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- Speech on the Eligibility of Colored Members to Seats in the Georgia Legislature
Synopsis: After the Civil War, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner emerged as one of the most outspoken advocate and activist for the rights, freedom, justice, and democracy for African Americans. Turner was also in the first group of Reconstruction-era African Americans to be elected to the Georgia State Legislature (two senators and twenty-five African American Republican state representatives). In July 1868, the recently elected African American officials faced imminent expulsion from the Georgia State Legislature because of their race. On September 3, 1868, in his speech, “I Claim the Rights of a Man,” Turner stood before the assemble representatives and voiced his moral outrage and condemnation of the legislators who refused to seat the African American senators and representatives.
ELIGIBILITY OF COLORED MEMBERS
IN THE GEORGIA LEGISLATURE
By Hon. H. M. Turner,
Delivered before that Body September 3d, 1868.
from: Christler, Ethel Maude. Participation of Negroes in the Government of Georgia, 1867-1870. MA Thesis. Atlanta University, 1932
Before proceeding to argue this question upon its intrinsic merits, I wish the Members of this House to understand the position that I take. I hold that I am a member of this body. Therefore, sir, I shall neither fawn nor cringe before any party, nor stoop to bag them for my rights. Some of my colored fellow-members, in the course of their remarks, took occasion to appeal to the sympathies of Members on the opposite side, and to eulogize their character for magnanimity. It reminds me very much, sir, of slaves begging under the lash. I am here to demand my rights, and to hurl thunderbolts at the men who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood. There is an old aphorism which says, “Fight the Devil with fire,” and if I should observe the rule in this instance, I wish gentlemen to understand that it is but fighting them with their own weapons.
The scene presented in this House, today, is one unparalleled in the history of the world. From this day, back to the day when God breathed the breath of life into Adam, no analogy for it can be found. Never, in the history of the world, has a man been arraigned before a body clothed with legislative, judicial or executive functions, charged with the offence of being of a darker hue than his fellowmen. I know that questions have been before the Courts of this country, and of other countries, involving topics not altogether dissimilar to that which is being discussed here today. But, sir, never, in all the history of the great nations of this world-never before- has a man been arraigned, charged with an offence committed by the God of Heaven Himself. Cases may be found where men have been deprived of their rights for crimes and misdemeanors; but it has remained for the State of Georgia, in the very heart of the nineteenth century, to call a man before the bar, and there charge him with an act for which he is no more responsible than for the head which he carries upon his shoulders. The Anglo-Saxon race, sir, is a most surprising one. No man has ever been more deceived in that race than I have been for the last three weeks. I was not aware that there was in the character of that race so much cowardice, or so much pusillanimity. The treachery which has been exhibited in it by gentlemen belonging to that race has shaken my confidence in it more than anything that has come under my observation from the day of my birth. What is the question at issue? Why, sir, this Assembly, today, is discussing and deliberating on a matter upon which Angels would tremble to sit in judgment; there is not a Cherubim that sits around God’s Eternal Throne, today, that would not tremble – even were an order issued by the Supreme God himself – to come down here and sit in judgment on my manhood. Gentlemen may look at this question in whatever light they choose, and with just as much indifference as they may think proper to assume, but I tell you, sir, that this is a question which will not die today. This event shall be remembered by posterity for ages yet to come, and while the sun shall continue to climb the hills of heaven.
Whose Legislature is this? Is it a white man’s Legislature, or is it a black man’s Legislature? Who voted for a Constitutional Convention, in obedience to the mandate of the Congress of the United States? Who first rallied around the standard of Reconstruction? Who set the ball of loyalty rolling in the State of Georgia? And whose voice was heard on the hills and in the valleys of this State? It was the voice of the brawny-armed Negro, with the few humanitarian-hearted white men who came to our assistance. I claim the honor, sir, of having been the instrument of convincing hundreds – yea, thousands – of white men, that to reconstruct under the measures of the United States Congress was the safest and the best course for the interest of the State.
