Darrow Speaks Out About Race

Lecture delivered to an African-American audience at the Detroit YMCA, Nov. 8, 1925
[Excerpts from an account appearing in the Detroit Free Press, Nov. 9, 1925.]

"The Problem of the Negro"
[A lecture delivered at the Men's Club in Chicago, May 19, 1901.]

1925 Lecture Delivered at the Detroit YMCA

[On November 8, 1925, Clarence Darrow spoke--in an easy conversational manner--to an audience of 1500 African Americans at the Detroit YMCA.  Although the first Sweet trial was then in progress, Darrow told the crowd that he could not discuss the trial.  (He did tell the crowd, however, that 90,000 blacks could not possibly fit into a black district built to accomodate 9,000, and that an incident such as that involving the Sweets was almost inevitable.)  An account published in the Detroit Free Press described Darrow's Sunday afternoon speech as "a gloomy peroration" delivered with "grim twinkling eyes." He talked for two hours, "rattling keys about in his hand, wearing a white string tie and shaggy hair." Excerpts from the speech quoted in the Free Press follow.]

"Obviously, they [the blacks migrating to Detroit] have to move somewhere.  If they move into white neighborhoods, they depreciate property values.  That is true, and I confess I don't know what can be done about it."

"Always the man on the ground has feared the new comer because he did not understand him.  If a white man went into the Congo, he would be hated and misunderstood.  That is your lot here.  You have a long, long road to travel, an arduous foe to fight, and that foe is prejudice, which we have always had with us."

"It may be, that without slavery, your race would never have had its chance for civilization.  You might still be savages in Africa--and you might be better off there.  But still I think that civilization is worth the price we have to pay for it."

"You'll have to work harder--harder than the white man--because you're on his home grounds....There is no inherent difference between your capacity for growth and that of any other man, whatever his color."

"[I wonder whether you might be happier] playing with the crocodiles and eating breadfruit by the Congo's shores."

"I used to drink before Prohibition.  I still drink."

"Hope is the salvation of the world, inasmuch as it has any salvation.  I sometimes believe it should be called 'dope,' because that is what it is.  Life is a mystery.  We don't know what we are, or why we are here, or whence we came.  But as long as we're here, we might as well make the best of it."

by Clarence Darrow

[A lecture delivered to a mostly African-American audience at the Men's Club in Chicago, May 19, 1901.]

Probably I do not look at the race problem in as hopeful a way as many of you people do, and I fear that much I shall say this evening will appear discouraging and pessimistic, for I am somewhat pessimistic about the white race, to say nothing about the colored race; when I see how anxious the white race is to go to war over nothing and to shoot down men in cold blood for the benefit of trade, I am pessimistic about the white race, and when I see the injustice everywhere present and how the colored race is particularly subjected to that injustice and oppression, I admit that I am pessimistic as to the future of the colored race, and fear the dreams we have indulged in of perfect equality and of unlimited opportunity are a long way from any realization. But unless we approach these subjects from the right standpoint and go along the right path there is no prospect of ever reaching a right solution.

Last week I had two conversations with two typical men, and these conversations have done much to arouse in my mind a train of thought in reference to this problem, which is not altogether hopeful, I must say, to the Negro race, and I want to give these conversations, or the substance of them, about as they occurred, and as I go along I will try to draw a lesson from them.

I do not want you to think in the beginning that I endorse either one of them, excepting as they show the thoughts of two men, both of whom were students, both close observers, two men approaching this question from a diametrically opposite standpoint.

The first was born in Virginia upon a plantation, and knew what slavery was-he is one of the ablest men in the United States, a man who has given his whole life to the cause of human liberty--Mr. Moncure D. Conway. Beginning life as a Methodist minister, he graduated from that to a Congregational minister, and from that he graduated out of all the churches. He had the spirit of abolitionism and, while he was the son of a slaveholder, born with the slaves, he did not believe in slavery. He entered the cause of abolitionism way back when John Brown entered it; he entered it with Wendell Phillips, with William Lloyd Garrison, with Henry Ward Beecher, and with all the great men who made the cause of abolitionism famous, and I may say sacred, as a great cause for human liberty.

