“Another Step Toward Civilization”

May 31, 1879

Thomas Nast

“Another Step Toward Civilization”

Black Americans; Conventions, Business;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

American South; American West;

Mr. Solid Brutus. "Why, Mr. Exode Caesar, you are a Man and a Brother after all. So Step into my parlor."

We end the month where we began it, with a cartoon related to the mass migration of blacks from the American South in the late 1870s and early 1880s.  The specific subject of Thomas Nast's cartoon is the Mississippi Valley Labor Convention, a meeting of 400 white planters and businessmen that convened in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on May 5, 1879, in an attempt to devise solutions for stemming the flow of black laborers from the region.  A few black men observed or addressed the gathering, but did not vote.  Harper's Weekly reprinted the resolutions endorsed by the delegates, and promised to hold the white Southerners to their words. 

The vague promises of the Vicksburg Convention were not backed up by any definite plan of action, even though a proposal was made to create biracial committees in each Southern county to hear and arbitrate racial disputes.  This cover cartoon by Thomas Nast reveals profound skepticism about the sincerity of the Vicksburg resolutions.  Avowals of respect for the humanity, equality, and liberty of black Southerners and of an end to the region's anti-black violence are plastered on the posters, fly on the flag, and proceed from the lips of the personification of the convention.  

Yet, the white delegate has stuffed the pledges into his back pocket.  He is identified as "Mr. Solid Brutus," the former term aligns him with the Democratic Solid South (to Nast, purveyors of political violence and fraud), while the latter name associates him with the false friend who betrayed and murdered Julius Caesar.  The white delegate's welcome of the black migrant back to the South is depicted as a dangerous (parlor) trick of the deadly spider luring the innocent fly into his web of deceit (note the spider's web on the sign).  His final remark is from the familiar refrain, "step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly."

Mississippi Valley Labor Convention resolutions:

"Resolved, That the interests of planters, laborers, landlords, and tenants are identical; that they must prosper and suffer together; that it is the duty of planters and landlords of the States here represented to devise and adopt some contract system with laborers and tenants by which both parties will receive the full benefit of labor governed by intelligence and economy."

"Resolved, That this Convention does affirm that the colored race has been placed by the Constitution of the United States and the States here represented and the laws thereof on a plane of absolute legal equality with the white race, and does declare that the colored race shall be accorded the practical enjoyment of all rights, civil and political, guaranteed by said Constitution and laws."

"Resolved, That to this end the members of this Convention pledge themselves to use whatever power and influence they possess to protect the colored race against all dangers in respect to the fair expression of their wills at the polls which they apprehend may result from fraud, intimidation, or bulldozing on the part of the whites. And as there can be no liberty of action without freedom of thought, demand that all elections shall be free and fair, and that no repressive measures shall be employed by colored people to deprive their own race of the fullest freedom in the exercise of the highest right of citizenship."

"Resolved, That the unrestricted credit system pervading the States here represented, based upon liens or mortgages on stock and crops, to be grown in the future, followed by short crops, has provoked distrust, created unrest, and disturbed their entire laboring population. All laws authorizing liens on crops for advances of articles -- other than those of prime necessity at moderate profits -- whether such advances are made by landlord, planter, or merchant, should be discountenanced and repealed."

"Resolved, That this Convention calls upon colored people here present to contradict false reports circulated among and impressed upon the more ignorant and credulous, to instruct them that no lands, mules, or money await them in Kansas or elsewhere without labor or price, and to report to the civil authorities all persons disseminating such reports."

Resolved, That it is the constitutional right of colored people to emigrate when they please to whatever State they may select for residence; but the Convention urges them to proceed in their movements toward emigration as reasonable human beings, providing in advance by economy means for transportation and settlement, and sustaining their reputation for honesty and fair dealing by preserving it intact until the completion of such contracts for labor-leasing as have already been made. If, when they have done this, they still desire to leave, all obstacles to their departure will be removed, all practicable assistance will be afforded to them, and their places will be supplied with other contented labor."

"Your committee believes that if the views expressed in the foregoing resolutions are practically carried out by the people of both races in good faith, the disquiet of our people will subside. We appeal to the people of both races to aid us in carrying these resolutions into effect, to report to the authorities all violations of laws and all interference with private rights."

Robert C. Kennedy

“Another Step Toward Civilization”
May 29, 2024

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