In September of 1902, Anna Julia Cooper delivered an address entitled “The Ethics of the Negro Question” to the General Conference of the Society of Friends at Asbury Park in New Jersey. Cooper began her speech with Proverb 29:18 – “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
She then offered the following introduction:
“A nation’s greatness is not dependent upon the things it makes and uses. Things without thoughts are mere vulgarities. America can boast her expanse of territory, her gilded domes, her paving stones of silver dollars; but the question of deepest moment in this nation today is its span of the circle of brotherhood, the moral stature of its men and its women, the elevation at which it receives its “vision” into the firmament of eternal truth…”
Cooper framed the measure of national progress as a moral and ethical question, and provided a sharp critique of the “great gulf” between the “professions and practices” of Christianity and founding political documents in the United States when it came to principles of justice and equality.
“The Negro was transplanted to this continent in order to produce chattels and beasts of burden for a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’” Cooper said that evening. She later described the country’s commitment to those principles, specifically regarding black Americans, a question of its honor and integrity. “A nation cannnot long survive the shattering of its own ideals,” she said.
Despite the urgency of the need for justice and equality, Cooper described a nation unwilling to take up the charge. “It is no popular task today to voice the black man’s woe,” said Cooper. “It is far easier and safer to say that the wrong is all in him. The American conscience would like a rest from the ghost of the black man. It was always an unpalatable subject; but now preeminently is the era of good feeling and self-satisfaction, of commercial omnipotence and military glory… Has not the nation done and suffered enough for the Negro?”
Yet Cooper professed, “I am no pessimist regarding the future of my people America”:
“While these are times that try men’s souls, while a weak and despised people are called upon to vindicate their right to exist in the face of a race of hard, jealous, all-subduing instincts, while the iron of their bitter wrath and prejudice cuts into the very bones and marrow of my people, I have faith to believe that God has not made us for naught and He has not ordained to wipe us out from the face of the earth. I believe, moreover, that America is the land of destiny for the descendants of the enslaved race, that here in the house of their bondage are the seeds of promise for their ultimate enfranchisement and development.”
In conclusion that evening, Cooper told the audience:
“Our citizenship is beyond question… When the wild forces of hate and unholy passion are left to run riot against us, out hearts recoil no more in dread of such a catastrophe to ourselves, than in grief and shame at the possibility of such a fall and such a failure from our country’s high estate. It is impossible that we should not feel the unnatural prejudice environing us like stones between our teeth and iron in the marrow of our bones. If at such times we cannot sing ‘America’ is it not because of any treason lurking in our hearts… But when the wound is festering and the heart is so sore, we can only suffer and be silent, praying God to change the hearts of our misguided countrymen, and help them to see the things that make for righteousness.”
Cooper’s speech is available to read in full here on page 112.