Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Thoughts about William J Northen's Article "The Negro Situation—One Way Out"

In the next few days I'll be publishing an episode of "The Plowshare Podcast" that features a conversation with Pastor Dwight McKissic about Race, Politics, and the SBC. In advance of publishing that episode, I wanted to make available this document. It's an essay written in 1907 by William J Northen. Northen had previously served as the Governor of the State of Georgia and separately as the President of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Northen wrote this essay in an effort to curtail the widespread lynching of black Georgians by white Georgians—that's a motive I think we all could affirm. In doing so, he gives the reader a full exposition of his views on race and politics.

I thought that this would be an interesting document to discuss with Dwight for a number of reasons. First, few Southern Baptists have read this document or anything like it. It is part of our history. Reading it gives an opportunity to have an accurate appraisal of our past. This is helpful both for those who would be tempted to deny that we have this history and for those who would be tempted to deny that we have changed and improved.

Second, the clearly articulated white supremacy in Northen's article is something that no prominent Southern Baptist would or could write today. Reading actual white supremacy might help us all to know what it is and be able to identify it. These ideas of white supremacy have waned in the SBC.

Third, the role of politics in the document is striking, and I think this is something that has NOT really changed. Sometimes it feels to me like our racial divides that sometimes emerge in the SBC are as much about politics as they are about theology, and that's exactly what Northen is describing in this article.

If you plan to listen to the podcast, you should probably acquaint yourself with this document.

The Negro Situation—One Way Out

William J. Northen
Ex-Governor of Georgia (1890-94)
Ex-President of the Southern Baptist Convention (1899-1901)

September 1907

The problem of the races is, at the same time, the most irritating in its conditions, the most unpopular for discussion and the most difficult of solution of all the problems that confront the American people.

Definitely the problem is the American adjustment of "the relations which should exist between the white people and the negro people of a common soil and whose welfare, in the last analysis, is a common weal." The Caucasian stands at one extreme and the African at the other extreme of the races. If, by any means, we can adjust the relations of the extremes, we shall settle, in a measure at least, all the problems of the races that come between.

Everywhere, whether together or separate, there seems to be on the part of us all, white and black, an inborn racial antagonism. The opportunity has come to the American people, as to no other, to adjust the relations that will harmonize the antagonisms of all the races. We cannot but believe that God has so intended with all the peoples of the earth, and it seems that he is using us for the uplift of our common humanity. We have the black men in large numbers. The red men we found here. The yellow men are clamoring and will finally get in. All these different ones are His creation and He wants each made complete and perfect in his place. Why may we not come to the task in willing and patient cooperation with all the higher forces that seek to bring joy and gladness out of sorrow and crime?

We have the spectacle of a weak race which lived for ages in wanton sin, in great incapacity and unpreparedness, placed in the dangerous environments of competition with what is strongest, and of association with and imitation of what is weakest and most criminal in the superior race. This is a severe test under the demands of a superior race, having centuries of civilization, in contrast with an inferior race, just beginning to know. "The negro must know that competition is becoming more and more intense and that the burden put upon him is growing heavier, in this advanced century, than he can bear. Unless these conditions are changed, slowly and silently the negro will be hemmed every way within straiter limits, his numbers will decrease and he will be steadily driven to the wall."

The people at the South have made great sacrifices to care for the negro. Vanquished, deep in debt, with a rural and scattered population, cursed with illiteracy, facing the gravest difficulties in every line, needing every available dollar, the South, in order to serve an alien people, severed from her in spirit, opposing her politically, irritating her socially, handicapping her industrially by their indolence and unreliability, arose in her poverty and gave them shelter, bread and educational training, with full opportunities for service that offered thrift and material accumulation.
In order that I may be altogether fair to the negro—I shall endeavor to be fair to the end—let me state some things fundamental and to be remembered, while we attempt the solution of this great problem.

First, the negro is in no sense responsible, as an original factor, for the ills that have come to the American people because of his residence in our community. He did not come to our shores of his own free will and of his own accord. He was abducted from his home, chained and dragged aboard slave-trading vessels and brought to our shores under his protest and through the greatest iniquity that has ever cursed the American people.

Second, we are paying the penalties that are consequent upon the negro's freedom, occurring at a time when the nation was stirred by war and blood and crime. At emancipation he was untutored and unguarded and allowed to roam the fields and country at large. Later, under reconstruction, he turned his liberty into license in crimes that entailed wholesale slaughter and violence. It is not his fault that he was left to the promptings and instincts of his wild and destructive nature without hindrance and without restraint.

