“Necessity Knows No Law”: Fortune’s Black and White, Part Seven
“The hour is approaching when the laboring classes…will recognize that they have a common cause, a common humanity, and a common enemy.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
For our conclusion to T. Thomas Fortune’s Black and White: Land, Labor and Politics in the South, it is fitting that we examine this important black intellectual and activist’s life beyond his early work. By the late 1880s, Fortune was the most important black journalist in the country and his influence translated into leadership. His activism echoed the militant integrationism espoused throughout Black and White. He helped found the National Afro‐American League in Chicago (1890), which functioned for several years until reformulated as the National Afro‐American Council (1898). Both organizations served as Fortune’s points of entry into the Niagara Movement and the NAACP. Fortune only became more influential and important with time. In 1923, he joined Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association as editor of the Negro World. Garvey’s outlet championed black identity and pride in one’s Pan‐African heritage. As editor of the World, Fortune wielded perhaps the widest‐reaching journalistic pen in the world. From its base in America, the Negro World flowed across the oceans reaching all corners of the African diaspora and selling as many as 200,000 copies at its height.
In many ways, Fortune’s entire life was an attempted escape from white supremacy. Slavery, Jim Crow, and the 1920s revival of white nationalism–these major factors could easily have compelled subjection. But Fortune and countless other African Americans struggled ceaselessly against all institutional restraint and prejudice to produce so much of modern America. During Fortune’s years at the Negro World, the paper regularly engaged with Harlem Renaissance artists and musicians. The connection speaks to Fortune’s call in Black and White for independent, individual action to improve the lives of African Americans. They could not–perhaps still cannot–count on white Americans to really and truly give up the immediate and smug satisfaction accorded them by white supremacist institutions and culture. African Americans certainly could, however, count on themselves to produce wealth and brilliance despite the persistence of racism. Fortune concludes Black and White, therefore, with a renewed call for an end to white supremacy, a renaissance in southern life, and a true union of common people of all colors.
By T. Thomas Fortune. New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert. 1884. 234–242.
Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South
Chapter XVI. Conclusion.
I know it is not fashionable for writers on economic questions to tell the truth; but the truth should be told, though it kill. When the wail of distress encircles the world, the man who is linked by “the one touch of nature” which “makes the whole world kin” to the common destiny of the race universal; who hates injustice wherever it lifts up its head; who sympathizes with the distressed, the weak, and the friendless in every corner of the globe, such a man is morally bound to tell the truth as he conceives it to be the truth.
In these times, when the law‐making and enforcing authority is leagued against the people; when great periodicals–monthly, weekly and daily–echo the mandates or anticipate the wishes of the powerful men who produce our social demoralization, it becomes necessary for the few men who do not agree to the arguments advanced or the interests sought to be bolstered up, to “cry aloud and spare not.” The man who with the truth in his possession flatters with lies, that “thrift may follow fawning” is too vile to merit the contempt of honest men.
The government of the United States confiscated as “contraband of war” the slave population of the South, but if left to the portion of the unrepentant rebel a far more valuable species of property. The slave, the perishable wealth, was confiscated to the government and then manumitted; but property in land, the wealth which perishes not nor can fly away, and which had made the institution of slavery possible, was left as the heritage of the robber who had not hesitated to lift his iconoclastic hand against the liberties of his country. The barons of feudal Europe would have been paralyzed with astonishment at the leniency of the conquering invader who should take from him his slave, subject to mutation, and leave him his landed possessions which are as fixed as the Universe of Nature. He would ask no more advantageous concession. But the United States took the slave and left the thing which gave birth to chattel slavery and which is now fast giving birth to industrial slavery; a slavery more excruciating in its exactions, more irresponsible in its machinations than that other slavery, which I once endured. The chattel slave‐holder must, to preserve the value of his property, feed, clothe and house his property, and give it proper medical attention when disease or accident threatened its life. But industrial slavery requires no such care. The new slave‐holder is only solicitous of obtaining the maximum of labor for the minimum of cost. He does not regard the man as of any consequence when he can no longer produce. Having worked him to death, or ruined his constitution and robbed him of his labor, he turns him out upon the world to live upon the charity of mankind or to die of inattention and starvation. He knows that it profits him nothing to waste time and money upon a disabled industrial slave. The multitude of laborers from which he can recruit his necessary laboring force is so enormous that solicitude on his part for one that falls by the wayside would be a gratuitous expenditure of humanity and charity which the world is too intensely selfish and materialistic to expect of him. Here he forges wealth and death at one and the same time. He could not do this if our social system did not confer upon him a monopoly of the soil from which subsistence must be derived, because the industrial slave, given an equal opportunity to produce for himself, would not produce for another. On the other hand, the large industrial operations, with the multitude of laborers from which Adam Smith declares employers grow rich, as far as this applies to the soil, would not be possible, since the vast volume of increased production brought about by the industry of the multitude of co‐equal small farmers would so reduce the cost price of food products as to destroy the incentive to speculation in them, and at the same time utterly destroy the necessity or the possibility of famines, such as those which have from time to time come upon the Irish people. There could be no famine, in the natural course of things, where all had an opportunity to cultivate as much land as they could wherever they found any not already under cultivation by some one else. It needs no stretch of the imagination to see what a startling tendency the announcement that all vacant land was free to settlement upon condition of cultivation would have to the depopulation of over‐crowded cities like New York, Baltimore and Savannah, where the so‐called pressure of population upon subsistence has produced a hand‐to‐hand fight for existence by the wage‐workers in every avenue of industry.