He told me with what enthusiasm he entered that cause, how it had been his life, and that when Lincoln issued his proclamation, he thought all had been accomplished, and he felt that he had been one of the warriors in a great battle that had ended in favor of human liberty. He went to England and spent many years there as a teacher and leader of advanced thought. He came back to America a few years ago, went South again, went over the scenes of his early youth and life--an old man still young in his enthusiasm for justice, truth and liberty; but he said, as he looked the field over now, he felt that the abolitionists had been befooled and cheated and defrauded, that this great victory which he believed they had won was not a victory at all, that the enemies of human liberty had really tamed victory into defeat, that the colored man today was a slave as much as he was when Moncure D. Conway entered the great fight for human liberty fifty years ago. He said, as he looked over the South and looked over the conditions of the Negro in the South, he believed that they had less--less to eat, less to wear, less comfortable homes to live in, less to satisfy their material wants than they had as slaves-and that some way or other the powers of injustice and wrong which are ever battling in this world against justice, liberty and truth, that these had succeeded and had undone all the glorious work of Garrison, of Phillips, and Conway and Beecher, and that host of men who worked so val-iantly for the black man's cause.

The next day I had a conversation with quite a different type of man. This man occupies a high official position in a southern state-he is a man of culture and learning and intelligence. He was born in the South, had all the prejudices of the South, and looked at this question from quite the opposite point of view from the grand old gentleman with whom I had talked the day before. This man said that the Negro in the South was worse off than he was under slavery, that all the schools and colleges in the South were worse than useless, that the Negro had made absolutely no progress and that he never would; that whatever education had been given to the Negro had harmed him and had harmed the whites. He defended all the lynchings and all the burnings; he said the white people were bound to do these things, that it was necessary to protect their property, to protect their lives and especially to pro-tect their women. He said there was absolutely no solution to the Negro question excepting upon the lines of the inferiority of the Negro race; that they were not social equals, never could be social equals, and that every attempt to make them such injured alike the black race and the white.

I have heard this so many times before that I think this statement represents substantially the whole of the white people of the southern states; in the South are a few white people who have been born there who do not agree with this view, but so far as my observation goes, the great mass do agree with it and they form a solid phalanx to fight the cause of the Negro, to keep him where he is, or, if possible, reduce him still further to a position of servitude, so that he simply toils for the race and never expects any reward, or asks for any reward.

Let me tell you some other things that this man said. He said that if they did not lynch Negroes and burn them it would not be safe for white women in the South. I have heard these things before, and you have heard them before. He said there was no such danger in the days of slavery; white men and white women were perfectly safe in the South in the days of slavery, but now they were not; that these Negroes had received ideas that they were as good as anybody else, and that on account of these ideas they had placed themselves in such an attitude towards the whites that they were obliged to lynch them if necessary to protect themselves. He had lived in the South long years before the war, and he said there never was any trouble with the Negro race before the war.

He said that in New Orleans a very strong agitation was setting in to compel companies to have different street cars for the white and colored passengers, and that they would undoubtedly succeed in making the companies carry the colored people on separate car's. He said there were many reasons why this should be; that the white people and the colored people should not mix; and again, he said, of course, the colored people are working people; they go into a car not in proper condition to ride with the people who do not work. Of course I understood that it would be only a question of time when we would get separate cars for working people up here in the North, if this theory was to be universally applied. An aristocrat is an aristocrat, no matter whether you find him in the North or in the South; it is in him and will come out whether he is speak-ing about colored people, Irishmen, working people, or anyone whatsoever.

There is no use disguising the fact that the colored people are in an inferior position today throughout the South and throughout the North. There is no use to disguise the fact that the South proposes to keep them in that inferior position, and that they do not propose to ever tolerate anything that approaches social equality; they say it openly, at least when they think they are talking to their friends, and they practice it upon every occasion.