Let us look at some facts in connection with this matter. Did half the white men of Georgia vote for this Legislature? Did not the great bulk of them fight, with all their strength, the Constitution under which we are acting? And did they not fight against the organization of this Legislature? And further, sir, did they not vote against it? Yes, sir! And there are persons in this Legislature, today, who are ready to spit their poison in my face, while they themselves opposed, with all their power, the ratification of this Constitution. They question my right to a seat in this body, to represent the people whose legal votes elected me. This objection, sir, is an unheard of monopoly of power. No analogy can be found for it, except it be the case of a man who should go into my house, take possession of my wife and children and then tell me to walk out. I stand very much in the position of a criminal before your bar, because I dare to be the exponent of the views of those who sent me here. Or, in other words, we are told that if black men want to speak, they must speak through white trumpets; if black men want their sentiments expressed, they must be adulterated and sent through white messengers, who will quibble, and equivocate, and evade, as rapidly as the pendulum of a clock. If this be not done, then the black men have committed an outrage, and their Representatives must be denied the right to represent their constituents.
The great question, sir, is this: Am I a man? If I am such, I claim the rights of a man. Am I not a man, because I happen to be of a darker hue than honorable gentlemen around me? Let me see whether I am or not. I want to convince the House, today, that I am entitled to my seat here. A certain gentleman has argued that the negro was a mere development similar to the orangutan or chimpanzee, but it so happens that, when a Negro is examined, physiologically, phrenologically and anatomically, and, I may say, physiognomically, he is found to be the same as person of different color. I would like to ask any gentleman on this floor, where is the analogy? Do you find me a quadruped, or do you find me a man? Do you find three bones less in my back than in that of the white man? Do you find les organs in the brain? If you know nothing of this, I do; for I have helped to dissect fifty men, black and white, and I assert that by the time you take of the mucous pigment – the color of the skin – you cannot, to save your life, distinguish between the black man and the white. Am I a man? Have I a soul to save, as you have? Am I susceptible of eternal development, as you are? Can I learn all the arts and sciences that you can – has it ever been demonstrated in the history of the world? Have black men ever exhibited bravery, as white men have done? Have they ever been in the professions! Have they not as good articulative organs as you? Some people argue that there is a very close similarity between the larynx of the Negro and that of the orangutan. Why, sir, there is not so much similarity between them as there is between the larynx of the man and that of the dog, and this fact I dare any Member of this House to dispute. God saw fit to vary everything in Nature. There are no two men alike – no two voices alike – no two trees alike. God has weaved and issued variety and versatility throughout the boundless space of His creation. – Because God saw fit to make some red, and some white, and some black, and some brown, are we to sit here in judgment upon what God has seen fit to do? As well might one play with the thunderbolts of heaven as with that creature that bears God’s image – God’s photograph.
The question is asked: “What is it that the Negro race has done?” Well, Mr. Speaker, all I have to say upon the subject is this: that if we are the class of people that we are generally represented to be, I hold that we are a very great people. It is generally considered that we are the Children of Canaan, and that the curse of a father rests upon our heads, and has rested, all through history. Sir, I deny that the curse of Noah has anything to do with the Negro. We are not the Children of Canaan; and if we were, sir, where should we stand? Let us look a little into history. Melchisodech was a Canaanite; all the Phoenicians – all those inventors of the arts and sciences – were the posterity of Canaan; but, sir the Negro is not. We are the children of Cush, and Canaan’s curse has nothing whatever to do with the Negro. If we belong to that race, Ham belonged to it, under whose instructions Napoleon Bonaparte studied military tactics. If we belong to that race, St. Augustine belonged to it. Who was it that laid the foundation of the great Reformation? Martin Luther, who lit the light of Gospel Truth – a light that will never go out until the sun shall rise to sit no more; and, longer then, Democratic principles will have found their level in the regions of Plato and of Proserpine.
