Everybody says “Democracy!” but has his own definition. By the extraordinary weight of the presidency of the United States, many undemocratic people have had this word forced upon their lips but have not yet had the right ideal forced upon their hearts. Many have accepted the word “democracy” merely as the current password to respectability in political thinking. But some are like that man who belonged to one of the greatest political parties: After hearing convincing arguments by the stump-speaker of the opposite party, he exclaimed: “Wa-al, that fellow has convinced my judgment, but I’ll be d—d if he can change my vote!” It is in order, therefore, for the Negro to state clearly what he means by democracy and what he is fighting for.
First, democracy in education. No other democracy is practicable unless all of the people have equal right and opportunity to develop according to their individual endowments. There can be no real democracy between two natural groups if one represents the extreme of ignorance and the other the best of intelligence. The common public school and the state university should be the foundation stones of democracy. If men are artificially differentiated at the beginning, if we try to educate a “working class” and a “ruling class,” forcing different racial groups into different lines without regard to individual fitness, how can we ever hope for democracy in the other relations of these groups? Individuals will differ, but in democracy of education peoples living on the same soil should not be widely diverged in their training on mere racial lines. This would be illogical, since they are to be measured by the same standards of life.
Second, democracy in industry. The right to work in any line for which the individual is best prepared and to be paid the standard wage [is the standard of democracy in industry]. In the last analysis, there could be very little democracy between multimillionaires and the abject poor. There must be a more just and fair distribution of wealth in a democracy. And certainly this is not possible unless men work at the occupations for which they are endowed and best prepared. There should be no “colored” wages and no “white” wages, no “man’s” wage and no “woman’s” wage. Wages should be paid for the work done, measured as much as possible by its productiveness. No door of opportunity should be closed to a man on any other ground than that of his individual unfitness. The cruelest and most undemocratic thing in the world is to require of the individual man that his whole race be fit before he can be regarded as fit for a certain privilege or responsibility.
Third, democracy in state. A political democracy in which all are equal before the laws; where there is one standard of justice, written and unwritten; where all men and women may be citizens by the same qualifications, agreed upon and specified. We believe in this as much for South Africa as for South Carolina and we hope that our American nation will not agree with any government, ally or enemy, that is willing to make a peace that will bind the Africa Negro to political slavery and exploitation. Many other evils grow out of political inequality. Laws that discriminate are the mothers of the mob spirit. The first move therefore against mob violence and injustice in the petty courts is to wipe out laws and practices in the higher circles of government that discriminate.
Fourth, democracy without sexual preference. The Negro cannot consistently oppose color discrimination and support sex discrimination in democratic government. The argument against the participation of colored men and of women in self-government is practically one argument. Somebody spoke to the Creator about both of these classes and learned that they were “created” for inferior roles. The American Negro expects a democracy that will accord the right to vote to a sensible, industrious woman rather than to a male tramp.
Fifth, democracy in church. The preachings and the practices of Jesus of Nazareth are perhaps the greatest influence in the production of modern democratic ideas. The Christian church is, therefore, no place for the caste spirit or for snobs. And the colored races the world over will have even more doubt in the future than they have had in the past of the real Christianity of any church that holds out to them the prospect of being united in heaven after being separated on earth.
N.A.A.C.P. activist William Pickens (1881-1954) received a B.A. from Talladega College in Alabama in 1902, a B.A. from Yale University two years later and subsequently became dean at Morgan State University. The above is an edited version of a speech he gave on different occasions.
By William Pickens