My efforts to better refine my understanding of the Southern US has led me to a study of the Reconstruction. During my readings, I came across a document from my hometown that was produced by the Colored Convention held here in Mobile, 1867. I couldn’t find digital record of it beyond partial transcripts hidden behind paywalls, so I took it upon myself to make it accessible.
Its worth noting that the Republican Party referred to in this document are not the neoconservatives of today, but were the party of Abolitionists. They were bourgeois; however, the revolutionary context of Reconstruction allowed the party to give some political power to radical ideas like land distribution. The opposition party was referred to as the Bourbon Democrats, a party that rallied behind the property rights of the deposed slave aristocrats and stood for deregulation, low taxes and a free market. While the Republicans were arming the freed slaves, the Bourbons were arming white terrorist organizations like the KKK and its predecessors.
This document is not flawless, by Marxist standards. We can observe how reliance upon Bourgeois powers, no matter how progressive, to grant the working class any political or economic power is always a losing game. But, more importantly, we can observe a part of southern history that is hidden from the population: Unions of working class and agrarian people organized for economic and political freedom, threatened violence if their voices were ignored. We can understand what political forces at play inspired the reaction to resort to racial terror: the political forces of land reform and class restructuring.
When, upon the passage of the Stevens [Sherman]-Shellabarger bill the colored people were invested with all the rights of manhood theretofore withheld from them, it was thought best that a convention, composed entirely of our own people, should be held, before deciding upon our future political course. Such a convention has been held in Mobile; it has deliberated upon the state of the country, upon the rights and duties of the colored people of Alabama, and authorized us, in its name, to issue this address to the voters of the State.
As there seems to be considerable difference of opinion concerning the “legal rights of the colored man,” it will not be amiss to say that we claim exactly the same rights, privileges and immunities as are enjoyed by the white men – we ask nothing more and will be content with nothing less. All legal distinctions between the races are now abolished. The word white is stricken from our laws, and every privilege which white men were formerly permitted to enjoy, merely because they were white men, now that word is stricken out, we are entitled to on the ground that we are men. Color can no longer be pleaded for the purpose of curtailing privileges, and every public right, privilege and immunity is enjoyable by every individual member of the public. This is the touchstone that determines all these points. So long as a park or a street is a public park or street the entire public has the right to use it; so long as a car or a steamboat is a public conveyance, it must carry all who come to it, and serve all alike who pay alike. The law no longer knows white nor black, but simply men, and consequently we are entitled to ride in public conveyances, hold office, sit on juries and do everything else which we have in the past been prevented from doing solely on the ground of our color…
We have said that we intend to claim all our rights, and we submit to our white friends that it is the height of folly on their part to withhold them any longer. One-half of the voters in Alabama are black men, and in a few months there is to be an entire reorganization of the State government. The new officers- legislative, executive and judicial- will owe their election largely, if not mainly to the colored people, and every one must see clearly that the voters will then be certain to require and the officers to compel a cessation of all illegal discriminations. The question which every man illegally discriminating against us must decide is, whether it is politic to insist upon gratifying prejudices during a few dull months, with the certainty by so doing, of incurring the lasting displeasure of one-half of the voting population of the State. We can stand it if they can, but we assure them that they are being watched closely, and that their conduct will be remembered when we have power.
There are some good people who are always preaching patience and procrastination. They would have us wait a few months, years, or generations, until the whites voluntarily give us our rights, but we do not intend to wait one day longer than we are absolutely compelled to. Look at our demands, and then at theirs. We ask of them simply that they surrender unreasonable and unreasoning prejudice; that they cease imitating dog in the manger; that they consent to allow others as well as themselves to prosper and be happy. But they would have us pay for what we do not get; tramp through the broiling sun or pelting rain, or stand upon a platform, white empty seats mockingly invite us to rest our wearied limbs; our sick must suffer or submit to indignity; we must put up with inconvenience of every kind; and the virtuous aspirations of our children must be continually checked by the knowledge that no matter how upright their conduct, they will be looked on as less worthy of respect than the lowest wretch on Earth who wears a white skin. We ask you – only while in public, however- to surrender your prejudices,- nothing but prejudices; and you ask us to sacrifice our personal comfort, health, pecuniary interests, self-respect, and the future prospects of our children. The men who make such requests must suppose us devoid of spirit and of brains, but they will find themselves mistaken. Solemnly and distinctly, we again say to you, men of Alabama, that we will not submit voluntarily to such infamous discrimination, and if you will insist upon tramping on the rights of outraging the feelings of those who are so soon to pass judgement upon you, then upon your own heads will rest the responsibility for the effect of your course.
All over the state of Alabama- all over the South indeed- the colored people have with singular unanimity, arrayed themselves under the republican banner, upon the republican platform, and it is confidently predicted that nine-tenths of them will vote the Republican ticket. Do you ask, why is this? We answer, because:
- The republican party opposed and prohibited the extension of slavery.
- It repealed the fugitive slave law.
- It abolished slavery in the District of Columbia.
- It abolished slavery in the rebellious states.
- It abolished slavery throughout the rest of the Union.
- It put down rebellion against the Union.
- It passed the Freedman’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill.
- It enfranchised the colored people of the District of Columbia.