The Negro is here charge with holding office. Why, sir, the Negro never wanted office. I recollect that when we wanted candidates for the Constitutional Convention, we went from door to door in the “Negro belt,” and begged white men to run. Some promised to do so; and yet, on the very day of election, many of them first made known their determination not to comply with their promises. They told black men, everywhere, that they would rather see them run; and it was this encouragement of the white men that induced the colored man to place his name upon the ticket as a candidate for the Convention. In many instances, these white men voted for us. We did not want them, nor ask them, to do it. All we wanted them to do was, to stand still and allow us to walk up to the polls and deposit our ballots. They would not come here themselves, but would insist upon sending us. Ben Hill told them it was a nigger affair, and advised them to stay away from the polls – a piece of advice which they took very liberal advantage of. If the “niggers” had “office on the brain,” it was the white man that put it there – not carpet-baggers, either nor Yankees, nor scalawags, but the high-bred and dignified Democracy of the South. And if anyone is to blame for having Negroes in these Legislative Halls – if blame attaches to it at all – it is the Democratic Party. Now, however, a change has come over the spirit of their dream. They want to turn the “nigger” out; and, to support their argument, they say that the black man is debarred from holding office by the Reconstruction measures of congress. Let me tell them one thing for their information. Black men have held office, and are now holding under the United States Government. Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, in 1865, commissioned me as United States Chaplain, and I would have been Chaplain today, had I not resigned – not desiring to hold office any longer. Let the Democratic Party, then go to Mr. Johnson, and ask him why he commissioned a Negro to that position? And if they inquire further, they will ascertain that at black men have been commissioned as Lieutenants, Captains, Majors, brevet Colonels, Surgeons, and other offices of trust and responsibility, under the United States Government. Black men, today, in Washington City, hold positions as Clerks, and the only reason why Mr. Langston is not at this time a Consul Diplomat of Minister Plenipotentiary in some foreign country, is because he would not be corrupted by President Johnson and made to subscribe to his wicked designs. Is not that an office, and is it not a great deal better office than any seat held in this body?
The honorable gentleman from Whitfield (Mr. Shumate), when arguing this question, a day or two ago, put forth the proposition that to be a Representative was not to be an officer – “it was a privilege that citizens had a right to enjoy.” These are his words. It was not an office; it was a “privilege.” Every gentleman here knows that he denied that to be a representative was to be an officer. Now, he is recognized as a leader of the Democratic party in this House, and generally cooks victuals for them to eat; makes that remarkable declaration, and how are you, gentlemen on the other side of the House, because I am an officer, when one of your great lights says that I am not an officer? If you deny my right – the right of my constituents to have representation here – because it is a “privilege,” then, sir, I will show you that I have as many privileges as the whitest man on this floor. If I am not permitted to occupy a seat here, for the purpose of representing my constituents, I want to know how white men can be permitted to do so. How can a white man represent a colored constituency, if “I” a colored man cannot do it? The great argument is: “Oh, we have inherited” this, that and the other. Now, I want gentlemen to come down to cool, common sense. Is the created greater than the Creator? Is man greater than God? It is very strange, if a white man can occupy on this floor a seat created by colored votes, and a black man cannot do it. Why, gentleman, it is the most short-sighted reasoning in the world. A man can see better than that with half an eye; and even if he had no eye at all, he could forge one, as the Cyclops did, or punch one with his finger, which would enable him to see through that.
It is said that Congress never gave us the right to hold office. I want to know, sir, if the Reconstruction measures did not base their action on the ground that no distinction should be made on account of race, color, or previous condition! Was not that the grand fulcrum on which they rested? And did not every reconstructed State have to reconstruct on the idea that no discrimination, in any sense of the term, should be made? There is not a man here who will dare say, “No.” If Congress has simply given me merely sufficient civil and political rights to make me a mere political slave for Democrats, or anybody else—giving them the opportunity of jumping on my back, in order to leap into political power – I do not thank Congress for it. Never, so help me, God, shall I be a political slave. I am not now speaking for those colored men who sit with me in this House, nor do I say that they endorse my sentiments (cries from the colored Members, “We Do!”), but assisting Mr. Lincoln to take me out of servile slavery, did not intend to put me and my race into political slavery. If they did, let them take away my ballot – I do not want it, and shall not have it. (Several colored Members: “Nor we!”) I don’t want to be a mere tool of that sort. I have been a slave long enough already.
I tell you what I would be willing to do: I am willing that the question should be submitted to Congress for an explanation as to what was meant in the passage of their Reconstruction measures, and of the Constitutional Amendment. Let the Democratic Party in this House pass a Resolution giving this subject that direction, and I shall be content. I dare you, gentlemen, to do it. Come up to the question openly, whether it meant that the negro might hold office, or whether it meant that he should merely have the right to vote. If you are honest men, you will do it. If, however, you will not do that, I would make another proposition: Call together, again, the Convention that framed the Constitution under which we are acting; let them take a vote upon the subject, and I am willing to abide their decision.
In the course of this discussion, a good deal of reference has been made to the Constitution. I am as much a man as anybody else. I hold that that document is neither proscripted, or has it ever, in the first instance, sanctioned slavery.
