Reading of "A Word to Virginians"
DATE: 20 February 1958
OCCASION: The Raven, Jefferson and Omicron Delta Kappa Societies
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Mr. Chairman, members of the Jefferson Society, the Raven
Society, ODK, and ladies and gentlemen, a hundred years ago Abraham Lincoln
said, "This nation cannot endure half slave and half free." If he were alive
today, he would amend it: "This nation cannot endure containing a minority
as large as ten percent held second class in citizenship by the accident of
physical appearance." As a lesser man might put it, this nor any country or
community of people can no more get along in peace with ten percent of its
population arbitrarily unassimilated than a town of five thousand people can
get along in peace with five hundred unbridled horses loose in the streets,
or, say, a community of five thousand cats with five hundred unassimilated
dogs among them, or vice versa. [audience laughter] For
peaceful coexistence, all must be one thing—either all first-class citizens
or all second-class citizens, either all people or all horses, either all
cats or all dogs.
Perhaps the Negro is not yet capable of more than second-class citizenship. His tragedy may be that so far he is competent for equality only in the ratio of his white blood. But even if that is so, the problem of the second-class citizens still remains. It would not solve the problem even if the Negro were himself content to remain only a second-class citizen, even though relieved of his first-class responsibilities by his classification. The fact would still remain that we are a nation established on the fact that we are only ninety percent unified in power. With only ninety percent of unanimity, we would face, and hope to survive in it, an inimical world unified against us, even if only in inimicality. We cannot be even ninety percent unified against that inimical world, which outnumbers us, because too much of even that ninety percent of power is spent and consumed by the physical problem of the ten percent of irresponsibles.
It is easy enough for the North to blame on us, the South, the fact this problem is still unsolved. If I were a northerner, that's what I would do, tell myself that one hundred years ago we—both of us, North and South—had put this to the test and had solved it. That it is not us, the North, but you, the South, who have refused to accept that verdict. Nor will it help us any to remind the North that by ratio of Negro to white in population, there's probably more of inequality and injustice there than with us.
Instead, we should accept that gambit. Let us say to the North, "All right, it is our problem, and we will solve it." For the sake of the argument, let us agree that as yet the Negro is incapable of equality for the reason that he could not hold and keep it, even if were forced on him with bayonets, that once the bayonets were removed, the first smart and ruthless man, black or white, who came along would take it away from him, because he, the Negro, is not yet capable of, or refuses to accept, the responsibilities of equality.
So we, the white man, must take him in hand and teach him that responsibility. This will not be the first time nor the last time in the long record of man's history that moral principle has been identical with and even inextricable from practical common sense. Let us teach him that, in order to be free and equal, he must first be worthy of it, and then forever afterward work to hold and keep and defend it. He must learn to cease forever more thinking like a Negro and acting like a Negro. This will not be easy for him. His burden will be that, because of his race and color, it will not suffice for him to think and act like just any white man. He must think and act like the best among white men. Because where the white man, because of his race and color, can practice morality and rectitude just on Sunday and let the rest of the week go hang, the Negro can never let up nor deviate.
That is our job here in the South. It is possible that the white race and the Negro race can never really like and trust each other—this for the reason that the white man can never really know the Negro, because the white man has forced the Negro to be always a Negro rather than another human being in their dealings. And therefore the Negro cannot afford, does not dare, to be open with the white man and let the white man know what he, the Negro, thinks. But I do know that we in the South, having grown up and lived among Negroes for generations, are capable in individual cases, of liking and trusting individual Negroes, which the North can never do because the northerner only fears him.
So we alone can teach the Negro the responsibility of personal morality and rectitude, either by taking him into our white schools, or giving him white teachers in his own schools, until we have taught the teachers of his own race to teach and train him in these hard and unpleasant habits. Whether or not he ever learns his ABCs or what to do with common fractions won't matter. What he must learn are the hard things—self-restraint, honesty, dependability, purity, to act not even as well as just any white man, but to act as well as the best of white men. If we don't, we will spend the rest of our lives dodging among the five hundred unbridled horses. We will look forward each year to another Clinton or Little Rock, not only further and further to wreck what we have so far created of peaceful relations between the two races, but to be international monuments and milestones to our ridicule and shame.
And the place for this to begin is Virginia, the mother of all the rest of us [through] the South. Compared to you, my country—Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas—is still frontier, still wilderness. Yet even in our wilderness we look back to that mother stock as though it were not really so distant and so far removed. Even in our wilderness the old Virginia blood still runs, and the old Virginia names—Byrd and Lee and Carter—still endure. There is no family in our wilderness but has that old aunt or grandmother to tell the children as soon as they can hear and understand, "Your blood is Virginia blood, too. Your great-great-great-grandfather was born in Rockbridge or Fairfax or Prince George, Valley or Piedmont or Tidewater," right down to the nearest milestone, so that Virginia is a living place to that child long before he ever heard or cares about New York or, for that matter, America.
So let it begin in Virginia, toward whom the rest of us are already looking as the child looks toward the parent for a sign, a signal where to go and how to go. A hundred years ago the hot-heads of Mississippi and Georgia and South Carolina would not listen when the mother of us all tried to check our reckless and headlong course. We ignored you then, to all our grief. Yours more than any since you bore more of the battles. But this time we will hear you. Let this be the voice of that wilderness, speaking not just to Mother Virginia but to the best of her children—sons found and chosen worthy to be trained to the old pattern in the University established by Mr. Jefferson to be not just a dead monument to, but the enduring fountain of his principles of order within the human condition and the relationship of man with man—the messenger, the mouthpiece of all, saying to the mother of us all, "Show us the way and lead us in it." I believe we will follow you. [applause]
[end of recording]