- It enfranchised the colored people of the nine territories.
- It enfranchised the colored people of the ten rebel states.
- It passed new homestead laws, enabling the poor to obtain land.
In short, it has gone on, step by step, going first one thing for us and then another, and it now proposes to enfranchise our people all over the Union. It is the only party which has ever attempted to extend our privileges, and as it has in the past always been trying to do this, it is but natural that we should trust it for the future.
While this has been the course of the Republican Party, the opposition has unitedly opposed every one of these measures, and it also now opposes the enfranchisement of our people in the North. Everywhere it has been against us in the past, and the great majority of its voters hate us as cordially now as ever before. It is sometimes alleged that the Republicans of the North have not been actuated by love for us in what they have done, and therefore that we should not join them; we answer that even if that were true they certainly never professed to hate us and the opposition party has always been denouncing the “d—n n—r and abolitionist’ with equal fervor. When we had no votes to give, the opposition placed us and the Republicans in the same boat, and now we reckon we’ll stay in it. It may be and probably is true that some men acting with the Republican party have cared nothing for the principles of that party; but it is also certainly true that ninety-nine-hundredths of all those who were conscientiously in favor of our rights were and are in the Republican party, and that the great mass of those who hated, slandered and abused us were and are in the opposition party.
The memories of the opposition must be short indeed, to have forgotten their language of the past twenty years but we have not forgotten it.
But, say some of the members of the opposition party, “We intend to turn over a new leaf, and will hereafter give you all your rights.” Perhaps they would, but we prefer not to put the new wine of political equality into the old bottles of “sectional animosity” and “caste feeling.” We are somewhat fearful that those who have always opposed the extensions of rights are not sincere in their professions…
Another fact should be borne in mind. While a few conservatives are making guarded promises to us the masses of that party are cursing us, and doing all they can to “make the d—-d n—-rs stay in their place.” If we were, therefore, to join that party, it would be simply as servants and not as equals. Some leaders, who needed our votes might treat us decently, but the great majority would expect us to stay at home until election day, and then vote as our employers dictated. This we respectfully decline doing. It seems to us sagest to have as little as possible to do with those members of the community who delight to abuse us, and they are nearly, if not quite all to be found in the ranks of the opposition party…
It cannot be disguised, however, that many men calling themselves conservatives are disposed to use unfair means to carry their points. The press of Mobile, and other parts of the State, contain numerous threats that those colored people who do not vote as their employers command, will be discharged; that the property-holders will combine, import white laborers, and discharge their colored hand, etc. Numerous instances have come to our knowledge of persons who have already been discharged because they attended Republican meetings, and great numbers more have been threatened. “Vote as we command, or starve,” is the argument these men propose to make us of, and with it they expect to succeed.
In this expectation they will be mistaken, and we warn them before it is prosecuted any further, that their game is a dangerous one for themselves. The property which they hold was nearly all earned by the sweat of our brows- not theirs. It has been forfeited to the Government by the treason of its owners, and is liable to be confiscated whenever the Republican party demands it. The great majority of that party is now opposed to confiscation, but if the owners of property use the power which it gives them to make political slaves of the poor, a cry will go up to Congress which will make the party a unit for confiscation.
Conservatives of Alabama, do you propose to rush upon certain destruction? Are you mad, that you threaten to pursue a policy which could only result in causing thousands of men to cry out to their leaders, “Our wives and little ones are starving because we stood by you; because we would not be slaves!” When the nation abolished slavery, you used your local governments to neutralize and defeat its action, and the nation answered by abolishing your governments and enfranchising us. If you now use your property to neutralize or defeat this, its last act, it will answer by taking away the property you are only allowed to retain through its unparalleled mercy and which you have proved yourselves so worthy of retaining…
So complete, indeed, will be our victory, that our opponents will become disheartened unless they can divide us. This is the great danger which we have to guard against. The most effectual method of preserving our unity will be for us to always act together- never to hold separate political meeting or caucuses. It may take some time for us to get to pulling together well, put perseverance and honest endeavor will overcome all obstacles. In nominations on account of color by either wing, but that the most capable and honest men will always be put in nomination. We understand full well that our people are too deficient in education to be generally qualified to fill the higher offices, but when qualified men are found, they must not be rejected for being black.
The lack of education, which is the consequence of our long servitude, and which so diminishes our powers for good, should not be allowed to characterize our children when they come upon the stage of action, and we therefore earnestly call upon the stage of action, and we therefore earnestly call upon every member of the Republican Party to demand the establishment of a thorough system of common schools throughout the state. It will benefit every citizen of the State, and, indeed, of the Union, for the well-being of each enures to the advantage of all. In a Republican, education is especially necessary, as the ignorant are always liable to be led astray by the arts of the demagogue.
With Education secured to all; with the old and helpless properly cared for; with justice everywhere impartially administered, Alabama will commence a career of which she will have just cause to be proud. We shall all be prosperous and happy. The sad memories of the past will be forgotten and the joys of the present and the prospect of the future.
And now, with our eyes fixed upon the starry emblem of our national greatness, and our hearts lifted in gratitude to God, we submit our cause to the good people of Alabama, and commend it to the favor of the Most High.
Wm. V. Turner
[Daily State Sentinel, May 21 1867]