Behold the Land
W.E.B. DuBois delivered the following speech in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 20,1946, at the closing session of the Southern Youth Legislature, one of the many projects of the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). Nearly 1,000 young people responded to the SNYC call “to plan further strategy for the vote and demonstrate in a dramatic way the will of our youth to gain possession of the ballot and to wield this weapon of democracy with skill and courage. ” At the closing session, the young delegates called for Congress to establish a Fair Employment Practices Commission, adequate and equal housing and an end to all forms of “white supremacy, customs and practices. ”
There are striking similarities between the work and development of the Southern Negro Youth Congress founded in 1937 and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founded in 1960. Both engaged in militant struggles to win Afro-Americans’ voting rights; both organized and lobbied for the enactment of federal legislation and structures to enforce non-discrimination in hiring; both groups waged battles for the restoration of democratic rights for Afro-Americans; and both groups led campaigns against violence directed towards blacks. Some of their tactics were similar: for example, SNYC’s 1940 New Orleans voter registration campaign was highlighted by a mock election; in 1963, SNCC helped organize the Freedom election in Mississippi which preceded the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Other aspects of their work differed markedly: unlike the later SNCC, the earlier SNYC focused much of its attention on labor struggles, helping organize tobacco workers in Richmond and steel workers in Birmingham. (For a discussion of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, see Freedomways, Vol. IV, Number 1, page 35, and Johnetta Richards, “The Image and Accomplishments of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, ” delivered to the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History.)
A couple of comments about the Columbia conference: some of the events were held at the city’s municipal auditorium, a first for an Afro-American organization, and an event much discussed by the area’s press. At the closing session of the Southern Youth Legislature, the young delegates - Afro-American and white - crowded into Antisdel Chapel of Benedict College. They were joined by a large and sympathetic public who stood in the aisles, jammed the doors and listened to DuBois through loudspeakers outside the auditorium.
The future of American Negroes is in the South. Here 327 years ago, they began to enter what is now the United States of America; here they have made their greatest contribution to American culture; and here they have suffered the damnation of slavery, the frustration of reconstruction and the lynching of emancipation. I trust then that an organization like yours is going to regard the South as the battleground of a great crusade. Here is the magnificent climate; here is the fruitful earth under the beauty of the Southern sun; and here, if anywhere on earth, is the need of the thinker, the worker and the dreamer. This is the firing line not simply for the emancipation of the American Negro but for the emancipation of the African Negro and the Negroes of the West Indies; for the emancipation of the colored races; and for the emancipation of the white slaves of modern capitalistic monopoly.
Remember here, too, that you do not stand alone. It may seem like a failing fight when the newspapers ignore you; when every effort is made by white people in the South to count you out of citizenship and to act as though you did not exist as human beings while all the time they are profiting by your labor; gleaning wealth from your sacrifices and trying to build a nation and a civilization upon your degradation. You must remember that despite all this, you have allies and allies even in the white South. First and greatest of these possible allies are the white working classes about you. The poor whites whom you have been taught to despise and who in turn have learned to fear and hate you. This must not deter you from efforts to make them understand, because in the past in their ignorance and suffering they have been led foolishly to look upon you as the cause of most of their distress. You must remember that this attitude is hereditary from slavery and that it has been deliberately cultivated ever since emancipation.
Slowly but surely the working people of the South, white and black, must come to remember that their emancipation depends upon their mutual cooperation; upon their acquaintanceship with each other; upon their friendship; upon their social intermingling. Unless this happens each is going to be made the football to break the heads and hearts of the other.
White youth in the South is peculiarly frustrated. There is not a single great ideal which they can express or aspire to that does not bring them into flat contradiction with the Negro problem. The more they try to escape it, the more they land in hypocrisy, lying and double-dealing; the more they become what they least wish to become, the oppressors and despisers of human beings. Some of them, in larger and larger numbers, are bound to turn toward the truth and to recognize you as brothers and sisters, as fellow travelers toward the dawn.
If now you young people, instead of running away from the battle here in Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, instead of seeking freedom and opportunity in Chicago and New York — which do spell opportunity — nevertheless grit your teeth and make up your minds to fight it out right here if it takes every day of your lives and the lives of your children’s children; if you do this, you must in meetings like this ask yourselves what does the fight mean? How can it be carried on? What are the best tools, arms and methods? And where does it lead?
I should be the last to insist that the uplift of mankind never calls for force and death. There are times, as both you and I know, when
Tho ’ love repine and reason chafe,
There came a voice without reply,
Tis man’s perdition to be safe
When for truth he ought to die.
