William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois (1868–1963) was an African American sociologist, historian, progressive political reformer, and cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A prolific author and tireless civil rights activist, Du Bois is often remembered for his seminal 1903 essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk, in which he argued that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”
When Du Bois was a young man, many states, especially in the South, established racial segregation in transportation, accommodations, and education. The period was also marked by the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures (See Speech in the Senate). Du Bois protested against these policies while at the same time drawing national attention to the lynching of African Americans in the South (See “Lynch Law in America” and Along this Way).
In 1905, Du Bois and twenty-nine other African American political activists met near Niagara Falls to form the Niagara movement, a predecessor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Niagara movement was a civil rights organization that opposed the politics of black accommodation and compromise advocated by, among others, Booker T. Washington. The Crisis, founded in 1910, is the official magazine of the NAACP. Du Bois was its editor in chief for more than twenty-five years. In 1913 Du Bois published two open letters in The Crisis to President Woodrow Wilson, the first southerner to be elected to the White House since Zachary Taylor in 1848. Wilson’s election was celebrated by many southern, segregationist Democrats.
Du Bois’ first letter reminded the president that his election was significantly aided by the black vote. Du Bois called on Wilson to embrace a platform of civil rights and racial equality and to resist the efforts of southern Democrats to manipulate him into turning a blind eye to Jim Crow in exchange for political support. In the second letter, written six months later, Du Bois criticized what he regarded as Wilson’s seeming indifference to, or support of, segregationist policies in the federal government and the states.
Source: Editorial: “An Open Letter to Woodrow Wilson,” The Crisis (March 1913): 236–37; Editorial: “Another Open Letter to Woodrow Wilson,” The Crisis (September 1913): 232–36, available online at the Hathi Trust Digital Library: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.32106009533768&view=1up&seq=244; https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.32106009533768&view=1up&seq=552.
Your inauguration to the presidency of the United States is to the colored people, to the white South, and to the nation a momentous occasion. For the first time since the emancipation of slaves the government of this nation—the presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives—passes on the 4th of March into the hands of the party which a half century ago fought desperately to keep black men as real estate in the eyes of the law.
Your elevation to the chief magistracy of the nation at this time shows not simply a splendid national faith in the perpetuity of free government in this land, but even more, a personal faith in you.
We black men by our votes helped to put you in your high position. It is true that in your overwhelming triumph at the polls that you might have succeeded without our aid, but the fact remains that our votes helped elect you this time, and that the time may easily come in the near future when without our 500,000 ballots neither you nor your party can control the government.
True as this is, we would not be misunderstood. We do not ask or expect special consideration or treatment in return for our franchises. We did not vote for you and your party because you represented our best judgment. It was not because we loved Democrats more, but Republicans less and Roosevelt least, that led to our action.
Calmly reviewing our action we are glad of it. It was a step toward political independence, and it was helping to put into power a man who has today the power to become the greatest benefactor of his country since Abraham Lincoln.
We say this to you, sir, advisedly. We believe that the Negro problem is in many respects the greatest problem facing the nation, and we believe that you have the opportunity of beginning a just and righteous solution of this burning human wrong. This opportunity is yours because, while a southerner in birth and tradition, you have escaped the provincial training of the South and you have not had burned into your soul desperate hatred and despising of your darker fellow men.
You start then where no northerner could start, and perhaps your only real handicap is peculiar lack of personal acquaintance with individual black men, a lack which is the pitiable cause of much social misery and hurt. A president of Harvard or Columbia would have known a few black men as men. It is sad that this privilege is denied a president of Princeton, sad for him and his students.
But waiving this, you face no insoluble problem. The only time when the Negro problem is insoluble is when men insist on settling it wrong by asking absolutely contradictory things. You cannot make 10,000,000 people at one and the same time servile and dignified, docile and self-reliant, servants and independent leaders, segregated and yet part of the industrial organism, disfranchised and citizens of a democracy, ignorant and intelligent. This is impossible and the impossibility is not factitious; it is in the very nature of things.
On the other hand, a determination on the part of intelligent and decent Americans to see that no man is denied a reasonable chance for life, liberty, and happiness simply because of the color of his skin is a simple, sane, and practical solution of the race problem in this land. The education of colored children, the opening of the gates of industrial opportunity to colored workers, absolute equality of all citizens before law, the civil rights of all decently behaving citizens in places of public accommodation and entertainment, absolute impartiality in the granting of the right of suffrage—these things are the bedrock of a just solution of the rights of man in the American Republic.
Nor does this solution of color, race, and class discrimination abate one jot or tittle the just fight of humanity against crime, ignorance, inefficiency, and the right to choose one’s own wife and dinner companions.