This man said to me that it was unpleasant to ride in a street car with a colored person. He said that he did not like the odor of the colored people in the street cars. I had heard that before. I said to him, "You do not refuse to go to a hotel where they have a colored waiter, do you?" "No," he said, "that is all right." "Well," I said, "what is the difference between the odor of the waiter bringing you a dinner and when he rides in a street car?" Well, he said, there was a difference and they could not stand it anyway. Then he went on to tell how he loved his old black mammy. There is nothing wrong about the odor of the old black mammy, providing she is still the same old black mammy, but when the most refined, delicate, clean, colored person in the world meets them upon terms of equality, then there is something wrong about their odor. A black woman, no matter how black, may sit all day in a Pullman car if she is holding a white child on her lap; nobody objects to that, but if the white child was not there nobody could possibly stand it to be anywhere near that black woman.

Now, of course, all of these reasons that they give are excuses, pure and simple; they are not truthful statements; at the root it -is simply race prejudice, and the prejudices of superiority which we find everywhere in the world, but against which the Negro suffers more than any other race in the world. Nobody can analyze this feeling and arrive at any other conclusion. A man is refused a ride upon a street car in the South not because he is dirty, but because the Lord made his face black, that is the reason. They refuse to eat their dinner beside a woman in a restaurant, a woman whom I could not tell whether she is white or black from her appearance, as I could not tell many of the women here and many of the men here tonight; but they refuse to break bread with them because the Lord happened to put a few drops of African blood in their veins, and of course one drop is just the same as all. There is no excuse for this. No person can place it upon a scientific basis; it is a question of feeling.

When Douglas and Lincoln were debating in Illinois, Mr. Douglas, as his last and unanswerable statement asked, "Would you want your girl to marry a Negro?" and that was the end of it. Well, that is a pretty fair question, and I am inclined to think that really that question is the final question of the race problem; and not merely the catchword of a politician. Is there any reason why a white girl should not marry a man with African blood in his veins, or is there any reason why a white man should not marry a colored girl? If there is, then they are right and I am wrong. Everybody may have his own taste about marrying, whether it is between two people of the same race or two people of a different race, but is there any reason in logic or in ethics why people should not meet together upon perfect equality and in every relation of life and never think of the difference, simply because one has a little darker skin than the other? It does not always follow even that they have darker skins. There are very many people who have some colored blood in their veins and who have a lighter skin.

Is there any reason why an Indian should not associate on term of perfect equality with the white man? Even our most fastidious people, you know, invite the East Indian gentlemen to come to their dinners and their parties and exhibit them as great curiosities in the best families and the best churches. When the Buddhists came over here at the time of the World's Fair we thought they were great people, and their skin was as dark as any of you people here tonight, and there was no reason why they should not have been treated on terms of perfect equality with the white people of the United States; neither is there any reason why a person of dark skin, who has been born and bred in the United States, should be considered any different whatever from a person of white skin, and yet they are. The basis of it is prejudice, and the excuses given are pure hypocrisy; they are not good excuses, they are not honest excuses.

We hear people say that it is necessary to lynch a Negro in the South, and even to bum a Negro in the South to protect white women, and you find some good, Christian people defending the lynching of Negroes, and even the burning of Negroes in the South, because it is necessary, and I presume they open some of these lynchings with prayer. I do not know why they should not; they defend them.

Now, I do not object to lynchings on account of lynchings espe-cially. We do not always arrive at "act justice in our courts of law; you are not sure because you go through a court that you get at the truth, and I presume that a court organized on the spot, as a body of lynchers are organized, is perhaps quite as apt to get at the truth as a court of justice where lawyers are hired to work a long while to prove that the guilty man is innocent and the innocent man is guilty. I am not especially opposed to the lynchings of Negroes in the South because they do not get a fair trial. A poor man does not get a fair trial anywhere. But this is what I object to: I object to lynching a man because he is a Negro. 'Mese men in the South are not lynched because they have committed this crime; they are lynched because the Lord painted their faces black. If the southern people or the northern people would enter into an agreement and would stand by it, by which they would try every black man who assaults a white woman by lynch law, and at the same time try every white man who assaults a black woman by lynch law, I would say, "Well and good, we will stand by it." I do not believe in hanging anybody, much less do I believe in burning anybody, but above all things else I believe in equality between all people, no hypocrisy; treat everybody alike, and if the southern gentlemen, or the northern gentlemen, believe it is necessary to build bonfires to burn colored men for assaulting white women, well and good, but let them also build bonfires to burn white men for assaulting colored women; treat them all alike. These reasons that are given are excuses, hypocritical excuses, which are not true, and which they know are not true. These lynchings in the South and these burnings in the South are not for the protection of the home and the fireside; they are to keep the Negroes in their place. Of course here and there they are done under some provocation. Crimes are being committed always, everywhere, by whites and blacks, but these particular instances are different. When the offenders are Negroes, or are supposed to be Negroes, then they send out to all the world telling what a dangerous class of citizens these poor unfortunate men and women are.

