Progressivism, Race, and the Training Wheels of Freedom

In 1865, amid the final throes of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass worried that the prospect of fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence, by finally securing to blacks “the most perfect civil and political equality,” would founder on the allure of policies that in crucial respects restricted their natural rights — e.g., the rights to acquire property and vote. Such policies, though intended to “prepare them to better handle freedom,” would “practically enslave . . . the Negro, and make . . . the [Emancipation] Proclamation of 1863 a mockery and delusion. What is freedom? It is the right to choose one’s own employment. Certainly it means that, if it means anything; and when any[one] undertakes to decide for any man when he shall work, where he shall work, at what he shall work, and for what he shall work, he or they practically reduce him to slavery.” The right to vote was even more important, because it was the main means for blacks to protect all their other natural rights. “Without this,” Douglass stressed, the black man “is the slave of society, and holds his liberty as a privilege, not as a right.” 

Douglass’s concern was prophetic. Although the United States took significant steps toward “the most perfect civil and political equality” for blacks by adding the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, these gains were short-lived. Beginning in 1890, a wave of disfranchisement swept through Dixie, as every southern state enacted literacy tests, poll taxes, and other restrictions making it virtually impossible for black men to vote. The impact of these restrictions, historian C. Vann Woodward suggests, is well indicated by Louisiana’s experience: In 1896 there were 130,334 blacks registered to vote; by 1904, there were only 1,342. The disfranchisement of blacks was accompanied, he continues, by “the mushroom growth of discriminatory and segregation laws,” intrusively dictating a thoroughgoing separation of the races in transportation, the workplace, hospitals, mental and penal institutions, recreational facilities, voluntary associations, etc. Two states even forbade the members of fraternal societies to address fellow members of another race as “brother.”

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