Mary Church Terrell

The Strongest for the Weakest - 1904

Mary Church Terrell
January 01, 1904
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The Strongest for the Weakest.

No one will challenge the statement that the strong should consider it a privilege and should certainly regard it as a duty to protect and help the weak. The innate nobility of human nature can not be illustrated to better advantage than by reciting insistences in which the strong have involuntarily rushed to the protection of the weak, often in magnificent and sublime disregard of their own personal interests. If I should attempt an elaborate review of the history of the Negro from the time the first ship load of slaves was landed at Jamestown till the present time, I should not expect you to give me a rising vote of thanks for my pains. For all practical purposes the majority of thes audience are sufficiently well acquainted with the atrocities perpetrated upon the American slave for nearly 300 years, as well as the cruel manner in which he has been handicapped and persecuted since his emancipation to warrant me in wasting no time to prive these points. With but few occasional references to them let us dismiss the past wrongs of the freedmen with a sigh, look forward to the future with hope and consider only present, this very day and minute, while we discuss the duty of the strongest, most despised and most heavily handicapped people in the United States.

Although I have just stated that I should spend but little time up upon the past, I cannot proceed without first acknowledging the great debt to some of the strongest and beat men and women thes or any other country did more than those living in the North to stone for the sins of their brothers in the South, I have never heard of it. If ever one portion of a country did more than the North first to emancipate, then to educate and finally to elevate a race which had practically been reduced to the level of brutes by their brothers in the South I have never herd of it. For years after Lee’s surrender to Grant there went fourth out of the North from comfortable homes and loving friends an ever increasing band of men and women who cheerfully consecrated their lives to the work of enlightening and uplifting the newly freed slaves. No crusader of old ever went forth to recover the whole land from the Musselmans with more heroism and zeal than that displayed by the northern patriots and philanthropists who for years journeyed South to deliver the minds or the freedmen from the darkness of ignorance and the blight of superstition in which they had been held for two centuries and a half. And more than one of those northern evangels of light went forth to a martyrdom as real and as cruel as that suffered by Stephen of old. It is unnecessary, therefore, for Americans to look to distant climes and hark back to ancient times for examples of courage, self sacrifice and heroism such as the world has seldom seen.

Then the men and women who founded it are more than those who now so beneficently maintain the American Missionary Association, that light in the outer darkness, that balm of Gilead for the crushed spirits and the bleeding hearts of so many ignorant and poor people has given and is still giving to day a splendid object lesson in the duty which the strong owe to the weak of all nations without regard to color or race.

There is to day as great need of Christian, patriotic self sacrifice on the part of the strong in behalf of the weak as there was when noble men and women laid themselves upon the altar of duty first to the slaves before the war and then a little later to millions of freedmen densely ignorant with no place to lay their heads. Indeed, I sometimes think it requires a higher grade of courage and completer consecration for the white men and women of the present day to devote their lives to the amelioration of the hard conditions under which colored people all over the country groan than it did either to plead the cause of the shackled slave before the war orr minister to his spiritual and mental welfare after he was freed. It is not difficult to understand why this condition exists. Just before the was a wave of sentiment and sympathy in behalf of the slave swept over the North. In addition to this lively interest in the slave which was not emotional merely but founded on the deep seated convictions of some of the best and most influential people in nearly every community about Mason’s and Dixon’s Line, there was a bitter antagonism between the two sectoins, one of which was determined to destroy it to carry its point.

