By Zora Neale Hurston
The American Mercury, November 1943
I may be wrong, but it seems to me that what happened at a Negro meeting in Florida the other day is important---important not only for Negroes and not only for Florida. I think that it strikes a new, wholesome note in the black man's relation to his native America.
It was a meeting of the Statewide Negro Defense Committe. C.D.Rogers, President of te Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa, got up and said: "I will answer that question of whether we will be allowed to take part in civic, state and national affairs. the answer is - yes!" Then he explained why and how he had come to take part in the affairs of his city.
"The truth is," he said, "that I am not always asked. Certainly in the beginning I was not. As a citizen, I saw no reason why I should wait for an invitation to interest myself in things that concerned me just as much as the did other residents of Tampa. I went and I asked what I could do. Knowing that I was interested and willing to do my part, the authorities began to notify me ahead of proposed meetings, and invited me to participate. I see no point in hanging back, and then complaining that I have been excluded from civic affairs.
"I know that citizenship implies duties as well as privileges. It is time that we Negroes learn that you can't get something for nothing. Negroes, merely by being Negroes, are not exempted from natural laws of existence. If we expect to be treated as citizens, and considered in community affairs, we must come forward as citizens and shoulder our part of the load. The only citizens who count are those who give time, effort and money to the support and growth of the community. Share the burden where you live! "
And then J. Leonard Lewis, attorney for the Afro-American Life Insurance, had something to say. First he pointed to the growing tension between the races throughout the country. Then he, too, broke tradition. The upper-class Negro, he said, must take the responsibility for the Negro part in these disturbances.
"It is not enough," he said, "for us to sit by and say 'We didn't do it. Those irresponsible, uneducated Negroes bring on all this trouble.' We must not only do nothing to whip up the passions among them, we must go much further. We must abandon our attitude of aloofness to the less educated. We must get in touch with them and head off these incidents before they happen.
"How can we do that? There is always some man among them who has great prestige with them. He can do what we cannot do, because he is of them and undrstands them. If he says fight, they fight. If he says, 'Now put away that gun and be quiet,' they are quiet. We must confer with these people, and cooperate with them to prevent these awful outbreaks that can do no one any good and everybody some harm. Let us give up our attitude of isolation from the less fortunate among us, and do what we can for peace and good-will betwen the races."
Not anything world-shaking in such speeches, you will say. Yet something profound has happened, of which these speeches are symptoms and proofs. Look back over your shoulder for a minute. Count the years. if you take in the twenty-odd years of intense Abolitionist speaking and writing that preceeded the Civil War, the four war years, the Reconstruction period and recent Negro rights agitations, you have at least a hundred years of indoctrination of the Negro that he is an object of pity. Becoming articulate, this was in him and he said it. "We were brought here against our will. We were held as slaves for two hundred and forty-six years. We are due something from the labor of our ancestors. Look upon us with pity and give!" The whole expression was one of self-pity without a sense of belonging to America and what went on here.
Put that against the statements of Rogers and Lewis, and you get the drama of the meeting. The audience agreed and applauded. Tradition was tossed overboard without a sigh. Dr. J. R. Lee, president of Florida A & M College for Negroes, got up and elaborated upon the statements: "Go forward with the nation. We are citizens and have our duties as such." Nobody mentioned slavery, Reconstruction, nor anysuch matter. It was a new and strange kind of Negro meeting---without tears of self-pity. It was a sign and symbol of something in the offing.