Henry McNeal Turner Primary Source eText

Primary Source

(American Civil War: Primary Sources)

Henry McNeal Turner. (Reproduced by permission of Fisk University Library.) Henry McNeal Turner. Published by Gale Cengage (Reproduced by permission of Fisk University Library.)
The Ku Klux Klan was the most notable white supremacist group to form in the years following the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan was the most notable white supremacist group to form in the years following the Civil War. Published by Gale Cengage

Excerpt from "I Claim the Rights of a Man"
Speech before the Georgia State Legislature, September 3, 1868

An expelled black senator defends his right to hold office

"God saw fit to vary everything in nature. There are no two men alike—no two voices alike—no two trees alike. God has weaved and tissued variety and versatility throughout the boundless space of His creation. Because God saw fit to make some red, and some white, and some black, and some brown, are we to sit here in judgment upon what God has seen fit to do?"

The North's victory in the Civil War in 1865 settled two important issues. First, it established that states were not allowed to leave, or secede from, the United States. Second, it put an end to slavery throughout the country. But the end of the war also raised a whole new set of issues. For example, federal lawmakers had to decide whether to punish the Confederate leaders for their rebellion. They also had to decide what process to use to readmit the Southern states to the Union, and how much assistance to provide in securing equal rights for the freed slaves. The period in American history immediately after the Civil War—when the country struggled to deal with these important and complicated issues—was called Reconstruction.

Reconstruction was a time of great political and social turmoil. President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875), who took office after Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was assassinated in 1865, controlled the earliest Reconstruction efforts. Johnson said that the Southern states could form new state governments and be readmitted to the Union once they abolished (put an end to) slavery and admitted that they had been wrong to secede. He also pardoned (officially forgave) many men who had held important positions in the Confederate government or army.

Within a short time, however, many Northerners came to believe that Johnson's Reconstruction policies were too lenient (easy) on the South. They worried that the same men who had led the Southern states to secede from the Union would return to power. In December 1865, for example, the people of Georgia elected former Confederate vice president Andrew Stephens to represent them in the U.S. Congress. Other Southern states elected former Confederate politicians and military leaders to public office as well.

As state legislatures re-formed across the South, it became clear that the former Confederate states had no intention of giving black people equal rights as citizens. Instead, most Southern states passed laws known as "Black Codes" to regulate the behavior of blacks and make sure that whites maintained control over them. The state of Georgia not only instituted Black Codes but also rejected the Fourteenth Amendment, which made black people citizens of the United States and granted them civil rights.

In response to such actions by the Southern states, the U.S. Congress decided to take over the process of Reconstruction from the president. Beginning in 1866, Congress enacted stricter Reconstruction policies and sent in federal troops to enforce them. Political leaders in Georgia were determined to avoid complying with (following) these policies. They asked the U.S. Supreme Court to issue an injunction (a court order preventing a law from being enforced), but their case was dismissed.

Congress's Reconstruction policies required the Southern states to hold conventions to rewrite their constitutions. Georgia's constitutional convention met in Atlanta in December 1867. Of the 169 delegates (elected representatives) at the convention, 37 were black men. "The convention was interested in suffrage [voting rights], qualifications for office-holding, relief [aid to the poor], and a liberal Constitution," according to W. E. B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction. "In these matters, Negroes took active part in the discussions, and used their political privilege intelligently, and with caution." The delegates created a new state constitution that prohibited slavery and granted all adult males—black and white—the right to vote. However, it did not specifically say that all legal voters would be eligible to hold public office.

Once Georgia and the other Southern states had developed new constitutions, they were allowed to elect state governments and rejoin the Union. A majority of Georgia voters approved the new state constitution in April 1868. They also elected new representatives to the state and federal governments. Many black men jumped at the chance to vote and have a say in their government. As a result, the new Georgia State Senate included three black members, while the State House of Representatives included twenty-nine black members.

The U.S. Congress welcomed Georgia back into the Union on July 21, 1868, shortly after the state ratified (approved) the Fourteenth Amendment. Then Congress withdrew the federal troops that had been sent to enforce their Reconstruction policies. But as soon as the federal troops left Georgia, the white majority in the state legislature began trying to expel (kick out) the black members because of their race. "Immediately upon the readmission of their states the Conservatives [people who want to maintain traditional, established views or conditions] . . . began their running attack on the new administrations," John Hope Franklin wrote in Reconstruction after the Civil War. "Overthrow would come soon, they felt, if they worked hard enough at it."