I have traveled somewhat in the South, and I have observed that the Negroes do all the work and the other people have all the property. The South does not want to get rid of the Negroes. Now and then we find some statesman who proposes to solve the Negro question by wishing to send them off to themselves somewhere, as if the Lord made one country for white people and another for black people, and he forgot to sort them out, and as if we should do the sorting--but the South does not propose to send the Negroes away, for if they sent the Negroes away they would be obliged to work themselves. These people all say that the Negroes make excellent servants. This same gentleman with whom I visited and talked upon this question said there were no servants in the world equal to the Negro servants, and they were all right when they were kept in their place. They do not object to the colored man tilling the fields, they do not object to his picking cotton, they do not object to his bringing in wood, they do not object to the colored cook out in the kitchen, they do not object to their waiting on them in restaurants. They simply object to them taking any position in the world excepting the position of inferiors. They do not all of them object to the colored people learning trades, and some of them believe that Mr. Washington is the true prophet of the colored race.  I do not care to discuss that question, because I have doubts as to my own position on that point, and I have talked it over with many of my colored friends, some taking one view and some another--but these gentlemen do object to the Negroes becoming lawyers, becoming doctors, becoming preachers, becoming politicians, or anything excepting manual laborers. They are all right to work out in the cotton fields. Some of them perhaps are all right to be stone masons and carpenters, but none of them must be lawyers, none of them must be ministers, none of them must be doctors, they must not rise above manual trades.

Some time ago I was talking with one of the large employers of labor in Chicago, and he said he liked the colored people, because they are so loyal, they are loyal to you, they will stick to you and they donít "strike." "Well," I said, "are you loyal to them?" Wen, he answered, as loyal as he could be. I suggested to him that I had seen men like him, and read of other men like him, and that I had noticed when a body of miners left the mines and struck that they would send South and import a lot of Negroes, and when the strike was over would turn the Negroes loose and send them back again. But here was a man who really said he liked the colored man. Now, he did not. He liked their labor because they worked cheap and they did not have spunk enough to strike; he liked them because they had been slaves and they were still; they still bore the attitude of slavery, and it would be very strange if a race should come up from what you people have come and not in a measure bear the stamp of slavery; it should not be expected that you should be otherwise--and here this man liked colored laborers because he could get them at his own price, and if they did not like the price they would take it anyhow and would not strike.

Now these are the sort of friends that you people have among the rich of the North. Now, let us see what can be done for all of this. It is comparatively easy to tell what is wrong; it is not so easy to say what you are going to do about it, and I am not at all sure of my position on these questions.

The path before the colored race is very long and very hard. The first thing to find out is what are you really going to do. I have felt very many times that Booker T. Washington was not on the right path, and I would not say this too positively because I know how devoted he is to the cause of the colored people, and I believe he is honest and sincere, but I want to tell you why I have felt many times that he is not on the right track, and in this I, too, may be wrong, and I may not fairly estimate Washington. This race question can never be finally settled excepting upon one principle, and that is, that all people are equal, that all human beings on the earth, white and black and yellow, men and women, are entitled to the same rights, to perfect social equality, and perfect opportunity, the one with the other. It can never be finally settled upon any compromise whatever. Every man must recognize the right of his brother and his sister upon the earth upon equal terms with himself, and these people who believe, or profess to believe, in the Christian religion, and believe the Lord has made our souls all alike, show they do not believe it when they say that the Lord has made one set masters and the other slaves. This question may be settled in a hundred years, it may be settled in ten thousand years, but if it is not settled for a million years it will never be settled until every human being is the peer of every other human being, and until nobody will dream of asking the color of your skin, or where you were born, or what is your religion, but mill simply ask what are you, and nothing else in the world.

