Langston Hughes Centennial, 1902-1967: Langston Hughes on Civil Rights

The New Crisis, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview
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Langston Hughes Centennial, 1902-1967: Langston Hughes on Civil Rights


LANGSTON HUGHES CENTENNIAL

"Author's Postscript Personal"

From Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (1962)

I grew up with the NAACP, now in the second half-century of its existence as I am in mine. I learned to read with The Crisis on my grandmother's lap. The first movingly beautiful words I remember are those of the Bible and the editorials by Dr. Du Bois in The Crisis. My earliest memory of any book at all, except a school book, is The Souls of Black Folk by Du Bois. My mother, who worked for a time on Nick Child's Topeka Plaindealer, the Kansas Negro weekly, was an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I do not remember when my folks did not receive The Crisis. In Lawrence and Topeka and Kansas City I often heard them talking about the NAACP.

When I was in high school in Cleveland during World War I, I attended the 10th Anniversary Convention of the NAACP there, listened to its thrilling speakers, and met Pearl Mithcell who was a ringleader in its local work. I read The Crisis. In high school I had begun to write and to publish verse in the school magazine. But the height of my ambition was to have something published in The Crisis. From Mexico where I had gone to live with my father the summer after graduation, I sent some of my earliest poems to it. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," written when I was 18, was the first of my poems to be published in a national magazine. From that time on, over a period of forty years, my poetry and prose appeared in The Crisis. That magazine, the official organ of the NAACP, gave me my start in the literary world. In 1925 I was awarded an Amy Spingarn Prize for creative writing, and in 1960 1 received the Spingarn Medal.

During my time, the NAACP has won some great legal cases for civil rights. This is why the Sit-In Kids sit-in today, and why the Freedom Riders ride. They have read about these legal victories on paper - but if they live in Waycross, Georgia, for example, or Tupelo, Mississippi, they find these victories do not apply to them in their home towns. Not in real life. These noble promulgations are to them like the Fourth of July speeches I used to hear as a child in Kansas - "liberty and justice, freedom and democracy." I knew they did not apply to me because I could not even buy an ice cream soda at the corner drug store where my mother bought the family soap. I could not go to the movies in Lawrence, Kansas, because there was a sign up: COLORED NOT ADMITTED. And I could not take part in grammar-school track meets or swimming contests because the YMCA near our school, which the white students used for showers and swimming, would not admit Negro kids - the Young Men's Christian Association! So all those Fourth of July speeches I heard in my childhood went in one ear and out the other. I didn't believe a word of them.

The Sit-In Kids and the Freedom Rides now have, of course, a bit more to go on than I had. They have read or heard, or maybe even seen, that some of the court decrees and promulgations have begun to work a little in some ways in some places, and they know that some Washington officials have spoke out pretty clearly in support of civil rights, although counseling Negroes to wait a while. What while, of course, is what the youngsters want to know. What while?

Their daddies waited a while, their grand-daddies waited a long, long while. To the great-grand-daddies of these young Negroes today the white world owes beaucoup back money -- lots and lots - for working and waiting a while - back pay for free labor, slave labor, and hopeless expectations - payments long overdue - since 1619. Where is that money? Where is that freedom? And where is this freedom today? Those who are young want it now, before they get as old as those who will probably never have anything before they die. "All deliberate speed" is not now. If one cools off today he might be stone-cold dead tomorrow - and still no ballot, still no hospital to get well in or die in, still no hot dog at the bus station lunch counter.

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