Third, if in these conditions he was made a part of the body politic, with all the power of the ballot and the influence of a citizen, no charge can be laid at his door if evil and crime in abundance have resulted. He never sought such relations at the beginning. It was the act of the nation.

If these three statements are true and make the resultant a problem, it must be the white man's problem, and not the problem of the negro. The negro is not responsible for its beginning.

Every free-born American citizen who is a lineal descendant of the original settlers of New Jersey or Georgia, Massachusetts or South Carolina, or any other of the thirteen original colonies, is, either directly or remotely, descended from people who endorsed and encouraged the iniquitous slave trade and the subsequent dealings in human beings as merchandise and chattels. From all these sins the negro is entirely free and the white men of the nation, the entire nation, are responsible.

The settlers in the thirteen original colonies have scattered the negroes into every state in the union. Wherever they go they carry the problem of the races, demanding solution, dependent in its difficulty, primarily, upon the relative number of each race in the community in question.

In Nevada there are thirty-five thousand white people and 134 negroes. In Georgia there are one million one hundred and eighty-one thousand white people and one million and thirty-five thousand negroes. Of all the states Nevada, having the least number of negroes, should have the least difficulty in the solution. As Georgia has a larger number of negroes than any other state in the union, it would seem that Georgia would have the greatest difficulty in effecting a solution. If this basis of solution is correct, Nevada would have only four-tenths of one per cent of difficulty, while Georgia would have eighty-eight per cent of trouble.

A close study of these figures and others like them would necessarily compel the conclusion that Nevada could not be expected to outline an acceptable policy for the adjustment of relations in Georgia, as the problem in Nevada is not at all the problem in Georgia. The same thing can be as forcefully said of all the states, North and South, if put in comparison. If such comparison is made as to race troubles in the states named and others, North and South, terminating in violence, bloodshed, criminal assaults and lynchings, the results, by comparison, would astonish many who are not now informed.

More important than the statements just made is the consideration that the white people and the negroes in Nevada did not undergo the violent shock that came to the white people and the negroes in Georgia immediately after the war. Antagonisms and bitterness and hate were then engendered in Georgia and at the South, which caused a separation of the races that has grown wider and wider apart.

After the war the negroes were promptly made citizens. Since that day the negro at the South has been determined to oppose, politically, everything he believes the white man wants. He is a Republican, an Independent or a what not, merely in order to oppose and fight against anything he knows the white man advocates. To this the white man will not submit in patient endurance without striking back in kind. The negro's polities has strained his relations and largely hindered his opportunities at the South.

In addition to this spirit of intense opposition, born in politics, as just stated, a greater element of our problem is that we find ourselves in the midst of large numbers of negroes who are ignorant and vicious, grossly immoral, self-assertive and almost entirely unrestrained. For these conditions the people at the South do not hold themselves altogether responsible.

It is a great mistake to believe that there is no kind of harmony between the better elements of the races in Georgia and at the South. Quite the contrary is true. The good class of negroes is intelligent, progressive and resourceful. Its religion is not a sham. Its education has not spoiled it and its devotion to duty is not inspired by the "loaves and fishes." Its ideals are good, its social standards high and its life wholesome and elevating. It has been lifted from heathen darkness to its present attainments by the power of the grace of God. If all American negroes were of this class, there would be no "negro problem."

It will be best for all parties if the white man, strong and dominant, will look seriously and sympathetically at the men of the weaker and the dependent race, and seeing them just as they are, intelligently set about aiding them. This is just what we have begun to do in Georgia upon a plan based entirely upon our local conditions, as, in my judgment, all other people must be allowed to do. Before we entered upon our plan in Georgia, there were some things fundamental that were necessary to be settled between the races, at the beginning.

There is a chemistry of humanity as there is a chemistry of fire, water, air and gunpowder, that may result in serious ex plosion if it is not properly understood and wisely handled. All history shows that no two races approaching in any degree equality in numbers, can live peaceably together unless intermarriage takes place or the one becomes dependent upon the other.

Miscegenation by law will never take place at the South. That may be accepted as an established fact and settled beyond question, and for all time to come. Intermarriage at the South need not be argued for a moment. Unless the South breaks the record of all history, there is only one alternative left and that is that the negro must be dependent, in a measure at least, upon the white man, as he cannot hope to dominate him. This basis of action was notably accepted in an address delivered in my city by Dr. Booker Washington and loudly applauded by the large number of negroes he was addressing.