The Constitution says that any person escaping from service in one State, and going to another, shall, on demand, be given up. That has been the clause under which the Democratic fire-eaters have maintained that that document sanctioned slavery in man. I shall show you that it meant no such thing. It was placed there, according to Mr. Madison, altogether for a different purpose. In the Convention that drafted the Constitution,
Mr. Madison declared, he “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.” On motion of Mr. Randolph, the word “SERVITUDE” was struck out, and “service” unanimously inserted – the former being though to express the condition of SLAVES, and the latter the obligation of free person. (3d Mad. Pap. 1429 and 1569).
Now, if you can, make anything out of that that you find in it. It comes from one of the fathers of the Constitution. Sir, I want the gentleman to know that the Constitution, as Mr. Alexander H. Stephens said, I think, in 1854, so far as slavery is concerned, is neutral. He said, that if slavery existed in Georgia, it existed under the Constitution and by the authority of the Constitution; that if slavery did not exist in Pennsylvania, or in New York, it was equally under the Constitution.
That is a distinct avowal that the constitution was neutral, and it is the opinion of a man who is acknowledged to be a man of great mind and large acquaintance with political affairs. Again: the Constitution of the United States has the following clause:
“This Constitution, and all laws made in pursuance thereof, shall be the supreme law of the land.”
Every law, therefore, which is passed under the Constitution of the United States, is a portion of the supreme law of the land, and you are bound to obey it.
But gentlemen say that the Democrats did not pass the Reconstruction measures. I know they did not. Such Democrats as we are having in this State come pretty well under the description given of the Bourbons by Napoleon Bonaparte, who said that they never originated new idea, nor ever forget an old one. They certainly never would pass such measures. Did the Revolutionary Fathers intend the perpetuate slavery? Many say they did; I say they did not. What was meant by the clause which states that no bill of attainder of ex-post facto law shall be passed? I will tell you what I believe the Revolutionary fathers meant: I believe it was intended to put a clause there which should eventually work out the emancipation of the slaves. It was not intended that because the father had served in slavery the curse should descend.
One of the strongest objections to the negro holding office is based upon the fact that he has been a slave, and had no rights; but the Fathers of this country framed a Constitution and Laws, whose spirit and letter condemn this everlasting proscription of the negro.
Let us take, for example, an extract from a memorial sent to Congress in 1794. It was written by a Committee of which Dr. Rush was Chairman, and is signed by such men as Samuel Adams, John Adams, Isaac Law, Stephen Hopkins, and a host of other prominent gentlemen.
This memorial says:
“Many reasons concur in persuading us to abolish slavery in our country. It is inconsistent with the safety of the liberties of the United States. Freedom and slavery cannot long exist together.”
Let it be remembered that some of the gentlemen who signed this memorial had been Presidents of the United States. It is also well known that General Washington, in his will, earnestly expresses a desire that all his slaves should receive their freedom upon the death of his wife. He says:
“Upon the decease of my wife, it is my will and desire that all the slaves held by me in my own right should receive their freedom. And I do most pointedly and solemnly enjoin on my Executors to see that the clause regarding my slaves, and every part thereof, be religiously fulfilled.”
Did he intend to perpetuate slavery or Negro proscription? What says he, when writing to General Lafayette? –
“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery, but there is only one plan by which it can be accomplished. That is by legislative authority, and this, so far as my suffrage will go, shall not be wanting.”
General Lafayette once said:
“I never thought, when I was fighting for America that I was fighting to perpetuate slavery. I never should have drawn my sword in her defense, if I suspected such a thing.”
“And can the liberties of the nation be thought secure, when we have removed the only firm basis – the conviction of the minds of the people that liberty is the gift of God? Indeed, I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just, and that injustice cannot last forever.”
I could quote from such men for days and weeks together, to show the spirit that was in them upon this subject, if I thought it necessary to my cause.
