hate you. This must not deter you from efforts to make them understand, because in the past in their ignorance and suffering they have been led foolishly to look upon you as the cause of most of their distress. You must remember that this attitude is hereditary from slavery and that it has been deliberately cultivated ever since emancipation.
Slowly but surely the working people of the South, white and black, must come to remember that their emancipation depends upon their mutual cooperation; upon their acquaintanceship with each other; upon their friendship; upon their social intermingling. Unless this happens each is going to be made the football to break the heads and hearts of the other.
White Youth is Frustrated
White youth in the South is peculiarly frustrated. There is not a single great ideal which they can express or aspire to, that does not bring them into flat contradiction with the Negro problem. The more they try to escape it, the (p.185) more they land into hypocrisy, lying and double-dealing; the more they become, what they least wish to become, the oppressors and despisers of human beings. Some of them, in larger and larger numbers, are bound to turn toward the truth and to recognize you as brothers and sisters, as fellow travelers toward the dawn.
James Byrnes, the Favorite Son of this Commonwealth
There has always been in the South that intellectual elite who saw the Negro problem clearly. They have always lacked and some still lack the courage to stand up for what they know is right. Nevertheless they can be depended on in the long run to follow their own clear thinking and their own decent choice. Finally even the politicians must eventually recognize the trend in the world, in this country, and in the South. James Byrnes, that favorite son of this commonwealth, and Secretary of State of the United States, is today occupying an indefensible and impossible position; and if he survives in the memory of men, he must begin to help establish in his own South Carolina something of that democracy which he has been recently so loudly preaching to Russia. He is the end of a long series of men whose eternal damnation is the fact that they looked truth in the face and did not see it; John C. Calhoun, Wade Hampton, Ben Tillman are men whose names must ever be besmirched by the fact that they fought against freedom and democracy in a land which was founded upon Democracy and Freedom.
Eventually this class of men must yield to the writing in the stars. That great hypocrite, Jan Smuts, who today is talking of humanity and standing beside Byrnes for a United Nations, is at the same time, oppressing the black people of Africa to an extent which makes their two countries, South Africa and the Southern South, the most reactionary peoples on earth. Peoples whose exploitation of the poor and helpless reaches the last degree of shame. They must in the long run yield to the forward march of civilization or die.
What Does the Fight Mean?
If now you young people instead of running away from the battle here in Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, instead of seeking freedom and opportunity in Chicago and New York—which do spell opportunity—nevertheless grit your teeth and make up your minds to fight (p.186) it out right here if it takes every day of your lives and the lives of your children's children; if you do this, you must in meetings like this ask yourselves what does the fight mean? How can it be carried on? What are the best tools, arms, and methods? And where does it lead?
I should be the last to insist that the uplift of mankind never calls for force and death.
- There are times, as both you and I know, when
- Tho’ love repine and reason chafe,
- There came a voice without reply,
- ‘Tis man's perdition to be safe
- When for the truth he ought to die.
At the same time and even more clearly in a day like this, after the millions of mass murders that have been done in the world since 1914, we ought to be the last to believe that force is ever the final word. We cannot escape the clear fact that what is going to win in the world is reason if this ever becomes a reasonable world. The careful reasoning of the human mind backed by the facts of science is the one salvation of man. The world, if it resumes its march toward civilization, cannot ignore reason. This has been the tragedy of the South in the past; it is still its awful and unforgivable sin that it has set its face against reason and against the fact. It tried to build slavery upon freedom; it tried to build tyranny upon democracy; it tried to build mob violence on law and law on lynching and in all that despicable endeavor, the state of South Carolina has led the South for a century. It began not the Civil War—not the war between the States—but the War to Preserve Slavery; it began mob violence and lynching and today it stands in the front rank of those defying the Supreme Court on disfranchisement.
Nevertheless reason can and will prevail; but of course it can only prevail with publicity—pitiless, blatant publicity. You have got to make the people of the United States and of the world know what is going on in the South. You have got to use every field of publicity to force the truth into their ears, and before their eyes. You have got to make it impossible for any human being to live in the South and not realize the barbarities that prevail here. You may be condemned for flamboyant methods; for calling a congress like this; for waving your grievances under the noses and in the faces of men. That makes no difference; it is your duty to do it. It is your duty to (p.187) do more of this sort of thing than you have done in the past. As a result of this you are going to be called upon for sacrifice. It is no easy thing for a young black man or a young black woman to live in the South today and to plan to continue to live here; to marry and raise children; to establish a home. They are in the midst of legal caste and customary insults; they are in continuous danger of mob violence; they are mistreated by the officers of the law and they have no hearing before the courts and the churches and public opinion commensurate with the attention which they ought to receive. But that sacrifice is only the Beginning of Battle, you must re-build this South.