The negro in Georgia has now put himself as a dependent upon the superior race by his own public, general and voluntary statement. The white people of Georgia would be grossly recreant to this acknowledged confidence and this trust if they did not give the assurance that every individual black man, with his family, shall be absolutely sure that he will receive justice, in his civil rights, his industrial relations, his educational opportunities and his moral and spiritual interests. This the people in Georgia have publicly proclaimed. All that we now need in order to work out our problem slowly and surely, is the sympathy and not the criticism of those who do not still understand the great hindrances that are yet in our way.

In Georgia we are free to announce that all men, irrespective of color, race or condition, shall be equally exempt from punishment until guilt has been duly ascertained and declared; and to announce further that nothing but authentic justice can be called public justice, or is public justice, either in law or in fact. Anything outside of authentic justice, as found in lynching and the riotous savagery of mobs, is as much condemned by the people in my state as in any state in the union or any section of the nation.

Lawlessness on the part of white men is as severely censured and condemned as lawlessness and violence by negroes. With us there can be no aristocracy of crime. A white fiend is as much to be dreaded as a black brute. In Georgia, we insist that the white man and the negro are to be always equal before the law.
Second, while we deny and disallow social equality, we are quite as free to grant and to defend the negro's fullest rights in industrial privileges and business opportunities.

I do not believe that there are now twenty-five capable and trustworthy negroes in my state to-day out of employment, who could not get work in fifteen minutes if they wanted it. Negroes have access to all the trades and all the professions as barbers, mechanics, artisans, masons, lawyers, dentists, etc. They are not prevented from work by labor unions. Such distinctions between the races would not be approved by our people.

Third, while we demand and will always positively enforce the requirement that the negro shall have separate schools and separate educational institutions, we are quite willing to provide that they shall have equal advantages with the white people for primary education under our public-school system. Indeed, their educational opportunities are in advance of those of the white man, in that the white people pay by far the greater bulk of the taxes, while the schools for the races are the same in character and advantage.

Some would-be friends of the negroes, as it seems to me, have made mistakes in attempting to educate the negro outside of his environment and away from his opportunities.

If the negro is made industrially capable and industrially reliable, the people at the South would rather have his service than such as could be rendered by any other people upon the earth. But it is possible that the kind of education to which he has been encouraged in some quarters has given him a feeling of self-sufficiency that has lifted him entirely out of his place among the people who would be more than glad to use him, with profit to himself, if he were only willing to serve.

While the negro is in no way responsible for the beginning of the problem, he is most criminally responsible for its wicked continuance. There is not a single negro from among the one million in my state, who does not fully understand the villainy of the outrages that are sometimes committed by their people. This responsibility is upon them and upon them solely. We expect to hold them responsible until they are controlled, properly punished and made obedient to law. In this effort, the better negroes are now rendering most helpful service and counsel.

We have lawless whites as well as lawless negroes, as do all the other states. When these two elements mix in Georgia, as elsewhere, we have the spectacle of settling the race problem by blood.

Representing a body from the very best citizens of my city, I have personally canvassed nearly one hundred counties in my state. In these several counties we have organized into committees large numbers of the best white citizens, who will undertake locally the adjustment of the relations of the races and the proper control of the lawless and disorderly of both races. Later, these committees will associate with themselves numbers of the law-abiding, good negroes resident in the several communities. The very best citizens of my state are taking position with the committees and the spirit of all the people is more hopeful and the solution of the problem is beginning.

The secretive disposition of the better negroes is giving way before their sense of responsibility to the community, and they are doing well in the delivery of their criminals to the officers of the law.
During the present session of our legislature, we hope to see enacted stringent and wholesome laws against vagrancy and idleness, so that we can put to work all the indolent and vicious, the classes from which all our criminals now come.

The problem of the races involves "the relations of the Anglo-Saxon, as the people of power, to the negroes, who are a people of weakness." Therefore, the problem with us must be settled, if settled at all, by the superior wisdom and superior judgment of the superior race, in righteous and just consideration for the inferior race. The white man must take a masterful initiatory leadership and determine the course of conduct after the fullest, most painstaking and complete investigation and, in kindly conference with the best element of the negro race, reach the most equitable and just adjustment possible for the best interests of the two.

We shall not solve this great and vexing problem in a day nor a year, but it is our problem and we will handle it wisely, with purpose, with vigor and with results. We must save the negro or it is plain his wickedness and his crimes will destroy the state. Our patriotism, our humanity and our Christianity all compel us to righteous efforts for the solution of this problem.

Who saves his country saves himself; saves all things, and all things saved bless him. Who lets his country die, lets all things die; dies himself ignobly, and all things dying curse him.