Against this plain straight truth the forces of hell in this country are fighting a terrific and momentarily successful battle. You may not realize this, Mr. Wilson. To the quiet walls of Princeton where no Negro student is admitted the noise of the fight and the reek of its blood may have penetrated but vaguely and dimly.
But the fight is on, and you, sir, are this month stepping into its arena. Its virulence will doubtless surprise you and it may scare you as it scared one William Howard Taft. But we trust not; we think not.
First you will be urged to surrender your conscience and intelligence in these matters to the keeping of your southern friends. They “know the Negro,” as they will continually tell you. And this is true. They do know “the Negro,” but the question for you to settle is whether or not the Negro whom they know is the real Negro or the Negro of their vivid imaginations and violent prejudices.
Whatever Negro it is that your southern friends know, it is your duty to know the real Negro and know him personally. This will be no easy task. The embattled Bourbons, from the distinguished Blease to the gifted Hoke Smith, will evince grim determination to keep you from contact with any colored person. It will take more than general goodwill on your part to foil the wide conspiracy to make Negroes known to their fellow Americans not as flesh and blood but as beasts of fiction.
You must remember that the ability, sincerity, and worth of one-tenth of the population of your country will be absolutely veiled from you unless you make effort to lift the veil. When you make that effort, then more trouble will follow. If you tell your southern friends that you have discovered that the internal revenue of New York is well collected and administered, they are going to regard you in pained surprise. Can a Negro administer! they will exclaim, ignoring the fact that he does.
But it is not the offices at your disposal, President Woodrow Wilson, that is the burden of our great cry to you. We want to be treated as men. We want to vote. We want our children educated. We want lynching stopped. We want no longer to be herded as cattle on streetcars and railroads. We want the right to earn a living, to own our own property, and to spend our income unhindered and uncursed. Your power is limited? We know that, but the power of the American people is unlimited. Today you embody that power, you typify its ideals. In the name then of that common country for which your fathers and ours have bled and toiled, be not untrue, President Wilson, to the highest ideals of American Democracy.
On the occasion of your inauguration as president of the United States, The Crisis took the liberty of addressing to you an open letter. The Crisis spoke for no inconsiderable part of ten millions of human beings, American born, American citizens. . . .
Sir, you have now been president of the United States for six months and what is the result? It is no exaggeration to say that every enemy of the Negro race is greatly encouraged; that every man who dreams of making the Negro race a group of menials and pariahs is alert and hopeful. Vardaman, Tillman, Hoke Smith, Cole Blease, and Burleson are evidently assuming that their theory of the place and destiny of the Negro race is the theory of your administration. They and others are assuming this because not a single act and not a single word of yours since election has given anyone reason to infer that you have the slightest interest in the colored people or desire to alleviate their intolerable position. A dozen worthy Negro officials have been removed from office, and you have nominated but one black man for office, and he such a contemptible cur, that his very nomination was an insult to every Negro in the land.
To this negative appearance of indifference has been added positive action on the part of your advisers, with or without your knowledge, which constitutes the gravest attack on the liberties of our people since emancipation. Public segregation of civil servants in government employ, necessarily involving personal insult and humiliation, has for the first time in history been made the policy of the U.S. government.
In the Treasury and Post Office Departments colored clerks have been herded to themselves as though they were not human beings. We are told that one colored clerk who could not actually be segregated on account of the nature of his work has consequently had a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years. Mr. Wilson, do you know these things? Are you responsible for them? Did you advise them? Do you not know that no other group of American citizens has ever been treated in this way and that no president of the United States ever dared to propose such treatment? Here is a plain, flat, disgraceful spitting in the face of people whose darkened countenances are already dark with the slime of insult. Do you consent to this, President Wilson? Do you believe in it? Have you been able to persuade yourself that national insult is best for a people struggling into self-respect?
President Wilson, we do not, we cannot believe this. The Crisis still clings to the conviction that a vote for Woodrow Wilson was NOT a vote for Cole Blease or Hoke Smith. But whether it was or not, segregation is going to be resented as it ought to be resented by the colored people. We would not be men if we did not resent it. The policy adopted, whether with your consent of knowledge or not, is an indefensible attack on a people who have in the past been shamefully humiliated. There are foolish people who think that such policy has no limit and that lynching, “Jim Crowism,” segregation, and insult are to be permanent institutions in America.
We have appealed in the past, Mr. Wilson, to you as a man and statesmen; to your sense of fairness and broad cosmopolitan outlook on the world. We renew this appeal and to it we venture to add some plain considerations of political expediency.