In the Georgia State Senate, white members of the Democratic Party began targeting black members of the Republican Party. They accused the three black senators of "gross insults" and other minor offenses. But even though the charges were ridiculous, the Democrats held a majority in the senate and had enough votes to expel the black members. In September 1868, the white members of the Georgia State House of Representatives passed a resolution (a formal expression of their opinion) stating that black men were not eligible to hold public office. They argued that the state constitution allowed blacks to vote, but did not allow them to hold office. Based upon this resolution, twenty-five of the twenty-nine black state representatives lost their seats in the House. They were replaced by white Democrats. The other four black members remained in office because they had such light skin that it was impossible to prove their race.

Henry McNeal Turner (1834–1915) was one of the black men expelled from the Georgia legislature. He was an educated man and a respected minister, but his status as a leader in the black community made him one of the primary targets of racist white Democrats. Turner refused to accept the ruling of his colleagues. On September 3, 1868, he made a passionate speech before the Georgia House of Representatives defending his right to hold office. The legislature refused to print the text of his speech in its minutes (the official written record of a meeting), so Turner published it himself and distributed it among the people of Georgia.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Henry McNeal Turner's speech before the Georgia State Legislature:

  • Turner argues that he has a right to hold office in the new state government because that government was set up by blacks. Black delegates played an active role in the convention that rewrote Georgia's constitution. In addition, black voters selected him and the other black members of the legislature to be their representatives. He claims that black politicians are more capable of representing the will of the black people of Georgia than white politicians could be.
  • One of the most difficult issues following the end of the Civil War involved helping former slaves build new, independent lives for themselves. To many former slaves, true freedom meant owning land of their own. This way they could grow crops to feed their families and would no longer be dependent on plantation owners. Some people in the North wanted the U.S. government to confiscate (take away) land belonging to Southerners who had supported the Confederacy and give it to former slaves and poor whites. But other people did not want to give the government the right to take away citizens' property. President Johnson dashed the hopes of many former slaves to own land when he issued pardons to numerous former Confederates. People who received a pardon got back their rights and their property. In the end, the U.S. government failed to provide land to most former slaves. Turner refers to this situation in his speech. "You have our land and your own too," he tells the white legislators. "We [black people], who number hundreds of thousands in Georgia, including our wives and families, [have] not a foot of land to call our own."
  • At one point in his speech, Turner remarks that he has tried so hard to get along with white politicians that "many among my own party have classed me as a Democrat." In fact, Turner and most black people in the United States felt strong ties to the Republican political party during Reconstruction. They associated the Republican Party with President Abraham Lincoln, the end of slavery in the United States, and an increase in black civil rights and political power. Black voters tended to support Republican candidates for the next sixty years. But this situation began to change during the Great Depression of the 1930s. At that time, Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) established programs to provide jobs and other forms of assistance to black families. Then, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) and the Democratic Congress passed sweeping new laws that protected and expanded the civil rights of black Americans. By the 1990s, most black voters tended to support Democratic candidates.

Excerpt from "I Claim the Rights of a Man," Henry McNeal Turner's speech before the Georgia State Legislature:

Mr. Speaker: Before proceeding to argue this question upon its intrinsic merits, I wish the members of this House to understand the position that I take. I hold that I am a member of this body. Therefore, sir, I shall neither fawn nor cringe before any party, nor stoop to beg them for my rights. Some of my colored fellow members, in the course of their remarks, took occasion to appeal to the sympathies of members on the opposite side, and to eulogize their character for magnanimity. It reminds me very much, sir, of slaves begging under the lash. I am here to demand my rights and to hurl thunderbolts at the men who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood. There is an old aphorism which says, "fight the devil with fire," and if I should observe the rule in this instance, I wish gentlemen to understand that it is but fighting them with their own weapon.

