Mary Church Terrell

Campaign Speech made at Newport, Rhode Island - 12 October 1920

Mary Church Terrell
October 12, 1920
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[hw] = handwritten

Campaign Speech made at Newport, R.I.

October 12, 1920.

It is extremely difficult for me to make a campaign speech to an audience composed of colored people. As a rule when I speak, I try to do one of two things; either, to enlighten people about the things they do not know, or, to convert them from what I think is a wrong point of view to a right. I can do neither one of these things to an audience like this for you all know as much as I do about the two great parties in the United States, so far as their attitude toward colored people is concerned.

No matter how ignorant a colored man is, he has sense enough to know that the Republican Party is the only one that has ever done anything for his Race, and that the Democratic Party has not helped him one single, solitary bit. And, if there is a colored man in this audience who is really a Democrat at Heart, I would not know what to say, or how to say it, where to start, or where to end, to convert such a rare bird.

Let us examine the record of the Democratic Part, and see just what it has done. Do you ever read the newspapers in this section? Frederick Douglass said, “if you want to keep anything from colored people, put it in the newspapers”. Well, if you do not read the newspapers, do you ever talk to colored people who come from that section where Democrats are as thick as bees in a hive, and where they sting colored people every time they fly?

If you read the newspapers and talk with colored people who come from a certain large section in this Country you will know there are thousands of colored men who are intelligent and well-to-do, but who would take their lives in their hands if they dared to cast a ballot, where there are thousands of men of other races, some of whom are ignorant, vicious, and degraded, but who are practically forced to vote. Jog your memory and see which of the two parties is responsible for a condition like that.

At the close of the War, if an Abolitionist or an Union soldier had been told that in less than forty years much of the work which it cost millions of treasure, and rivers of blood to accomplish, would be practically undone in every one of the States where the Democratic Party is strongest, he would have dismissed such a statement as too wildly, crazy and improbable to discuss; and, this is precisely what has happened.

Constitutional Amendments which conferred the elective franchise upon colored men are practically a dead letter in every State where Democrats have control. Call attention to the illegal political practices and you are accused of waving the bloody shirt, nothing can be more criminal. Public wrath where Democrats have control is no longer turning against the sinner but against him who dares to call the sinner to account.

Is there any colored man in this audience who finds it in his heart to vote for this Party that has taken the right of suffrage from the members of his Race, particularly in this section where it is more necessary that anywhere else to have the ballot as a protection?

[hw] I would not know what to say to convert him. I would not know where to start where to end what to say or how to say it in a desperate effort to change such a colored man’s mind. Indeed I found a colored man who was a real bona fide democrat I would be xx certain that he did not have any mind at all. So it wd be a waste of time to argue with him. [hw]

Every colored man outside of a lunatic asylum knows that if he votes for a Democrat instead of a Republican president he is giving his enemy a stick to break his own head. When a colored man casts his ballot for a Democratic president it is equivalent to the same, your party has disfranchised us, and violated the amendments to the Constitution which conferred the elective franchise upon my Race, but that does not make any difference to me, you are all right just the same.

In that section of the Country where the Democratic Party is the strongest, they formed a Ku-Klux Clan right after the War. Did you ever hear anything about that? This murderous band would ride to the door of colored people at night, force them open, drag from their beds colored men who had committed no crime, brutally tear them from women of their families who plead in vain for their lives, and then, this savage band which sometimes numbered hundreds of men, would terrorize and torture this one lone colored man to their hearts content leaving him in a dark and lonely wood, they would beat him to an insensibility, or hang him to a tree, or shoot him to death.

Ah! but somebody may say, you are talking about something that happened a long time ago. But, I have here in my hand the New York World which contains a picture of the Ku-Klux Clan which is being formed all over the South, and I will read a few interesting bits from it so that you may see whether this band of maurauders and murderers is really a thing of the past.

There is another thing to which I wish to call your attention. In that section where the Democratic Party is strongest, and where a large number of colored people live, dirty, and uncomfortable, and unsightly shacks which are scarcely fit to house animals. Poor little colored children who live in rural districts are able to attend school only two or three months in the year. Under the regime of the Democratic Party colored teachers are paid starvation wages so that it is hard to get well trained teachers to instruct the children of our Race.

In those States where the Democratic Party is strongest, taxes which colored people pay themselves, and to which they are entitled by law for the for the support of their schools, are often snatched from them and given to the schools for white children. Not long ago in one state, at least, where the Democratic Party holds $20,000. which should have gone to the support of the schools for colored children were used for the white.

[hw] composed by men who had murder in their hearts and money in their souls [hw]

In the Democratic Strong-hold where 133 electoral votes will be gathered up, put on s silver plate, and handed to Mr. Cox for his breakfast; it is absolutely impossible for the colored man to get justice in the courts of law.