We black men still vote. In spite of the fact that the triumph of your party last fall was possible only because southern white men have, through our disfranchisement, from twice to seven times the political power of northern white men—notwithstanding this, we black men of the North have a growing nest egg of 500,000 ballots, and ballots that are counted, which no sane party can ignore. Does your Mr. Burleson expect the Democratic Party to carry New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois by 200,000 votes? If he does will it not be well for him to remember that there are 237,942 black voters in these states? We have been trying to tell these voters that the Democratic Party wants their votes. Have we been wrong, Mr. Wilson? Have we assumed too great and quick a growth of intelligence in the party that once made slavery its cornerstone?
In view of all this, we beg to ask the president of the United States and the leader of the Democratic Party a few plain questions:
- Do you want Negro votes?
- Do you think that “Jim Crow” civil service will get these votes?
- Is your Negro policy to be dictated by Tillman and Vardaman?
- Are you going to appoint black men to office on the same terms that you choose white men?
This is information, Mr. Wilson, which we are very anxious to have.
The Crisis advocated sincerely and strongly your election to the presidency. The Crisis has no desire to be compelled to apologize to its constituency for this course. But at the present rate it looks as though some apology or explanation was going to be in order very soon.
We are still hoping that present indications are deceptive. We are still trying to believe that the president of the United States is the president of 10,000,000 as well as of 90,000,000 and that though the 10,000,000 are black and poor, he is too honest and cultured a gentleman to yield to the clamors of ignorance and prejudice and hatred. We are still hoping all this, Mr. Wilson, but hope deferred maketh the heart sick.
Very respectfully yours,
- 1. Historically, black Americans had voted Republican, the party of Lincoln. Wilson was a Democrat.
- 2. Wilson served as president of Princeton University, which was regarded as the Ivy League school most hospitable to southerners. As president of the university, likely referring to undergraduate admissions, Wilson wrote in correspondence that “while there is nothing in the law of the University to prevent a negro’s entering, the whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no negro has ever applied for admission and it seems extremely unlikely that the question will ever assume a practical form.” See Woodrow Wilson to John Rogers Williams, September 2, 1904.
- 3. Roughly the African American population in 1910.
- 4. Taft (1857–1930) was Wilson’s predecessor as President.
- 5. Du Bois here refers to the Bourbon Democrats—conservative southern members of the Democratic Party. Du Bois associates two firebrand southern governors with the term: Coleman Livingston Blease (governor of South Carolina 1910–12) and Michael Hoke Smith (governor of Georgia 1907–9 and again in 1911; served in the U.S. Senate 1911–20). Each employed racially charged demagoguery and strongly supported Jim Crow laws in his respective state. It is worth noting that Woodrow Wilson himself was sometimes referred to as a Bourbon Democrat, at least prior to 1912, when he struck a deal with the Bourbons’ leading opponent, William Jennings Bryan, in order to gain party support. Wilson later appointed Bryan secretary of state.
- 6. Charles William Anderson (1866-1938) was a friend of Booker T. Washington. Involved in Republican politics in New York City, Anderson became a local organizer, getting African Americans to vote Republican, and a fund raiser. Washington recommended to Theodore Roosevelt that he appoint Anderson federal revenue collector for lower Manhattan, the wealthiest district in the United States. In 1915, Wilson pressured Anderson to leave office. President Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; president 1921–1923), Wilson’s successor, appointed him to head a different revenue district in 1922. In the interim, Anderson held appointed office as New York State Agricultural Commissioner.
- 7. See "Lynch Law in America", Speech in the Senate, and Along this Way.
- 8. James K. Vardaman was Democratic governor of Mississippi 1904–8 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1912. For Benjamin R. Tillman, see Document 29. Albert S. Burleson, a Democrat, represented Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives 1899–1913. Vardaman, Tillman, and Burleson were all segregationist, southern Democrats. In 1913 President Wilson appointed Burleson U.S. Postmaster General. Today, Burleson is remembered for racially segregating the U.S. Postal Service with the support of President Wilson. Wilson permitted his cabinet members to apply segregationist measures to other federal administrative offices as well.
- 9. “Jim Crowism” refers to laws that enforced racial segregation in public transportation, accommodations, schools, etc., from about 1880 to the mid-1960s, when federal civil rights laws started to bring the practice to an end. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) began the process of desegregating schools. The term “Jim Crow,” taken from a minstrel show character, was a derogatory way of referring to African Americans.
- 10. Du Bois refers to the fact that African Americans in the South were counted to determine representation in Congress but were prevented from voting, thus amplifying the actual voting power of white voters in the South compared with voters in the North.
- 11. Proverbs 13:12.