3. From “Of the Sons of Master and Man”

In the attitude of the American mind toward Negro suffrage can be traced with unusual accuracy the prevalent conceptions of government. In the fifties we were near enough the echoes of the French Revolution to believe pretty thoroughly in universal suffrage. We argued, as we thought then rather logically, that no social class was so good, so true, and so disinterested as to be trusted wholly with the political destiny of its neighbors; that in every state the best arbiters of their own welfare are the persons directly affected; consequently that it is only by arming every hand with a ballot,—with the right to have a voice in the policy of the state,—that the greatest good to the greatest number could be attained. To be sure, there were objections to these arguments, but we thought we had answered them tersely and convincingly; if some one complained of the ignorance of voters, we answered, “Educate them.” If another complained of their venality, we replied, “Disfranchise them or put them in jail.” And, finally, to the men who feared demagogues and the natural perversity of some human beings we insisted that time and bitter experience would teach the most hardheaded. It was at this time that the question of Negro suffrage in the South was raised. Here was a defenceless people suddenly made free. How were they to be protected from those who did not believe in their freedom and were determined to thwart it? Not by force, said the North; not by government guardianship, said the South; then by the ballot, the sole and legitimate defence of a free people, said the Common Sense of the Nation. No one thought, at the time, that the ex-slaves could use the ballot intelligently or very effectively; but they did think that the possession of so great power by a great class in the nation would compel their fellows to educate this class to its intelligent use. . . .

And finally, now, to-day, when we are awakening to the fact that the perpetuity of republican institutions on this continent depends on the purification of the ballot, the civic training of voters, and the raising of voting to the plane of a solemn duty which a patriotic citizen neglects to his peril and to the peril of his children’s children,—in this day, when we are striving for a renaissance of civic virtue, what are we going to say to the black voter of the South? Are we going to tell him still that politics is a disreputable and useless form of human activity? Are we going to induce the best class of Negroes to take less and less interest in government, and to give up their right to take such an interest, without a protest? I am not saying a word against all legitimate efforts to purge the ballot of ignorance, pauperism, and crime. But few have pretended that the present movement for disfranchisement in the South is for such a purpose; it has been plainly and frankly declared in nearly every case that the object of the disfranchising laws is the elimination of the black man from politics.



Introduction  by Gerald Maa
Using 120-Year-Old Tools to Document Black Life in Georgia  by Janeria Easley
From “Of the Sons of Master and Man”  by W. E. B. Du Bois
selections from “The Exhibit of American Negroes” for the 1900 Paris Exposition  by W. E. B. Du Bois
spell to trace a rainbow to its apogee  by Kieth S. Wilson
From “Of the Black Belt”  by W. E. B. Du Bois
THE AXIS OF DISPOSSESSION, fig 2.  By Vanessa Angélica Villarreal
The After-Thought  by W. E. B. Du Bois


W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) was the first African American to be awarded a Harvard PhD. He spent nearly a quarter century on the faculty of Atlanta University as professor of history and sociology (1897–1910) and head of the sociology department (1934–1944). Du Bois’ writings and his intellectual guidance as teacher, researcher, and editor at Atlanta University contributed immensely to its reputation as a preeminent resource for the study of race in America. In 1903 he published his now-classic collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, named as one of the Modern Library’s one hundred most influential works of the twentieth century. Du Bois spent twenty-three years as editor of Crisis, a publication of the NAACP—an organization he helped found. During his second span at Atlanta University he became the first editor-in-chief of Phylon, the University’s scholarly review of race and culture, to which he was also an ardent and frequent contributor. (Inducted as a charter member in 2000)