To-day the breach between the two sections has practically healed. Northern men hold large commercial interests in the South. So persistently has the South insisted that it is the colored man’s best friend, that it understands him better than anybody else and will brook no interference in the treatment accorded him from nobody in the world that the North has either been persuaded for the sake of peace to accept this view. Then too, by a continual exaggeration of the colored man’s vices, by a studied suppression of proofs of his unparalled advancement, by a judicious use of epithets, such as social equality, negro domination and others which mislead and poison the public mind, by a watchful, searching skepticism with respect to evidence in the colored man’s favor and a convenient credulity with respect to every report or tradition which can be used to prove the black man’s inferiority and depravity, the South has almost succeeded in convincing the whole world that it is a martyr and the colored man is a brute? The rapidity with which the South has poisoned the minds of the North against the colored man, has actually in succeeding in withdrawing from him the sympathy and cordial support of hundreds, yes thousands who were formerly our good friends, is a splendid tribute to the plausibility, persuasiveness, persistency and power of the South, while it resembles nothing so much as a skilful trick of legerdemain. And so it happens for the last fifteen or twenty years the tide of public opinion in the North has been steadily setting against the colored man, in spite of everything which he himself or some of his strongest friends could do. Those who were once considered the colored man’s strongest advocates have almost nothing to say in his favor or to credit now. In the many instances our former champions cheerfully concede that while the colored man is far from perfect and has many glaring defects, his progress along all lines, educational, spiritual, industrial and financial has even transcinded the expectations of his most sanguine friends. Nevertheless the fact remains that the interest once manifested in the colored man by the North is growing beautifully less it is reaching the vanishing point as fast as it can.

In certain sections of our great country few are more unpopular than some of our good white friends who insist upon pleading their colored brother’s cause. I repeat, therefore, that in this recrudence of feeling against colored people, it requires unusual courage for those (the white people) who are interested in no and wish to the history of this country has there been a time when there was a more imperative need of the personal service of men and women willing to devote themselves to the enlightenment and elevation of a people inspired, handicapped and weak.

As a colored woman, I often find myself envying the white people of this country the glorious opportunity of broadening and deepening their own characters, of setting a wholesome example to their own children in particular, and to the youth of the whole land on general principles and thus surely raising the standard of good citizenship by practicing the golden rule in their daily dealing with a despised and helpless race. The more I study the present situation, the more I observe the tendency of the times, the more convinced I am that there is nothing more needed at present than the consecration of the best and bravest white people in this country to the cause of justice and fair play from the weak.

The more I travel through the South and see the great masses of ignorant people of both races, see the determined efforts made on the one hand by those high in authority to withhold from colored children educational facilities, so far as they can, then see on the other hand the lack of ambition so noticeable among what are called the poor whites of the South, the more clearly I see the necessity of opening the eyes and arousing the conscience of those strong in patriotism and in love of their fellow man, to the duty of remedying these evils and inaugurating reforms.

And after all is said and done, it is actual personal service that counts most. Surely the colored people of this country can not justly charge many of their white friends with stingyness in dispensing charity to them for the last 30 or 40 years. It is doubtful whether the people of any country or any time have ever made more generous contribution in behalf of the unfortunate and oppressed than have the people of the North for the education and elevation of the freedom.

But the time has come, if it never came before, when money alone will not do. To quote from Mrs. D.E. Emerson who in discussing this subject one day said, “Colored people need not only [what] money will do but also the personal interest and influence of the strongest and best equipped of the white race. Those who have the highest attainment and who have reached farthest Godward have the longest, strongest arm to reach the lowest, and it should be a helping arm.” If you would place before me this minute great barrels of money pressed down and running over with crisp, new greenbacks and gold and silver galore and tell me I might spend it all for the benefit of my race and then show me a glorious company of the strongest and best equipped men and women in this of the weakest people in the United States, I should not hesitate a second to choose the human hearts and let the cold cash go. I should rather have both men and money, of course.

Money is greatly needed, I know. I wish to say nothing that would lead anybody to suppole that those who are most deeply interested in their unfortunate brothers are oblige to lie awake nights trying to discover ways and means of disposing of their superfluous cash. Without money, which is greatly needed this minute by the American Missionary Association, for instance, every good cause must languish. But in spite of this aching void in the treasury of this Association, I verily believe that men and women with strong characters, lofty ideals, tender consciences and generous hearts are as much needed by this organization as well as by all others engaged in a good cause, as millions of cash.

There are hundreds of men and women in this country to-day who have the best intentions in the world, who sympathize deeply with the handicapped race, who voted cheerfully give hundreds of dollars for any good purpose in their behalf, who could not be induced to set an example which would count in the long run far more than the cash. It would probably be far easier to induce nine good men to donate large sums of miney for the amelioration of the hard conditions under which unfortunate colored people live, far removed from any living thing, than it would be to persuade one equally generous to set a good example by giving a deserving, competent colored person a position which he could satisfactorily fill.