There are enormous opportunities here for a new nation, a new Economy, a new culture in a South really new and not a mere renewal of an old South of slavery, monopoly and race hate. There is a chance for a new cooperative agriculture on renewed land owned by the State with capital furnished by the State, mechanized and coordinated with city life. There is a chance for strong, virile Trade Unions without race discrimination, with high wage, closed shop and decent conditions of work, to beat back and hold in check the swarm of landlords, monopolists and profiteers who are today sucking the blood out of this land. There is chance for cooperative industry, built on the cheap power of T.V.A. and its future extensions. There is opportunity to organize and mechanize domestic service with decent hours, and high wage and dignified training.
Behold the Land
There is a vast field for consumers' cooperation, building business on public service and not on private profit as the main-spring of industry. There is chance for a broad, sunny, healthy home life, shorn of the fear of mobs and liquor, and rescued from lying, stealing politicians, who build their deviltry on race prejudice.
Here in this South is the gateway to the colored millions of the West Indies, Central and South America. Here is the straight path to Africa, the Indies, China and the South Seas. Here is the Path to the Greater, Freer Truer World. It would be shame and cowardice to surrender this glorious land and its opportunities for civilization and humanity to the thugs and lynchers, the mobs and profiteers, the monopolists and gamblers who today choke its soul and steal its resources. The oil and sulphur; the coal and (p.188) iron; the cotton and corn; the lumber and cattle belong to you the workers, black and white, and not to the thieves who hold them and use them to enslave you. They can be rescued and restored to the people if you have the guts to strive for the real right to vote, the right to real education, the right to happiness and health and the total abolition of the father of these scourges of mankind, poverty.
The Great Sacrifice
“Behold the beautiful land which the Lord thy God hath given thee.” Behold the land, the rich and resourceful land, from which for a hundred years its best elements have been running away, its youth and hope, black and white, scurrying North because they are afraid of each other, and dare not face a future of equal, independent, upstanding human beings, in a real and not a sham democracy.
To rescue this land, in this way, calls for the Great Sacrifice; This is the thing that you are called upon to do because it is the right thing to do. Because you are embarked upon a great and holy crusade, the emancipation of mankind black and white; the up building of democracy; the breaking down, particularly here in the South, of forces of evil represented by race prejudice in South Carolina; by Lynching in Georgia; by disfranchisement in Mississippi; by ignorance in Louisiana and by all these and monopoly of wealth in the whole South.
There could be no more splendid vocation beckoning to the youth of the twentieth century, after the flat failures of white civilization, after the flamboyant establishment of an industrial system which creates poverty and the children of poverty which are ignorance and disease and crime; after the crazy boasting of a white culture that finally ended in wars which ruined civilization in the whole world; in the midst of allied peoples who have yelled about democracy and never practiced it either in the British Empire or in the American Commonwealth or in South Carolina.
Here is the chance for young women and young men of devotion to lift again the banner of humanity and to walk toward a civilization which will be free and intelligent; which will be healthy and unafraid; and build in the world a culture led by black folk and joined by peoples of all colors and all races—without poverty, ignorance, and disease!
(p.189) Once a great German poet cried: “Selig der den Er in Sieges Glanze findet.” “Happy man whom Death shall find in Victory's splendor.”
But I know a happier one: he who fights in despair and in defeat still fights. Singing with Arna Bontemps the quiet, determined philosophy of undefeatable men:
- I thought I saw an angel flying low,
- I thought I saw the flicker of a wing
- Above the mulberry trees; but not again,
- Bethesda sleeps. This ancient pool that healed
- A Host of bearded Jews does not awake.
- This pool that once the angels troubled does not move.
- No angel stirs it now, no Savior comes
- With healing in His hands to raise the sick
- And bid the lame man leap upon the ground.
- The golden days are gone. Why do we wait
- So long upon the marble steps, blood
- Falling from our open wounds? And why
- Do our black faces search the empty sky?
- Is there something we have forgotten? Some precious thing
- We have lost, wandering in strange lands?
- There was a day, I remember now,
- I beat my breast and cried, “Wash me God,”
- Wash me with a wave of wind upon
- The barley; O quiet one, draw near, draw near!
- Walk upon the hills with lovely feet
- And in the waterfall stand and speak!
The Atlantic Charter, 14 August 1941
This declaration by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom, stated the positions of these nations with regard to the war in Europe. Though the US did not officially join the war until December, this declaration was an important statement (p.190) of purpose from the allied nations. The Council on African Affairs referred consistently to the set of principles outlined in this declaration to argue for colonial freedom. Whether Roosevelt would have been more inclined to abide by the spirit of the Atlantic Charter after the war is debatable since he died as the war was winding down in April 1945. The Truman administration, however, was inclined to bolster the economies of European colonizers rather than apply these declarations to colonial people after the war. Notice the inclusion in item six of the freedoms from fear and want, which were also included in Roosevelt's formulation of the Four Freedoms, along with the freedoms of speech and religion, in his speech before Congress in January of 1941.
The Atlantic Charter
The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, representing His Majesty's government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.
1. Their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other.
2. They desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned.
3. They respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live, and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.
4. They will endeavor with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access on equal terms to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity.
5. They desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security.
6. After the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their … boundaries, and which will afford
(p.191) assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.
7. Such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance.
8. They believe that all the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armament. (p.192)