We are told that we have no right to hold office, because it was never conferred upon us by “specific enactment.” Were we ever made slaves by specific enactment? I hold, sir, that there never was a law passed in this country, from its foundation to the Emancipation, which enacted us slaves. Even the great Mr. Calhoun said: “I doubt whether there is a single State in the South that ever enacted them slaves.” If, then, you have no laws enacting me a salve, how can you question my right to my freedom? Judge Lumpkin, one of the ablest jurists that Georgia ever had, said that there never was any positive law in the State of Georgia that forbade Negroes from testifying in Courts; “and they are,” said he, “only debarred by their ignorance and ignoble status.” Neither did Queen Elizabeth, when she gave to Sir John Hawkins a charter to bring Negroes to this country, give him that right with any other understanding than that no violence or force should be used therefore; and she never intended that they should be anything more than apprentices. Mr. Madison, in speaking upon the subject of jury-trials for Negroes, says; “Proof would have to be brought forward that slavery was established by preexisting laws;” “and”, said he, “it will be impossible to comply with such a request, for no such law could be produced.” Why, then, do gentlemen clamor for proof of our being free “by virtue of specific enactment?” show me any specific law of Georgia, or of the United States, that enacted black men to be slaves, and I will then tell you that, before we can enjoy our rights as free men, such law must be repealed.
I stand here today, sir, pleading for ninety thousand black men – voters – of Georgia; and I shall stand and plead the cause of my race until God, in His providence, shall see proper to take me hence. I trust that He will give me strength to stand, and power to accomplish the simple justice that I see for them.
Why did your forefathers come to this country? Did they not flee from oppression? They came to free themselves from the chains of tyranny, and to escape from under the heel of the Autocrat. Why, sir, in England, for centuries together, men – and white men at that – wore metal collars around their necks, bearing, in graven characters, the names by which they were known. Your great and noble race were sold in the slave-marts of Rome. The Irish, also, held many white slaves until 1172; and even Queen Elizabeth, in her day, had to send a deputation to inquire into the condition of such white slaves as had been born in England. King Alfred the Great, in his time, provided that for seven years’ work the slave should be set free. And, going back to more ancient and more valuable authority, did not God himself, when he had brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt, say unto them: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt?” I say to you, white men, today, that the great deliverance of the recent past is not altogether dissimilar to the great deliverance of ancient times, Your Democratic party may be aptly said to represent Pharaoh; the North to represent one of the walls, and the South the other. Between these two great walls the black man passes out to freedom, while your Democratic Party – the Pharaoh of today – follows us with hasty strides and lowering visage.
The gentleman from Floyd (Mr. Scott) went down amid the chambers of the dead, and waked up the musty decision of Judge Taney in the Dred Scott case. Why, the very right on which he denied citizenship to Dred Scott, was, that if he were a citizen, he would be a free man, and invested with all rights of citizenship. The Constitution says that
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and resident in this State, are hereby declared citizens of this State; and no law shall be made or enforced that shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United Sates, or of this States, or deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws.”
For what purpose was this clause inserted in that Constitution? It was placed there, sir, to protect the rights of every man – the Heaven-granted, inalienable, unrestricted rights of mind, and of my race. Great God, if I had the voice of seven thunders, today, I would make the ends of the earth to hear me. The Code of Laws known as Irwin’s Code of Georgia, clearly states the rights of citizens.
“Among the rights of citizens are the enjoyment of personal security, of personal liberty, private property and the disposition thereof, the elective franchise, the right to hold office, to appeal to the Courts, to testify as a witness, to perform any civil function, and to keep and bear arms.”
Section 1649 of the same Code says:
“All citizens are entitled to the exercise of their right as such, unless specially prohibited by law.”
I would like to ascertain, Mr. Speaker, what prohibition has been put upon me, or upon my race, and what can be put upon it,, under the provision of the constitution, which would deprive us of holding office. The Constitution of Georgia, Article 2, Section 2, says that,
“Every male person who has been born or naturalized, or who has legally declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States, twenty years old or upward, who shall have resided in this State six months preceding the election,, and shall have resided thirty days in the county in which he offers to vote, and shall have paid all taxes which may have been required of him, and which he may have had an opportunity of paying, agreeably to law, for the year next preceding election (except as hereinafter provided). Shall be declared an elector; and every male citizen of the United States, of the aforesaid (except as hereinafter provided), who may be a resident of the State at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be deemed an elector, and shall have all the rights of an elector as aforesaid.”
Now let me read to you the meaning of the word “citizen,” as given by Mr. Bouvier in his Law Dictionary:
“In American law, one who, under the Constitution and Laws of the United States, has a right to vote for Representatives in Congress and other public officers, and who is qualified to fill offices in the gift of the people. Any white person born in the United States or naturalized person born out of the same, who has not lost his right as such.”
Now, sir, I claim to be a citizen, I claim to be an elector, and I claim to be entitled to hold office.
