Friday, July 1, 2016

1897: Responses to Rebecca Felton's Speech

Today we featuring two responses to Mrs. Felton's speech. The first comes to us through the pages of the Richmond Planet (Richmond, Virginia) dated September 4, 1897:


THE Boston, Mass., Evening Transcript, in commenting on the address delivered by Mrs. W. H. FELTON, of Cartersville, Ga., before the Agricultural Society of that state in which she not only encouraged lynchings, but advocated it, says:

"It is strange that an intelligent person should not be able to see in what a ghastly and ghoulish light this confession or defence, whichever it may be called, places the whole Georgia fabric of social order. The lamp of civilization has been extinguished there so far as such language represents public sentiment, and barbarism has returned. When law ceases to reign, blind force takes its place, and certainly in a state in which it is claimed the law does not punish with sufficient certainty and swiftness, it is idle to assume that the ends of justice can be reached by turning over its machinery to the fury of a vengeful, ignorant mob, that grows tigerish with each new indulgence. As Judge Sykes of Corinth, Miss., who knows the conditions of the South as well as Mrs. Felton or any body else, aptly put it, "lynch law must stop or government will cease and the mob will rule in everything".

And again:

"Resolved into its primal elements and its logical conclusion, Mrs. Felton's plea means that crime justifies crime and warrants unchaining indiscriminate vengeance. That is what it amounts to, for the license that authorizes the mob to punish and avenge which she calls the "unwritten law," has no limitations. There is nothing but its own passion to regulate its o[w]n operations.

It draws a most striking comparison the following statements.

"The only difference in conditions is that the people of Massachusetts live under a reign of law and would recoil in horror from a proposition to do otherwise, while the people of Georgia seem impatient of the law's restraint and anxious to throw them off at the dictates of passion. This State is by no means free from crimes of the worst character. It is even possible that a case or cases might occur which would so infuriate the populace that they would for the time being overbear the law, but that would simply be the shame and disgrace of the Commonwealth, as the actual condition of things now is of Georgia. She now calls herself the "Empire State of the South." Empire of what, when she cannot preserve domestic tranquility and make her laws effective? If force is to take the place of law there, let it at least be organized and have a show of authority, that the executioners may be known. At least as much as that was done in mediaeval [sic] Europe. "Home made law," as it is called in Mrs. Felton's letter, is simply home made murder, with the murders responsible to no one."

The editor of the "Evening Transcript" has made a powerful plea. How strange that it should be necessary in a land with its institutions of learning, its libraries, its experiences in the past and promises of the future!

And yet there are those who read as through a glass darkened. They fail to understand that "history repeats itself," and in this becomes a sure guide and instructor as we plod our way through the centuries.

Capital is timid; it has never been known to choose lawless sections, where law abiding ones would answer its purposes half as well. Lynch-law must go.!

Our second article comes to us through the pages of the Kansas City Journal (Kansas City, Missouri) dated August 15, 1897:


The picture of a respectable and influential woman standing up in public and warmly indorsing [sic] mob law is not a pleasant one to contemplate. At least, not to respectable people in the North and West. Apparently there are communities where such spectacles are witnessed not only with approval, but with warm enthusiasm.

At Savannah, Ga., a few evenings ago, a Mrs. Felton, who is described as "perhaps the best known woman writer and suffragist in Georgia," made an address on the subject of lynching which powerfully aroused her large audience. She declared that so long as the men of that state could find sufficient rope they should decorate the trees with the black brutes who were lurking about for the purpose of committing outrage and crime. At this statement, according to the newspaper report, "the audience rose as if by a single impulse, and shouting themselves hoarse and almost delirious, refused to let the speaker go on for several minutes."

Ordinarily we expect women—especially highly respected and influential women—to counsel law and order, not mob violence. The laws in the Southern states are ample to mete out full justice to assailants of women, and when such assailants are black there is no doubt about the law's rigid enforcement if it is given opportunity. There, at least, lynching does not make punishment any surer; it merely gratifies a savage desire for speedy vengeance. The continued prevalence and increase of this kind of crime shows plainly that it does not deter other blacks from following in the footsteps of the mob's victims.

There is only one way in which the Southern states can eradicate these frequent crimes of lustful negroes. The South must take a more humane interest in its colored population and endeavor to make intelligent and self-respecting citizens of them. It is impossible to treat a large class of the population as if they were hopelessly degraded beings, and yet have them conduct themselves like models of gentlemanly propriety. The Southern negro must be made an object of human interest and care by the intelligent whites among whom he lives and labors. He must be educated and brought up to a higher moral and social level. The work will take time, but Southern women will not be safe from his brutal attacks until it is accomplished. He must be more than a low and cheap laborer. He must become a self-respecting and respectable citizen, and Southern statesmen and educators must see to it that the transformation takes place. There is no other solution of the problem.

It is due the good people of Georgia to say that Mrs. Felton and her Savannah audience do not represent the best sentiment of the state. Governor Atkinson has taken a pronounced stand against the lynching evil, and the governor undoubtedly has a considerable following. It requires no argument to prove that those who were with the governor are the state's best people.

Thank you for joining me and, as always, I hope I leave you with something to ponder. 

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