Colored Voters to Colored Voters.
JACKSON, Sept. 30, 1875.
Friends and Fellow-Citizens:
We take the liberty of addressing this letter to you because the occasion which calls it forth is full of momentous interest to all of us. We desire to arouse you, if you are not already aroused, to an acute sense of the importance of the crisis which we, as a race, have reached in this State; and at the same time to take counsel together as to the best and surest means of averting the danger which so seriously threatens our liberties as American citizens.
We know, as we pen these lines, that the shallow thinker, and the willful demagogue, will taunt us with drawing the “Color Line,” merely because we address this letter specially to colored men. But you will perceive that this is not a political letter, in the strict party sense, but rather an appeal to that class of the people of Mississippi who have much more at stake than the mere principles or policy of a party organization. The matters involved in the present political canvass, which concern us as a race, extend much deeper, and rise far above, mere party lines. Our civil rights and privileges as freemen are at issue. It is a melancholy fact, but nevertheless a fact, that in every election which has been held at the South since the ballot was placed in our hands, all that we have, all that we are, and all that we hope to be, have been thrown into the scales, to be contended for at the polls. It is in this respect that our case differs so materially from that of our white fellow citizens. A Democrat cannot apply an unfriendly act of legislation to a white Republican without subjecting himself to the same ordeal. Not so with us, as has been proven by every Southern State that has come under the control of the Democracy since the war. It is in this respect, then, that our case is peculiar, and it is for this reason that this letter is addressed especially to you; and not for the purpose of suggesting or encouraging the formation of race lines in a party organization. The Republican party is proud of its white members, and has never yet failed to honor them. We boast of some of the best men that ever trod the soil of Mississippi, and to them we owe a debt of gratitude, never to be forgotten.
We write in the light of experience and actual demonstration, when we say that the success of the Democratic party at the ensuing election, frenzied as it is with hate and rancor, will, to all intents and purposes, sound the death knell of all the hopes that the colored man has indulged of educating, elevating and improving his race in this State. Once under the iron heel of Democracy, the colored man will at once sink back to the status he held in 1865 – free in name, but not in fact – poor, ignorant and helpless, hedged in by unfriendly laws, which he will have no power to circumvent – a “hewer of wood and a drawer of water” forever. His children will grow up as they did in the days of chattel slavery, untaught, and uncared for until they become large enough to take the places of their parents, to “hew more wood and draw more water.” And thus on, from generation to generation, down to the end of time, or until it shall please a merciful Providence to terminate their career on earth in utter extinction. Look, for illustration, at the miserable, down-trodden, wretched colored people of Georgia. Hopelessly in debt to their employers, with no rights respected by the courts, their means of education, the very mockery of a school system, crushed and discouraged, it is said that at the last election in that State at least 30,000 colored men did not have the heart to go to the polls and vote. So, you see that, when the reins of power once pass into Democratic hands, it amounts in the end to practical disfranchisement, as far as you are concerned.
Do you ask if this will be so in Mississippi? Reasoning from analogy, that is, by supposing that the same kind of people will do the same thing under similar circumstances, you may know it will be so. But we are not left to a plausible conjecture on this subject. Read the Acts of the Legislature of 1865, after you were emancipated, but before you were voters. Under the operation of laws provided for you then, your condition would have been far worse than that of slavery. Examine the journals of the Legislature since that time, clear down to the present date, and see for yourselves if the Democratic members ever supported a measure that was intended for the benefit of the colored people. On the contrary, see if they have not, on all occasions, in season and out of season, resorted to every means to thwart and obstruct such measures.
And, indeed, it is sad to think and know that this is so! Nearly every one of us were slaves to these Southern people. Before the war many of us have lived and basked in the sunshine of the affection of the “old master” and of the “young master,” of the “old mistress” and of the pride of the household, the blooming “young miss,” with all the fondness of trusting children. With many of us this affection and veneration amounted to little less than idolatry. We know that they cannot find it in their hearts to believe that we hate them now. Are they who went to the war and left their wives and little ones in our care at home – they who confided to our keeping, everything they held dear on earth, at a time when we knew that our freedom was trembling in the balance – they whose scalding tears fell upon our clasped hands as they pressed everything into our charge while they should be gone – are they our enemies? They remember that we were true to them and theirs throughout that bitter trial, and when they came home they found us there, true to our trust, and the first to welcome them at the gate. We are not a bloody-minded people. We were framed for peace, but our blood would have been ready to gush out upon the ground, had it been necessary to shed it in defense of our sacred charge. Were any holy promises made which were to be fulfilled after the war was over? We never speak of them now, but we have not forgotten! Do we hate them? No, a thousand times no!