We have heard a good deal said about Greece and Rome, and the great nations of antiquity, and of such great men as Socrates, Seneca, Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, Horace, and Homer. Well, I make a reference or two to these times and nations. A freeman among the Romans was nothing more than, in the time of slavery in this country, a free Negro would be. He could not come in contact with the citizen upon equal footing, but when the Empire came under the sway of Constantine, he provided that all slavers who were made free upon account of meritorious conduct should be enfranchised. Go back, then, Georgians, to the days of Constantine, and learn from him a lesson of wisdom. In the days of Justinian, too, provision was made that every slave who was made free should be enfranchised and made a full citizen of Rome. The celebrated Roman writer, Horace, boasted that he was the son of a freedman, and I would remind you, also, that one of the Emperors and rulers of Rome had a slave mother. Another provision of those times was, that a slave could become free and a citizen by the consent of six thousand other citizens. Now, sir, even following the example of Rome, am I not a citizen? Have not more than six thousand white citizens voted me my rights as such? And have not forty thousand white citizens voted for the Constitution which grants me my rights as such?
We learn some peculiar points in regard to slavery from many of the writers of ancient times. Tacitus, for instance, tells us that, amongst the ancient Germans, if, in gaming, the slave should win, the master became his property and slave, while he became master. Mohammed gave political rights to all slaves who defended his religion; and so, indeed, in general, did the Crusaders; and the Popes of Rome used to teach their flocks that all men were the Lord’s freemen. St. Jerome once remarked that a man’s right to enfranchisement existed in his knowledge of the truth. I might quote for hours from such authorities as these upon the rights which rested in, and were acquired by, the slaves of old, but I deem it unnecessary to do so at this time.
These colored men, who are unable to express themselves with all the clearness, and dignity, and force of rhetorical eloquence, are laughed at in derision by the Democracy of the country. It reminds me very much of the man who looked at himself in a mirror, and, imagining that he was addressing another person, exclaimed: “My God, how ugly you are!” These gentlemen do not consider for a moment the dreadful hardships which these people have endured, and especially those who in any way endeavored to acquire an education. For myself, sir, I was raised in the cotton fields of South Carolina, and, in order to prepare myself for usefulness, as well to myself as to my race, I determined to devote my spare hours to study. When the overseer retired at night to his comfortable couch, I sat and read, and thought, and studied, until I heard him blow his horn in the morning. He frequently told me, with an oath, that if he discovered me attempting to learn, that he would whip me to death, and I have no doubt he would have done so, if he had found an opportunity. I prayed to Almighty God to assist me, and He did, and I thank Him with my whole heart and soul.
Personally, I have the highest regard for the gentleman from Floyd (Mr. Scott), but I need scarcely say that I heartily despise the political sentiments which he holds. I would pledge myself to do this, however: To take the Holy Bible and read it in as many different languages as he will. If he reads it in English, I will do it; if he reads it in Latin, I will do the same; if in Greek, I will read it in that language, too; and if in Hebrew, I will meet him, also, there. It can scarcely, then, be upon the plea of ignorance that he would debar me from the exercise of political rights.
I must now direct your attention to a point which shows the intention of the framers of the Constitution of Georgia, which you have sworn to support. In the “Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention,” which framed this Constitution, I find, under date of March 3d, 1868, that, on motion of Mr. Akerman, the report of the Judiciary Committee on the subject of the qualifications of person for membership to the first General Assembly, after the ratification and adoption of the Constitution, was taken up, and without amendment, adopted. That report is as follows:
“Be it ordained by the people of Georgia, in Convention assembled, That the persons eligible as members of the General Assembly, at the first election held under the Constitution framed by this Convention, shall be citizens of the United States who shall have been inhabitants of this state for six months, and of the district or county for which they shall be elected for three months next preceding such election, and who, in the case of Senators, shall have attained the age of twenty-five years, and , in the case of Representatives, the age of twenty-one years, at the time of such election.”
Gentlemen will observe the word “inhabitant” in that Ordinance and it was put there especially, in order that no question could and so as to who were eligible to fill the position of Senator and Representative.
So far as I am personally concerned, no man in Georgia has been more conservative than I. “Anything to please the white folks” has been my motto; and so closely have I adhered to that course, that many among my own party have classed me as a Democrat. One of the leaders of the Republican Party in Georgia has not been at all favorable to me for some time back, because he believed that I was too “conservative” for a Republican. I can assure you, however, Mr. Speaker, that I have had quite enough, and to spare, of such “conservatism.”