The scene presented in this House, today, is one unparalleled in the history of the world. From this day, back to the day when God breathed the breath of life into Adam, no analogy for it can be found. Never, in the history of the world, has a man been arraigned before a body clothed with legislative, judicial or executive functions, charged with the offense of being a darker hue than his fellow men. I know that questions have been before the courts of this country, and of other countries, involving topics not altogether dissimilar to that which is being discussed here today. But, sir, never in the history of the great nations of this world—never before—has a man been arraigned, charged with an offense committed by the God of Heaven Himself. Cases may be found where men have been deprived of their rights for crimes and misdemeanors; but it has remained for the state of Georgia, in the very heart of the nineteenth century, to call a man before the bar, and there charge him with an act for which he is no more responsible than for the head which he carries upon his shoulders. The Anglo-Saxon race, sir, is a most surprising one. No man has ever been more deceived in that race than I have been for the last three weeks. I was not aware that there was in the character of that race so much cowardice or so much pusillanimity. The treachery which has been exhibited in it by gentlemen belonging to that race has shaken my confidence in it more than anything that has come under my observation from the day of my birth. . . .

Whose legislature is this? Is it a white man's legislature, or is it a black man's legislature? Who voted for a constitutional convention, in obedience to the mandate of the Congress of the United States? Who first rallied around the standard of Reconstruction? Who set the ball of loyalty rolling in the state of Georgia? And whose voice was heard on the hills and in the valleys of this state? It was the voice of the brawny-armed Negro, with the few humanitarian-hearted white men who came to our assistance. I claim the honor, sir, of having been the instrument of convincing hundreds—yea, thousands—of white men, that to reconstruct under the measures of the United States Congress was the safest and the best course for the interest of the state.

Let us look at some facts in connection with this matter. Did half the white men of Georgia vote for this legislature? Did not the great bulk of them fight, with all their strength, the Constitution under which we are acting? And did they not fight against the organization of this legislature? And further, sir, did they not vote against it? Yes, sir! And there are persons in this legislature today who are ready to spit their poison in my face, while they themselves opposed, with all their power, the ratification of this Constitution. They question my right to sit in this body, to represent the people whose legal votes elected me. This objection, sir, is an unheard-of monopoly of power. No analogy can be found for it, except it be the case of a man who should go into my house, take possession of my wife and children, and then tell me to walk out. I stand very much in the position of a criminal before your bar, because I dare to be the exponent of the views of those who sent me here. Or, in other words, we are told that if black men want to speak, they must speak through white trumpets; if black men want their sentiments expressed, they must be adulterated and sent through white messengers, who will quibble and equivocate and evade as rapidly as the pendulum of a clock. If this be not done, then the black men have committed an outrage, and their representatives must be denied the right to represent their constituents.

The great question, sir, is this: Am I a man? If I am such, I claim the rights of a man. Am I not a man because I happen to be of a darker hue than honorable gentlemen around me? Let me see whether I am or not. I want to convince the House today that I am entitled to my seat here. . . . Am I a man? Have I a soul to save, as you have? Am I susceptible of eternal development, as you are? Can I learn all the arts and sciences that you can? Has it ever been demonstrated in the history of the world? Have black men ever exhibited bravery as white men have done? Have they ever been in the professions? Have they not as good articulative organs as you? . . . God saw fit to vary everything in nature. There are no two men alike—no two voices alike—no two trees alike. God has weaved and tissued variety and versatility throughout the boundless space of His creation. Because God saw fit to make some red, and some white, and some black, and some brown, are we to sit here in judgment upon what God has seen fit to do? As well might one play with the thunderbolts of heaven as with that creature that bears God's image—God's photograph. . . .

If I am not permitted to occupy a seat here, for the purpose of representing my constituents, I want to know how white men can be permitted to do so. How can a white man represent a colored constituency, if a colored man cannot do it? The great argument is: "Oh, we have inherited " this, that and the other. Now, I want gentlemen to come down to cool, common sense. Is the created greater than the Creator? Is man greater than God? It is very strange, if a white man can occupy on this floor a seat created by colored votes, and a black man cannot do it. Why, gentlemen, it is the most shortsighted reasoning in the world. . . .