I verily believe if the generous-hearted, broad-minded white people of this country only realized what they could do to smooth the rough paths which their brother of a despised race must travel by saying the right word at the right time, instead of preserving what is more often a guilty rather than a golden silence and by setting an example of justice and Christian charity, many of them would cheerfully render the personal service which they now withhold and thus use their influences in a way which would be a tremendous power for good.

Miss Emerson asked me one day, “did you ever eliminate from the picture for the time being the educated, self-respecting, law-abiding Negro and see the helpless, degraded mass of people going down without apparently anybody to save?” Yes, I have frequently looked upon the helpless, degraded mass of people going down without apparently anybody to save, particularly as I have journeyed thru the South, and have often wondered what would become of them and future generations, if fresh interest were not aroused among the strongest and best representatives of that race which has had so many centuries of superior advantages and upon such a great responsibility for these backward, hindered people rests. The necessity of rekindling a vital interest in the welfare of the colored people of this country appears especially great, when one observes the determined efforts of certain southern states to curtail the educational facilities of colored children as much as they can.

For instance the State of Louisiana has already passed a law providing that the public schools for colored children shall not advance the pupils further than the 4th or 5th grade. In several southern States repeated efforts have been made by those in authority to divide the tax as devoted to the support of the public schools, so that no more schools for colored children shall be established and maintained than the taxes paid by colored people themselves can support. It is no secret that is the majority of cases thruout the southern states the public schools furnished colored children leave to much to be desired. The buildings are often dilapidated, poorly appointed and old, and the teachers are paid such low wages that there is no incentive for men or women to enter the profession except the main desire to educate the children of the race. (In the rural districts it is not unusual for a teacher to receive but $12 or $15 a month for teaching a school which is in session but two or three months during the entire year. It is common to meet colored principals of buildings who receive but $30 per month, while their assistants get $20 and sometimes $25.) And so I repeat, a great deal of missionary work must be done by those strong in patroitism and brotherly love to remove the evils which like dragon’s teeth are being sown every day to spring up armed men in the years to come.

In this connection I cannot refrain from referring briefly to the Convict Lease System, that new form of slavery which obtains in nearly every State of the South and which is in some respects more cruel and crushing than the old. Under this new regime thousands of colored men, women and children some of them upon trumped up charges or for misdemeanors which in a civilized community would hardly land them in jail, are thrown into dark, damp disease-infested cells, whose cubic contents are less than those of a good sized grave, are over-worked, underfed and only partially covered with vermin-infested rags. To the colored women in these camps scores of children are born and breathe the polluted atmosphere of these dens of woe and vice from the moment they utter their first cry into the world until they are released from its horrors by death.

After carefully studying the August number of the Nineteenth Century I have prepared some facts on Peonage in the United States- The Convict Lease System and The Chain Gangs and have quoted an opinion expressed by Mr. Moody, when he was Attorney General, just before he was placed upon the Bench of the United States Court. After a careful study of this iniquitous institution Judge Moddy says; “Notwithstanding the fact that several United States have held the law against Peonage to be constitutional, the Government is powerless to compel its enforcement or observance, even in the most typical flagrant cases. We think we may truthfully say,” continues Judge Moody, “that upon the decisions of this case, (Clyatt v. the United States) hangs the liberty of thousands of persons, mostly colored, it is true, who are now being held in a condition of involuntary servitude, in many cases worse than slavery itself, by the unlawful acts of individuals, not only in violating of [the] 13th amendment to the constitution but in violation of the law which we have under consideration. Mr. Oswald Garrison Villard of the New York Evening Post wrote in a le[tter to] me a short while ago that he believes there should be a national organization formed for the express purpose of arousing the public conscience formed for against the Convict Lease System and the Chain Gang with a view to destroying them.