This is no fancy picture. It is a plain logical deduction of what would result from the restoration of the people of that equal chance in the race of life which every man has a right to expect, to demand, and to exact as a condition of his membership of organized society.
The wag who started the “forty acres and a mule” idea among the black people of the South was a wise fool; wise in that he enunciated a principle which every argument of sound policy should have dictated, upon the condition that the forty acres could in no wise be alienated, and that it could be regarded only as property as long as it was cultivated; and a fool because he designed simply to impose upon the credulity and ignorance of his victims. But the justness of the “forty acre” donation cannot be controverted. In the first place, the slave had earned this miserable stipend from the government by two hundred years of unrequited toil; and, secondly, as a free man, he was inherently entitled to so much of the soil of his country as would suffice to maintain him in the freedom thrust upon him. To tell him he was a free man, and at the same time shut him off from free access to the soil upon which he had been reared, without a penny in his pocket, and with an army of children at his coat-tail–some of his reputed wife’s children being the illegitimate offspring of a former inhuman master–was to add insult to injury, to mix syrup and hyssop, to aggravate into curses the pretended conference of blessings.
When I think of the absolutely destitute condition of the colored people of the South at the close of the Rebellion; when I remember the moral and intellectual enervation which slavery had produced in them; when I remember that not only were they thus bankrupt, but that they were absolutely and unconditionally cut off from the soil, with absolutely no right or title in it, I am surprised,–not that they have already got a respectable slice of landed interests; not that they have taken hold eagerly of the advantages of moral and intellectual opportunities of development placed in their reach by the charitable philanthropy of good men and women; not that they have bought homes and supplied them with articles of convenience and comfort, often of luxury,–but I am surprised that the race did not turn robbers and highwaymen, and, in turn, terrorize and rob society as society had for so long terrorized and robbed them. The thing is strange, marvelous, phenomenal in the extreme. Instead of becoming outlaws, as the critical condition would seem to have indicated, the black men of the South went manfully to work to better their own condition and the crippled condition of the country which had been produced by the ravages of internecine rebellion; while the white men of the South, the capitalists, the land‐sharks, the poor white trash, and the nondescripts, with a thousand years of Christian civilization and culture behind them, with “the boast of chivalry, the pomp of power,” these white scamps, who had imposed upon the world the idea that they were paragons of virtue and the heaven‐sent viceregents of civil power, organized themselves into a band of outlaws, whose concatenative chain of auxilitaries ran through the entire South, and deliberately proceeded to murder innocent men and women for POLITICAL REASONS and to systematically rob them of their honest labor because they were too accursedly lazy to labor themselves.
But this highly abnormal, unnatural condition of things is fast passing away. The white man having asserted his superiority in the matters of assassination and robbery, has settled down upon a barrel of dynamite, as he did in the days of slavery, and will await the explosion with the same fatuity and self‐satisfaction true of him in other days. But as convulsions from within are more violent and destructive than convulsions from without, being more deep‐seated and therefore more difficult to reach, the next explosion will be more disastrous, more far‐reaching in its havoc than the one which metamorphosed social conditions in the South, and from the dreadful reactions of which we are just now recovering.
As I have said elsewhere, the future struggle in the South will be, not between white men and black men, but between capital and labor, land‐lord and tenant. Already the cohorts are marshalling to the fray; already the forces are mustering to the field at the sound of the slogan.
The same battle will be fought upon Southern soil that is in preparation in other states where the conditions are older in development but no more deep‐seated, no more pernicious, no more blighting upon the industries of the country and the growth of the people.
It is not my purpose here to enter into an extended analysis of the foundations upon which our land system rests, nor to give my views as to how matters might be remedied. I may take up the question at some future time. It is sufficient for my purpose to have indicated that the social problems in the South, as they exfoliate more and more as resultant upon the war, will be found to be the same as those found in every other section of our country; and to have pointed out that the questions of “race,” “condition” “politics,” etc., will all properly adjust themselves with the advancement of the people in wealth, education, and forgetfulness of the unhappy past.
The hour is approaching when the laboring classes of our country, North, East, West and South, will recognize that they have a common cause, a common humanity, and a common enemy; and that, therefore, if they would triumph over wrong and place the laurel wreath upon triumphant justice, without distinction of race or of previous condition they must unite! And unite they will, for “a fellow feeling makes us wond’rous kind.” When the issue is properly joined, the rich, be they black or be they white, will be found upon the same side; and the poor, be they black or be they white, will be found on the same side.
Necessity knows no law and discriminates in favor of no man or race.