It is said that Congress never gave us the right to hold office. I want to know, sir, if the Reconstruction measures did not base their action on the ground that no distinction should be made on account of race, color or previous condition? Was not that the grand fulcrum on which they rested? And did not every reconstructed state have to reconstruct on the idea that no discrimination, in any sense of the term, should be made? There is not a man here who will dare say No. If Congress has simply given me merely sufficient civil and political rights to make me a mere political slave for Democrats, or anybody else—giving them the opportunity of jumping on my back in order to leap into political power—I do not thank Congress for it. Never, so help me God, shall I be a political slave. I am not now speaking for those colored men who sit with me in this House, nor do I say that they endorse my sentiments, but assisting Mr. Lincoln to take me out of servile slavery did not intend to put me and my race into political slavery. If they did, let them take away my ballot—I do not want it, and shall not have it. I don't want to be a mere tool of that sort. I have been a slave long enough already.

I tell you what I would be willing to do: I am willing that the question should be submitted to Congress for an explanation as to what was meant in the passage of their Reconstruction measures, and of the Constitutional Amendment. Let the Democratic party in this House pass a resolution giving this subject that direction, and I shall be content. I dare you, gentlemen, to do it. Come up to the question openly, whether it meant that the Negro might hold office, or whether it meant that he should merely have the right to vote. If you are honest men, you will do it. If, however, you will not do that, I would make another proposition: Call together, again, the convention that framed the constitution under which we are acting; let them take a vote upon the subject, and I am willing to abide by their decision. . . .

These colored men, who are unable to express themselves with all the clearness and dignity and force of rhetorical eloquence, are laughed at in derision by the Democracy of the country. It reminds me very much of the man who looked at himself in a mirror and, imagining that he was addressing another person, exclaimed: "My God, how ugly you are!" These gentlemen do not consider for a moment the dreadful hardships which these people have endured, and especially those who in any way endeavored to acquire an education. For myself, sir, I was raised in the cotton field of South Carolina, and in order to prepare myself for usefulness, as well to myself as to my race, I determined to devote my spare hours to study. When the overseer retired at night to his comfortable couch, I sat and read and thought and studied, until I heard him blow his horn in the morning. He frequently told me, with an oath, that if he discovered me attempting to learn, that he would whip me to death, and I have no doubt he would have done so, if he had found an opportunity. I prayed to Almighty God to assist me, and He did, and I thank Him with my whole heart and soul. . . .

So far as I am personally concerned, no man in Georgia has been more conservative than I. "Anything to please the white folks" has been my motto; and so closely have I adhered to that course, that many among my own party have classed me as a Democrat. One of the leaders of the Republican party in Georgia has not been at all favorable to me for some time back, because he believed that I was too "conservative" for a Republican. I can assure you, however, Mr. Speaker, that I have had quite enough, and to spare, of such "conservatism". . . .

But, Mr. Speaker, I do not regard this movement as a thrust at me. It is a thrust at the Bible—a thrust at the God of the Universe, for making a man and not finishing him; it is simply calling the Great Jehovah a fool. Why, sir, though we are not white, we have accomplished much. We have pioneered civilization here; we have built up your country; we have worked in your fields and garnered your harvests for two hundred and fifty years! And what do we ask in return? Do we ask you for compensation for the sweat our fathers bore for you—for the tears you have caused, and the hearts you have broken, and the lives you have curtailed, and the blood you have spilled? Do we ask retaliation? We ask it not. We are willing to let the dead past bury its dead; but we ask you, now for our rights. You have all the elements of superiority upon your side; you have our money and your own; you have our education and your own; and you have our land and your own too. We, who number hundreds of thousands in Georgia, including our wives and families, with not a foot of land to call our own—strangers in the land of our birth; without money, without education, without aid, without a roof to cover us while we live, nor sufficient clay to cover us when we die! It is extraordinary that a race such as yours, professing gallantry and chivalry and education and superiority, living in a land where ringing chimes call child and sire to the church of God—a land where Bibles are read and Gospel truths are spoken, and where courts of justice are presumed to exist; that with all these advantages on your side, you can make war upon the poor defenseless black man. You know we have no money, no railroads, no telegraphs, no advantages of any sort, and yet all manner of injustice is placed upon us. You know that the black people of this country acknowledge you as their superiors, by virtue of your education and advantages. . . .