In that section where a white Republican is as scarce as hen’s teeth, the iniquitous “convict lease system” flourishes. I have discovered in referring to it in private conversation, and public addressed delivered in the North, very few up here among either white or colored people know anything about that diabolitical system at all.

Under the regime of the “convict lease system” colored men, women, and children are thrown in to dark, damp, diseased cells not much larger than a good sized grace. They are overworked, under fed, and only partially covered with vermin infested rags. Hundreds of children are born to the colored women in these camps, and breathe the polluted atmosphere of these dens of vice and woe from the moment they utter their first cry into the world until they are released from its horrors by death.

In that section where a Republican is indeed a rare bird, colored people are victims of the “contract labor system”. Did you ever hear of that? Colored people who work day in and day out are deliberately and systemically robbed of their earnings. There are colored men this moment in the rural sections of the South who are still working to pay off a debt of a few dollars which they borrowed eight or ten years ago from the white man for whom they are still working and on whose land they are still living today. So accustomed are colored people to be cheated in this way that they have composed a little rhyme which runs like this:- “naught’s a naught, and a figger is a figger; all for the white man, but none for the nigger”.

In that section where the Democratic Party is strongest, it is almost impossible for colored men to protect the women of his family from the attentions and insults of any white man who may set his baleful eye upon her. Many a colored man who has been lynched has been put to death because he has tried to protect some woman in his family from the lustful attentions of a white man.

Also, in that section where the Democratic Party is most strongly entrenched in power, decent, intelligent, self-respecting colored people are forced to ride on dirty, unventilated, and unseemly “jim-crow” cars. Colored people find it almost impossible to get Pullman accommodations in that section. More than once, colored people who have insisted upon getting these accommodations have lost their lives. The staunchest, and loudest advocates of the Democratic Party have stood for this, and many other outrages upon defenseless colored people in that section where the majority of the Race have lived for years and years.

I can not believe that any intelligent colored man or colored woman is willing to put in power a Party, the majority of whose members has abused and despitefully used their Race for so many years like this. I can not believe that any sensible colored man or woman could bring themselves to vote for a Party who has so long, and so consistently done everything in its power to injure, and hold in subjection the members of their Race. I would hardly know how to argue, where to begin, and where to end in talking to colored men and women who have so little regard for their own Race, and that stand so much in their own light as to vote for the Party which has treated them like this.

But, someone may say; there are some Democrats as good as Republicans. That is true. Some Democrats may be even better than some Republicans, but when an organization is to be judged we must estimate its worth on what the majority of its members stand for. Personally, Mr. Cox may be as good a man as Mr. Harding. Of course, I have very serious doubts about that. But even if I knew that Mr. Cox were better than Mr. Harding, I would not vote for him because he belongs to the Party which has always discriminated against my Race. Even if Mr. Cox were better than Mr. Harding, Mr. Cox could not do the things which Mr. Harding will do for us, because Mr. Cox is no stronger than his Party. In other words, the man is known by the company he keeps, and I don’t like the company Mr. Cox keeps.

But, the Democratic Party may do much better in the future, than it has done in the past, someone may say. I will ask anybody who talks to me about the promises made by the Democratic Party to think for a second about the promises which were made to the colored people by this administration, and answer honestly if any of them were kept.

When we think of the hopes that were built upon promises made to everybody when the United States entered the War, see how they were dashed ruthlessly to the ground. How can we put any faith in the promises which the Democratic Party is making today? Personally, I have not heard about any great promises that the Democratic Party is making to the colored people of this Country. So far as I know, neither Mr. Cox nor his Party have bothered themselves about the colored people and their welfare at all.

It is the habit of some colored people to blame the colored men for certain conditions which exist today. Not long ago I heard a prominent colored woman criticize very severely the men of the Race for selling their votes. She said; “you know you have sold out and the country is very much disappointed in you;” and she made other statements along that line.

I have heard my father say over and over again that colored men of the South did not begin to sell their votes until they knew that their votes would not be counted, even if they cast them. My father used to vote colored men by the hundreds right after the War.

As a little girl I remember seeing him put a shot-gun on his back and stand at the polls from morning till night, seeing that colored men who came to vote were protected. He used to say, “Daughter, when you hear colored men accused of selling out, remember that colored men never sold their votes so long as they were counted, but they are human beings like the rest of us. When they discovered that white men were selling their votes to the highest bidder, and that black men’s votes were not counted any how, when white men offered them sums of money to sell out, they did as the average man would do under similar circumstances.

But, since we are discussing the subject of votes I want to ask you in all fairness; who is the greater sinner, the man who comes and tempts his brother who is ignorant and poor by offering him money, or the ignorant man who in his poverty yields to the temptation? I want to ask you which is the greater sinner of the two; the white man who offers the bribe, or the black man who takes it?

Terrell, Mary Church. “Campaign Speech made at Newport, Rhode Island.” Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress. 12 October 1920.