I have no confidence in any plan for improving any class of people that does not teach man his own integrity and worth; you must make each man and each woman understand that they are the peer of any human being on the earth. You must respect your-selves or nobody will respect you. No black man, no working man, no red man, ever ought for one single moment to think of himself as being inferior to any human being who treads the earth, no matter who that is. He may be compelled to take an inferior position because he needs to live, and the strong may starve him if he does not, but he ought to carry within his own breast the consciousness that after all he is equal to any man who lives, and if he does not carry that feeling within his breast, then he is not the equal of any man that lives.

And the colored race should learn this: If the white race insults you on account of your inferior position they also degrade them-selves when they do it. Every time a superior person who has position invades the rights and liberties and the dignity of an in-ferior person, he degrades himself, he retards and debases his own manhood when he does it. You may be obliged many times to submit to this, but it must always be with the mental reservation that you know you are their equal, or you know that you are their superior, and you suffer the indignity because you are compelled to suffer it, as your fathers were once compelled to do; but after all, your soul is free and you believe in yourself, you believe in your right to live and to be the equal of every human being on the earth.

Now, I know that many white men believe Mr. Washington is right, and he has gone through the North and through the South, and received a great deal of money on account of it, and I am not saying that his work is not good. I know that the colored people must be taught trades; I know that they must be taught farming; I know that they must be taught to make a living, and so far as that goes I agree with him, but I do not agree in saying that they should have nothing to do with politics. I do not believe in the position that is taken by many of his supporters that in this way the colored people can find a place in society. They can never do it by accepting a subordinate position to the whites; you can never settle this question upon that basis. If it is settled upon that basis you had better go back to slavery from whence you came, and be done with the struggle at once. It must be settled upon a different basis from that. Any education that does not teach the colored person his true dignity and his true worth as a man and as an individual, falls short of the mark. 11at must be taught first of all and insisted upon in season and out. Now, I know that you people tried your hand at government in the reconstruction days in the South. Sometimes you did not succeed much better than the white people have succeeded, and I suppose it would be expecting a very great deal to think that you could take the reins of govern-ment and manage the affairs of state well within a few years of the time of your liberation. We are not doing any too well our-selves, and we have had a good deal of time to practice in. A man's right in a government does not depend upon his color, or his property, but upon the man, that is all, and he should have an equal right, whatever his color, or whatever his property, and every colored person ought to be free, they ought to have every advantage of citizenship that the white people have, and they ought to exercise it, too.

Now, I know that you have stirred up much antagonism in the South by exercising the right of suffrage. How could it be otherwise, because the South wants you to be slaves, they propose to keep you there, and it is perfectly natural that if you wish to be elected to Congress, or to be governor, or take some of the positions which the white people occupy, that you will stir up antagonism in the South, and you will stir it up in the North just exactly the same, as soon as you take an independent position in the North, just as the working man is stirring it up today all over the United States.

There are some things that the colored people can do. Of course, the colored people as a race are poor; they have been slaves for long, weary years. They cannot do all that they ought to do and must do, but after all no people ever were given their liberty from their superiors; you must get it by your own worth, by your own perseverance and by your own work. Nobody will come to boost you up; it is only here and there that some person, out of a feeling of justice, will help you, but you must fight this battle out yourself, many of you must suffer, and many of you must die before the victory will be won. There are some things, however, that you can do, and these poor fellows who have been shot down through the South, and many in the North, have done their work well; they were bound to die, it could not be avoided.

The Negro race, of course, have come from bondage; they have been accustomed to look up to the white race; they have done it for so long that in a way they will keep doing it for some time to come.