The “conservative” element has pursued a somewhat erratic course in the reconstruction of Georgia. In several instances – as, for instance, in Houston County – they placed negroes on their tickets for county offices, and elected them, too, and they are holding office to-day. And this policy is perfectly consistent with the doctrine taught, in public and in private, by the great lights of Democracy….. They objected to the Constitution, “because”, said they, “it confers upon niggers the right to hold office.” Even Mr. Alexander H. Stephens – one of the greatest men, if not the greatest man, in the South, today, and one from whom I have the utmost, respect in a conversation that I had with him before the Legislature convened (Governor Brown’s Marietta speech being one of the topics under consideration very generally throughout the State at that time), said” “Governor Brown says that the black man cannot hold office under that Constitution, but he knows that he can.”
But, Mr. Speaker, I do not regard this movement as a thrust at me. It is a thrust at the Bible – a thrust at the God of the Universe for making a man and not finishing him; it is simply calling the Great Jehovah a fool. Why, sir, though we are not white, we have accomplished much. We have pioneered civilization here; we have built up your country, we have worked in your fields, and garnered your harvests, for two hundred and fifty years! And what do we ask of you in return? Do we ask you for compensation for the sweat our fathers bore for you – for the tears you have caused, and the hearts you have broken, and the lives you have curtailed, and the blood you have spilled? Do we ask retaliation? We ask it not. We are willing to let the dead past bury its dead; but we ask you, now for our RIGHTS. You have all the elements of superiority upon your side you have our money and your own; you have our education and your own; and you have our land and your own, too. We, who number hundreds of thousands in Georgia, including our wives and families, with not a foot of land to call our own – strangers in the land of our birth; without money, without education, without aid, without a roof to cover us while we live, nor sufficient clay to cover us when we die: It is extraordinary that a race such as yours, professing gallantry, and chivalry, and education, and superiority, living in a land where ringing chimes call child and sire to the church of God—a land where Bibles are read and Gospels truths are spoken, and whose courts of justice are presumed to exist; it is extraordinary, I say, that, with all these advantages on your side, you can make war upon the poor defenseless black man. You know we have no money, no railroads, no telegraphs, no advantages of any sort, and yet all manner of injustice is placed upon us. You know that the black people of this country acknowledge you as their superiors, by virtue of your education and advantages.
There was a Resolution passed here at the early part of this session stating that all persons who were in their seats were eligible thereto. What are gentlemen going to do, with that Resolution staring them in the face? Your children and my children will read that Resolution, and they will be astonished that person, claiming to be men, with souls and consciences, should, contrary to the express provision of that Resolution, turn the colored man out of his seat in this Hall. Another Resolution came before this House, a short time ago, praying Congress to remove all political disabilities from the white people of Georgia. I stood up in my place here, sir, and advocated that Resolution, and advised all colored Members to do the same; and almost every one of them voted for it. We were willing to give the white man every right which he ever rightfully possessed, and, were there forty negroes in this country to one white man, I would have precisely the same feeling, and act precisely the same way. The action of the House reminds me very much of a couple of lines of verse which we occasionally read:
“When the Devil was sick, the Devil a saint would be;
When the Devil was well, the Devil a saint was he.”
When this House was “sick” with fear for the safety of the seats of ineligible Democrats, they were all very gracious and polite. But, when the Resolution was passed, declaring, in the face of facts, that all who were in their seats were eligible, then the foot was raised which was to trample on the poor negro, and that, too, by those who claim bravery and chivalry.
You may expel us, gentlemen, but I firmly believe that you will some day repent it. The black man cannot protect a country, if the country doesn’t protect him; and if, tomorrow, a war should arise, I would not raise a musket to defend a country where my manhood is denied. The fashionable way in Georgia, when hard work is to be done, is, for the white man to sit at his ease, while the black man does the work; but, sir, I will say this much to the colored men of Georgia, as if I should be killed in this campaign, I may have no opportunity of telling them at any other time: Never lift a finger nor raise a hand in defense of Georgia, unless Georgia acknowledges that you are men, and invests you with the rights pertaining to manhood. Pay your taxes, however, obey all orders from your employers, take good counsel from friends, work faithfully, earn an honest living, and show, by your conduct, that you can be good citizens.