You may expel us, gentlemen, but I firmly believe that you will some day repent it. . . . Every act that we commit is like a bounding ball. If you curse a man, that curse rebounds upon you; and when you bless a man, the blessing returns to you; and when you oppress a man, the oppression also will rebound. Where have you ever heard of four millions of freemen being governed by laws, and yet have no hand in their making? Search the records of the world, and you will find no example. "Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." How dare you to make laws by which to try me and my wife and children, and deny me a voice in the making of these laws? . . . How can you say that you have a republican form of government, when you make such distinction and enact such proscriptive laws? . . .

We are a persecuted people. . . . Good men in all nations have been persecuted; but the persecutors have been handed down to posterity with shame and ignominy. If you pass this bill, you will never get Congress to pardon or enfranchise another rebel in your lives. You are going to fix an everlasting disfranchisement upon Mr. Toombs and the other leading men of Georgia. You may think you are doing yourselves honor by expelling us from this House, but when we go . . . we will light a torch of truth that will never be extinguished—the impression that will run through the country, as people picture in their mind's eye these poor black men, in all parts of this Southern country, pleading for their rights. When you expel us, you make us forever your political foes, and you will never find a black man to vote a Democratic ticket again; for, so help me God, I will go through all the length and breadth of the land, where a man of my race is to be found, and advise him to beware of the Democratic party. Justice is the great doctrine taught in the Bible. God's Eternal Justice is founded upon Truth, and the man who steps from Justice steps from Truth, and cannot make his principles to prevail. . . .

You may expel us, gentlemen, by your votes, today; but, while you do it, remember that there is a just God in Heaven, whose All-Seeing Eye beholds alike the acts of the oppressor and the oppressed, and who, despite the machinations of the wicked, never fails to vindicate the cause of Justice, and the sanctity of His own handiwork.

What happened next . . .

Shortly after Turner and the other black representatives were expelled from the Georgia legislature, the remaining Republican members asked the Georgia Supreme Court to decide whether blacks were eligible to hold public office under the constitution. The Supreme Court said that blacks were entitled to hold office. But the state legislature refused to accept the court's decision. In October 1868, Turner and several other black legislators protested to the U.S. Congress's Committee on Reconstruction. They claimed that the Georgia state legislature was illegal because it had not been formed under Congress's Reconstruction policies. The committee conducted an investigation and learned of widespread violations of black people's rights in Georgia.

In December 1868, the U.S. Congress refused to allow the men who had been elected to represent Georgia in the federal government to take their seats. Since Georgia had no representation in the U.S. government, the state was still not technically part of the Union. But this action did not convince the state legislature to readmit its black members. The last straw came in March 1869, when Georgia failed to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment guaranteed black voting rights and prohibited the states from restricting them. When Georgia rejected the Fifteenth Amendment, the U.S. Congress sent federal troops into the state again. Congress declared that it would not readmit Georgia to the Union until the state ratified the amendment and allowed the black members to return to the state legislature.

General Alfred H. Terry (1827–1890) took over control of Georgia's state government. He expelled a number of white Democrats from the state legislature and allowed Turner and the other black representatives to return to office. This new Georgia legislature ratified the Fifteenth Amendment and formally recognized the right of black men to hold public office in the state. It also voted to pay the black legislators for the time they were not allowed to serve. On January 10, 1870, Georgia was readmitted to the Union for a second time.

Did you know . . .

  • The situation in the Georgia state legislature was only one example of continuing racism in the South after the Civil War ended. Anger over Congress's Reconstruction policies convinced many white Southerners to use any means necessary to reclaim control of their governments and society. Some people—known as "white supremacists" due to their belief that blacks were inferior—used violence and terrorism to intimidate blacks and any whites who helped them. One of the worst white supremacist groups was the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed in 1866. Members of the Klan and similar groups bombed or set fire to black schools and churches. They terrorized black officeholders, successful black farmers and businessmen, and white teachers who worked at black schools. They were rarely punished for these crimes because juries were afraid to convict them. As a result of their activities, many blacks were too intimidated to vote and political leadership in the South gradually returned to the hands of whites.

For Further Reading

DuBois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction. New York: Harcourt, 1935. Reprint, New York: Atheneum, 1992.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Foner, Philip S., and Robert James Branham, eds. Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787–1900. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.

Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction after the Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961, 1994.