It is very unpleasant for me to dwell thus upon the wrongs heaped upon a weak and oppressed race, particularly before such an audience as this. It is very unpleasant for you to here this, I know. I realize that I am addressing men and women who sympathize deeply with all victims of oppression, who have battled against injustice with all your heart, soul mind and strength and who would no more deprive colored people of their opportunities and rights as human beings than you would commit any other theft. I have simply reviewed some of the depressing conditions under which colored people live, practically all over the country, so as to prove that there is imperative need at the present time of the personal service of the best and strongest people in this land and to urge as many as possible to engage in this work.

And while I am pleading with you to devote as much time and strength as you possible can to ameliorate the hard conditions under which lives the most heavily handicapped race in this country at the present time, I do not wish to urge you to confine your efforts exclusively for colored people. The American Missionary Association has always been cosmopolitan and braced, has never been circumscribed in its work of education and Christianization to any one particular race. And so as I plead for my own race, I cannot forget the needs of Porto Rico and I remember how great a service the good and broad people of this country may render those who come to us from China and Japan.

I want especially to plead with the good white women of the North, whom the colored people of this country owe such a debt of gratitude for invaluable service in the past. I have always felt that the women of the Northern States have never received the credit they deserved for the prodigious amount of work they did both before and after the Civil War. How long the emancipation of the slave would have been delayed, had it not been for the female Anti-Slavery Societies which sprang up in such numbers through the North, East and West, no human being can tell. The great Wm. Lloyd Garrison who probably did more than any other person to commence and continue the agitation against slavery, admitted that his conscience was aroused and his [heart] was touched for the first time concerning the wrongs and woes of the slave by the words of a woman. And so I want to lead with the good white women of the North, for the sake their own children and for the sake of the children of a weak and handicapped race, to do everything in their power to remove the evil which are blighting the lives of the victims of oppression and reacting disastrously upon their own.

What a powerful influence for good they would become, if the mothers of the present generation would make special effort both to observe themselves and to teach their children to observe the lofty principles of justice, equality of opportunity and liberty, upon which this government was founded and in which they selves implicitly believe. And so I beseech my sisters of the favored race to do every thing in their power to teach their children to judge men and women by their intrinsic merit, rather than by the adventitious circumstances of race, or color s creed.

I want to urge the good women in the North to teach their children that when they grow up to be men and women, if they deliberately prevent their brothers and sisters of a darker hue from earning an honest living by closing the doors of trade against them, the Father of all men will hold them responsible for the crimes which are the result of their injustice and for the human wrecks which the ruthless crushing of hope and ambition always makes. In a word let me implore them to do everything in their power to make the future of the children of my race as bright and as promising as should be that of every child born in a country which owes its very existence to the love of liberty in the human heart.

I hope nobody will interpret the plea I have made for my own to mean bitterness toward the North. May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I ever forget to express gratitude to the North for its numerous benfactions and sacrifices in behalf of my race. I love the North with all the intensity of affection of which I am capable. I can never forget how great a debt of gratitude we owe the North not only for favors showered upon us in the pst but also for benefits heaped upon us at the present time.

But just now [at the present time] I believe it to be my bounded duty, whenever the opportunity presents itself to urge the Christian, patriotic men and women of that section to study more carefully and more prayerfully their duty to a race which needs their sympathy and their aid. Altho I am an optimist by nature, education, cultivation and profession, I am never tempted to become a pessimist quite so much as when I see the silence and compliance of the North. in certain forms of lawlessness which know the majority of the citizens loathe. But if the North is not moved by a sense of duty to protect colored men in their rights, the sooner the North realizes that self preservation demands immediate, vigorous action on its part, the sooner will the North be able to avert those disasters and national tragedies which wholesale political corruption winked at by the Powers That Be and sanctioned lawlessness invariably lead. It does not require a great amount of profundity and perspicacity to see that the violation of one fundamental law invariably leads to the infraction of another. If the events which preceded & precipitated the War of the Rebellion teach one lesson more than another, it is that tolerating wrong, temporizing with injustice and long forbearance with evil doers are sure to bring shame and disgrace upon a nation that makes this fatal mistake. Putting off till tomorrow the correction of national evils which should be made today defers but a little the hour of wrath which is sure to strike. And when the day of retribution finally dawns, then the difficulty of throttling evils grown great and strong by time is increased a thousand fold. Delay is wicked; delay is dangerous; delay means death are the words of warning written upon every page of United States history from the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, till Fort Sumter was fired upon by Rebel guns. The French Revolution taught France the danger of delay in redressing the wrongs of the oppressed. Russia is learning that same lesson to day. God grant that our own beloved land may not be forced to atone a second time for cruel oppression of a persecuted race in a nation(s blood and tears.