I want to take your memories back to 1862. In that year, the Emperor of Russia, with one stroke of his pen, freed twenty-two millions of serfs. What did Russia do, then? Did she draw lines of distinction between those who had been serfs and her other citizens? No! That noble Prince, upon whose realm the sun never sets, after having freed these serfs, invested them with all the political rights enjoyed by his other subjects. America boasts of being the most enlightened, intelligent and enterprising nation in the world, and many people look upon Russia as not altogether perfectly civilized. But, look at what Russia has done for her slaves; there were twenty-two millions of them, while there are but four millions of us in the whole South, and only half a million in Georgia. If the action is taken in this House that is contemplated today, I will call a colored Convention, and I will say to my friends: Let us send North for carpet-baggers and Yankees, and let us send to Europe and all over the world for immigrants, and when they come here, we will give them every vote we have, and send them to the Legislature, in preference to sending a Georgian there.
Go on with your oppressions. Babylon fell. Where is Greece? Where is Nineveh? and where is Rome, the mistress Empire of the world? Why is it that she stands, today, in broken fragments throughout Europe? Because oppression killed her. Every act that we commit is like a bounding ball. If you curse a man, that curse rebounds upon you; and when you bless a man, the blessing returns to you; and when you oppress a man, the oppression, also will rebound. Where have you ever heard of four millions of freemen being governed by laws, and yet have no hand in their making? Search the records of the world, and you will find no example. “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” How dare you to make laws by which to try me and my wife and children, and deny me a voice in the making of these laws? I know you can establish a monarchy, an autocracy, an oligarchy, or any other kind of an “ocracy” that you please; and that you can declare whom you please to be sovereign; but tell me, sir, how you can clothe me with more power than another, where all are sovereigns alike? How can you say you have a Republican form of Government, when you make such distinction and enact such proscriptive laws?
Gentlemen talk a good deal about the Negroes “building no monuments. I can tell the gentlemen one thing; that is, that we could have built monuments of fire while the war was in progress. We could have fired your woods, your barns and fences, and called you home. Did we do it? No, sir! And God grant that the negro may never do it, or do anything else that would destroy the good opinion of his friends. No epithet is sufficiently opprobrious for us now. I say, sir that we have built a monument of docility, of obedience, of respect, and of self-control, that will endure longer than the Pyramids of Egypt.
We are a persecuted people. Luther was persecuted; Galileo was persecuted; good men in all nations have been persecuted; but the persecutors have been handed down to posterity with shame and ignominy.
If you pass this Bill, you will never get Congress to pardon or enfranchise another rebel in your lives. You are going to fix an everlasting disfranchisement upon Mr. Toombs and the other leading men of Georgia. You may think you are doing yourselves honor by expelling us from this House; but when we go, we will do as Wickliffe and as Latimer did. We will light a torch of truth that will never be extinguished – the impression that will run through the county, as people picture in their mind’s eye these poor black men, in all parts of this Southern country, pleading for their rights. When you expel us, you make us forever your political foes, and you will never find a black man to vote a Democratic ticket again; for, so help me, God, I will go through all the length and breadth of the land, where a man of my race is to be found, and advise him to beware of the Democratic party. Justice is the great doctrine taught in the Bible. God’s Eternal Justice is founded upon Truth, and the man who steps from Justice steps down from Truth, and cannot make his principles to prevail.
I have now, Mr. Speaker, said all that my physical condition will allow me to say. Weak and ill, though I am, I could not is passively here and see the sacred rights of my race destroyed at one blow. We are in a position somewhat similar to that of the famous “Light Brigade,” of which Tennyson says, they had
“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them,
Volleyed and thundered.”
I hope our poor, down-trodden race may act well and wisely through this period of trial, and that they will exercise patience and discretion under all circumstances.
You may expel us, gentlemen, by your votes, today; but, while you do it, remember that there is a just God in Heaven, whose All-Seeing Eye beholds alike the acts of the oppressor and the oppressed, and who, despite the machinations of the wicked, never fails to vindicate the cause of Justice, and the sanctity of His own handiwork.
This pamphlet was obtained from Bishop J.S. Flipper of Atlanta, Georgia.
Turner, Henry McNeal. Speech on the Eligibility of Colored Members to Seats in the Georgia Legislature. The Henry McNeal Turner Project (1868, September 3). http://www.thehenrymcnealturnerproject.org/2019/03/speech-on-eligibility-of-colored.html