They should be taught first of all independence, manhood, in-tegrity. I do not mean to tell the truth. I mean they should be taught the integrity of their own soul, that they are individuals-it may be necessary to tell lies to secure money. If you must tell them, do so; tell them when you have to do so to get along. You will not live very long if you do not tell them.

So far as you people have made your way in independent callings you have done it too much in a servile position. I know you have been obliged to in a way, but you want to get out of it just as fast as you possibly can.

The colored race have been in the habit of being waiters in res-taurants, porters on Pullman cars, barbers, working in the kitchen, running elevators, blacking shoes. Now, I know perfectly that you will reply, If we do not do these things, what will we do? I do not know, but I understand that you have worked along the lines of least resistance. The whites have given you a chance to make UP beds on the Pullman cars, to be paid in tips; brushing a man's hat when it does not need it. I don't blame you, you can't help it; but, after 4 it is a degrading position. You are simply trying to coax a quarter or a half dollar out of a victim. It is the same way in a restaurant, being as polite as you can to a man to see how big a tip you can get-a menial position, where you are depending upon charity, which is the next door to slavery; in fact, I think it is the other side. I would rather be a slave outright than to depend upon the charity of somebody who had more money than I. Being a barber is not very far removed from it.

Now, you cannot all be lawyers, you know. I know too much about this question to suppose that you can all start a bank; you cannot do that; but you can do the best that is possible. It should be the effort of every colored person to make himself independent as far as he can; do not become anybody's slave any longer than you must; don't live on tips any more than possible, and if you live on tips, get as many tips as you can get; brush out as many quarters as you can. Try to be independent. Get a little news stand, a grocery, be a lawyer, a doctor, or an expressman--if you only get an old blind horse that is poorer than you are, and a broken-down wagon, stand on the comer and run your own business; that is better than taking tips. Make your struggle to be independent, just as independent as you possibly can, because you must fight this out yourselves. These fellows are not going to help you, because it means dividing up their money. You people have done all the work and get nothing for it; now, if you go on and do the work and get the money, too, where are they? It is the same problem the working man is facing today, and your cause is the cause of the working man.

You people make a mistake in your friends. The ones who will help you people to any lasting benefit are not the rich, they are the poor every time. They may not be able to give you as big tips--you people who have had to live on them--but after all, the cause of the poor is a common cause all over the world, and when your case is won it will be by uniting your cause with the cause of the common laboring man all over the world; you cannot do it any other way. The rich have been using the working man, making him set you off by yourselves, and they have been using you to cut the working man's throat. The working men organize their trades union for their own benefit, and then, when they have a disagreement, as for instance down at the stockyards, they strike; then the employers send off for a lot of you people to come and take the places of the working men, and that is where you do evil. Perhaps you cannot help it; you cannot always help many things that you do, I understand that; but, after all, you can only grow by the growth of the poor; you can only get your rights by joining in the common cause with all the weak, the poor and the oppressed, and help them get their rights. No weak man should ever try to get rich by trampling upon some person weaker than himself. They should unite with the weak.

My friends, it is not a question of getting very many people taken care of; that is not the object. It is a question of being recognized. If you have a few members of the Legislature, if you have a few girls in the public schools, if you have a few policemen on the police force, and a few of your girls in public offices, they will begin to recognize you and begin to know you are living, and you will begin to get your rights. You ought to use every opportunity that you can, for let me tell you, you must fight this out yourselves. Help the colored lawyer and the colored doctor--give the colored doctor a chance, even if he does kill you. Give the colored lawyer a chance. Patronize your people all you can, build them up, do not fight each other; do not one get jealous of the other when you know they are doing a little better than you are, as you sometimes do. When one is built up he builds up every other colored person. Of course, I know there are some people who are not building up in a substantial way, some are making money out of crap games, saloons and that sort of thing; they are getting a good deal of money, too.

Now, as fast as you can, get reading rooms, debating clubs, societies like this one, to call your young men away from the crap games and the saloons. Get them together and discuss these questions; let them learn some of the pleasures which come from the mind; and remember all the time you have got to help yourself to make the most of every opportunity, and some time, when I do not know, or how, or where, but some time, there will be perfect equality upon the earth.

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