At the close of the war we were the poorest people that ever had an existence in a civilized community. We not only had no “local habitation,” but we had no legitimate “name.”
The Government of the United States made us free, and, in due course of time, invested us with all the rights and privileges of citizens. This was thought to be necessary in order that we might have the means of self-protection, to some extent at least, in the struggle for existence. Among these rights and privileges was the right of suffrage. Clothed with the right to vote, we went forth, poor in purse, but strong in muscle, and inhaled for the first time the air of heaven as freemen. We demanded no pay for the long years of service as slaves! We made no charge for the weary watching and anxious cares which weighed us down during the four years of war! We begged for no lands, nor mules, nor money! We were content to go forth into the world as freemen, asking for nothing, and expecting nothing, in that unequal start, but a fair and equal chance in the battle of life! With all these tender recollections crowding upon us, it bleeds the very heart of us to think that our “old masters,” and the “young masters” who have been nursed in our arms, would deprive us of the privilege of casting our votes as we please without the risk of being shot to death like dogs. We still hope that this coldness and ill-feeling toward us is more the result of sectional animosity, and party rancor, than of personal hostility to us as a race, and we confidently look forward to a returning sense of justice, and right reason, when perfect amity and concord will bear sway once more.
But, colored men, that time is not now. Our old friends and former masters are, for the present, under the control of a set of desperate political leaders who have “fired their hearts” again, and have “fired” them this time against us. They are not in a humor to be talked to now. Passion rules the hour. Under these circumstances, it is of the utmost importance that you should keep cool – very cool – but at no time forget that your rights are endangered, and at all times bear in mind that in this hour of madness they would be crushed out of existence if entrusted to the Democracy. You must not only think for yourselves, but you must act for yourselves. A failure now to come fully up to the duty of the hour, may cost you the loss of that privilege forever hereafter. “Now is the time, and the accepted time.” “Work while it is day, for the night cometh when no man can work.” The Government has placed it in your power to perpetuate and preserve all your rights and liberties, and is now anxiously watching to see if you are worthy of the blessings of citizenship. You can easily do all that is required of you. If you have not procured your registration papers, you can get them. Being provided with them, it will be an easy matter to vote. If you never vote again on earth, vote now! The Republican party has thirty or forty thousand majority in the State. Shall we be defeated and go down in disgrace and ignominy? Never! Let us, with uplifted hands and with one united voice, swear by Him who led the children of Israel out of the wilderness, that we will save ourselves from the clutches of the Democracy, and that we will cast our votes in spite of threats and intimidation. Be courageous, not over-bold; prove your manhood by your determination to exercise your rights at the ballot-box fearlessly as men and citizens, exercising a courteous and at all times respectful bearing toward your political opponents, who will, in time, have respect for you because you respect yourselves.
We would most earnestly entreat you, for the sake of the common good, to lay upon the altar of a self-sacrificing patriotism, all personal ambition for office. And we implore you not to fritter away your strength upon a divided ticket. If you have local differences, settle them, and settle them now. Have but one ticket in the field, and let that be composed of your best and worthiest men. This is no time to gratify the aspirations of personal friends, nor to seek revenge upon personal enemies. Be united, or all is lost.
Then let it be whispered all along the line that, on the 2d day of November next, there is to be an election in which all our rights and liberties are at stake. Then let each and every one, without a single exception, with a prayer to God on his lips, make a firm resolve that he will prove himself worthy of all his rights by going to the ballot-box and casting his vote. Do this firmly and unitedly, and on your way home from the election you may lift your voice in thanks and praise, for the victory will be ours!
May God make you profoundly sensible of the importance of the great duty which now devolves upon you.
Your friends and fellow-citizens,
E. B. WILBOURN,
S. J. IRELAND,
N. D. SNEED,
LAWRENCE W. MINOR,
W. H. FOOTE,
B. K. BRUCE,
T. W. STRINGER,
H. G. W. ALBRIGHT,
G. C. SMITH,
W. H. HARNEY,
And many others.