At the same time and even more clearly in a day like this, after the millions of mass murders that have been done in the world since 1914, we ought to be the last to believe that force is ever the final word. We cannot escape the clear fact that what is going to win in this world is reason if this ever becomes a reasonable world. The careful reasoning of the human mind backed by the facts of science is the one salvation of man. The world, if it resumes its march toward civilization, cannot ignore reason. This has been the tragedy of the South in the past; it is still its awful and unforgivable sin that it has set its face against reason and against the fact. It tried to build slavery upon freedom; it tried to build tyranny upon democracy; it tried to build mob violence on law and law on lynching.
Nevertheless, reason can and will prevail; but of course it can only prevail with publicity — pitiless, blatant publicity. You have got to make the people of the United States and of the world know what is going on in the South. You have got to use every field of publicity to force the truth into their ears, and before their eyes. You have got to make it impossible for any human being to live in the South and not realize the barbarities that prevail here. You may be condemned for flamboyant methods; for calling a congress like this; for waving your grievances under the noses and in the faces of men. That makes no difference; it is your duty to do it.
There are enormous opportunities here for a new nation, a new economy, a new culture in a South really new and not a mere renewal of an Old South of slavery, monopoly and race hate. There is a chance for a new cooperative agriculture on renewed land owned by the state with capital furnished by the state, mechanized and coordinated with city life. There is a chance for strong, virile trade unions without race discrimination, with high wages, closed shops and decent conditions of work, to beat back and hold in check the swarm of landlords, monopolists and profiteers who are today sucking the blood out of this land.
There is a vast field for consumer cooperation, building business on public service and not on private profit as the mainspring of industry. There is chance for a broad, sunny, healthy home life, shorn of the fear of mobs and liquor, and rescued from lying, stealing politicians, who build their deviltry on race prejudice.
Here in this South is the gateway to the colored millions of the West Indies, Central and South America. Here is the straight path to the greater, freer, truer world. It would be shame and cowardice to surrender this glorious land and its opportunities for civilization and humanity to the thugs and lynchers, the mobs and profiteers, the monopolists and gamblers who today choke its soul and steal its resources. The oil and sulphur; the coal and iron; the cotton and corn; the lumber and cattle belong to you the workers, black and white, and not to the thieves who hold them and use them to enslave you. They can be rescued and restored to the people if you have the guts to strive for the real right to vote, the right to real education, the right to happiness and health and the total abolition of the father of these scourges of mankind — poverty.
“Behold the beautiful land which the Lord thy God hath given thee.” Behold the land, the rich and resourceful land, from which for 100 years its best elements have been running away, its youth and hope, black and white, scurrying north because they are afraid of each other, and dare not face a future of equal, independent, upstanding human beings, in a real and not a sham democracy.
To rescue this land, in this way, calls for the Great Sacrifice; this is the thing you are called upon to do because it is the right thing to do. Because you are embarked upon a great and holy crusade, the emancipation of mankind, black and white; the upbuilding of democracy; the breaking down, particularly here in the South, of forces of evil represented by race prejudice in South Carolina; by lynching in Georgia; by disfranchisement in Mississippi; by ignorance in Louisiana; and by all these and monopoly of wealth in the whole South.
There could be no more splendid vocation beckoning to the youth of the twentieth century, after the flat failures of white civilization, after the flamboyant establishment of an industrial system which creates poverty and the children of poverty, which are ignorance and disease and crime; after the crazy boasting of a white culture that finally ended in wars which ruined civilization in the whole world; in the midst of allied people who have yelled about democracy and never practiced it either in the British Empire or in the American Commonwealth or in South Carolina.
Here is the chance for young men and women of devotion to lift again the banner of humanity and to walk toward a civilization which will be free and intelligent; which will be healthy and unafraid; and build in the world a culture led by black folk and joined by peoples of all colors and races — without poverty, ignorance and disease!
Once a great German poet cried: “Seligder den Er in Sieges Glanze findet” — “Happy man whom Death shall find in Victory’s splendor.”
But I know a happier one: he who fights in despair and in defeat still fights. Singing with Arna Bontemps the quiet, determined philosophy of undefeatable men:
I thought I saw an angel flying low,
I thought I saw the flicker of a wing
Above the mulberry trees; but not again,
Bethesda sleeps. This ancient pool that healed
A Host of bearded Jews does not awake.
This pool that once the angels troubled does not move.
No angel stirs it now, no Saviour comes
With healing in His hands to raise the sick
And bid the lame men leap upon the ground.
The golden days are gone. Why do we wait
So long upon the marble steps, blood
Falling from our open wounds? and why
Do our black faces search the empty sky?
Is there something we have forgotten? Some precious thing
We have lost, wandering in strange lands?
There was a day, I remember now,
I beat my breast and cried, “Wash me God, ”
Wash me with a wave of wind upon
The barley; O quiet one, draw near, draw near!
Walk upon the hills with lovely feet
And in the waterfall stand and speak!