Address to a Meeting
Under the Auspices of
January 29, 1914 — National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Cooper Union, New York City
The question of segregation looms p in my mind as of mountainous significance. I see in it an invidious and subtle poison that is being instilled into our national ideals. It is not because it is a political question, or not so much because it is a personal matter to those involved, though this is of grave importance, and should not be minimized, but it is a moral question that we should not dodge. That question involves an eternal principle, the principle of dignifying the human being which was proclaimed as the cornerstone of our national edifice and reiterated after the experience of eight-nine years by the best American of them all at the close of the Civil War. Segregation discriminates against the individual without regard to proven worth or ability. No surer was could be found to inure the pride, the dignity and the self-respect of any person or people than to assume that, because of color, race or nationality, they are unfit to mingle with the community.
However helpless the nation collectively may be because of the prejudice ad injustice among the individuals who constitute the nation, it commits the country to a standard when it acts collectively. The attempted segregation at Washington, and the immediate widespread effect of it on the country at large, especially the south, is too important for us to dare to let it pass without letting the world know and in no uncertain terms, the judgment of social thinkers upon it.
General [Georges] Picquart, who died a short time ago, set France right on the Dreyfus matter. In commenting upon his great service to his country, one of his biographers states that General Picquart’s conduct in the Dreyfus story is “one of the most striking testimonies that could be cited of the way in which the guarding of a nation’s highest interests may depend on the courage, the self-assertion, and the devotion of a few great spirits.” It may be called a gross exaggeration to compare the attempted segregation in one of the Government departments to the tragedy of Dreyfus, but it is potentially as grave, and if students of the subject do not make their protest, we may fail to have a Picquart when he is needed . . .
The nation has taken a great ask upon itself when it set out to harmonize the different elements that make up our country, that all may get together for one great purpose, namely, free opportunity to each, that the best type may be developed. There must be confusion in the minds of many who come to us as to the difference between our high national motives and the acts of the individual. I recall that one day, on passing a Chinese laundry, whose industrious workers were known to me, I missed one of the partners, and upon inquiry as to his whereabouts, I was told by the other Chinese that he was in a hospital, because a Christian gentleman had hit him on the head.
I do not want to add to the flame that has been kindled — far from it. Such contribution as I can make to this discussion, such share as I desire to take in this meeting, is to dwell with all the emphasis within my power upon the wrong that we do ourselves when we wrong, or degrade, or injure any of the people who are in our midst. That moral deterioration falls upon people who deliberately wrong others, is equally true of a nation. Prejudice brings in its train fear and hatred., brutalizing forces that are at war with character development. Segregation that is not entirely voluntary as between races breeds these undesirable traits of character. Without claiming the gift of prophecy, one can foresee that our sins, political and social, must recoil from the heads of our descendants. We commit ourselves to any wrong or degradation or injury when we do not protest against it.
Source: The Lillian Wald Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
Also: Lillian Wald: Progressive Activist, ed. Claire Coss (New York: The Feminist Press) 1989, pp. 72-73.