When I think of the disfranchisement practiced in nearly every state of th South, the convict Lease System, the Contract Labor System, the Lynchings Bees, the Jim Crow Car Laws and other cruelties and atrocities which degrade and dishearten us as a race while they lower the moral tone of the Nation as a whole, I cannot help feeling it is the North&s duty to save the South from itself. We usually hear about the cruel yoke of oppressions under which Colored people groan in the South to day. And ever word written or spoken on this subject is the gospel truth, since it would be almost impossible to exaggerate the facts. But let me assure you that the colored man is not the only slave in the South to day. I verily believe there are hundreds of white men in the Southern States, who have been blessed with splendid intellects, who are kind and tender of heart, who yearn to be true to their higher, better natures, who dare not listen to the dictates of conscience and be just, because they languish in chains which a tyrannical public opinion and cruel, revengeful, vindictive intolerance of other people's views have forged. If I believed that the Douth were a Sodom and Gemorrah in which no humane, justice-loving white man could be found, I should despair far more of the Southern white man's future, than I do of the future of the race which he so cruelly wrongs.

There is a law, call it human, divine, retributive justice or what you will but there is an inexorable law which decrees that those who persistently and cold-bloodedly oppress the weak shall not always escape the consequences of their guilt. The law of the Medes and Persians was not more changeless and certain than this. Therefore, those who really have the South's best interests at heart should not cease to labor and remonstrate with it, until it is turned from its evil way. No greater service could be rendered the South by its best friends than to emancipate the people of that section from the thralldom of their narrow, petty prejudices, release them from the slavery of the brain-blighting, soul-crushing intolerance of other people's views, teach them the difference between the highest, purest patriotism and a narrow sectional pride, instill a sense of justice which will prevent them from either inflicting or withholding the penalty for wrong doing and crime on account of the colors of a man's skin, finally breathe into the hear of the people as a whole, a braod, Christian charity which shall extend even to their former slaves.

In the race problem as it presents itself to day there is much that is troublesome and complex. It will require indomitable courage and strong will on the part of the weak and inexhaustible patience on the part of the strong to settle it. But I am sure this great American nation will eventually break asunder the fetters of prejudice which bind the colored man as a freedom to day and afford him all the means of reaching the highest development it is possible for him to attain as I am sure the strongest and best portion of this nation delivered him from the bondage of slavery in the past.

The love of liberty which prompted the Pilgrim Fathers to forsake family, home and friends and trust their frail bark to a treacherous sea has been transmitted to their children and to their children's children forever. When these men and women of heroci mould separated themselves from the scene of their oppression, hatred of tyranny of all kinds took hold upon them with a deathless grip. Deep down in the heart of every true American lies an irrevocable repugnance to all forms of oppression, no matter how much they may yield at time to the temptation of hectoring the weak. The sons and daughters of men and women who chose to die in a bleak and barren land among savages, if need be, rather than remain in the oppressor's clutch may fall from the high estate bequathed them by their immortal ancestors for a time, but the children of such a blessed heritage will surely return to their, inheritance at last.

But the day of justice for all will never damn this nation can never be the exemplar to others that it might easily become nor can it accomplish what it might otherwise achieve till the strongest and best equipped men and women render personal service to the [?] realize and each [?]their individual responsibility to the unfortunate & weak.

It is the sacrificial conception of life which Miss Emerson has so aptly said – all of us must learn.

What Jesus said made a deep impression not only upon those with whom he walked & talked but upon mankind thru out all the ages that have followed. But what he said wod never have given a sacrificial conception of life a part from what he did-

Terrell, Mary Church. 1904. “The Strongest for the Weakest." Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress.