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(1923) James Weldon Johnson, “Our Democracy and the Ballot”

Poet, novelist and U.S. diplomat, James Weldon Johnson is probably best known to millions as the author of the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the black national anthem. Johnson was also a civil rights activist and was Executive Secretary of the National Association of Colored People from 1920 to 1929. As such, Johnson spoke out on a variety of issues facing African Americans. In the speech below, given at a dinner for Congressman (and future New York Mayor) Fiorello H. LaGuardia at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City on March 10, 1923, Johnson outlines the importance of the vote for the nation’s black citizens.

Ladies and Gentlemen: For some time since I have had growing apprehensions about any subject especially the subject of a speech that contained the word democracy. The word democracy carries so many awe inspiring implications. As the key word of the subject of an address it may be the presage of an outpour of altitudinous and platitudinous expressions regarding the most free and glorious government of the most free and glorious people that the world has ever seen. On the other hand, it may hold up its sleeve; if you will permit such a figure, a display of abstruse and recondite theorizations or hypotheses of democracy as a system of government. In choosing between either of these evils it is difficult to decide which is the lesser.

Indeed, the wording of my subject gave me somewhat more concern than the speech. I am not lure that it contains the slightest idea of what I shall attempt to say; but if the wording of my subject is loose it only places upon me greater reason for being more specific and definite in what I shall say. This I shall endeavor to do; at the same time, however, without being so, confident or so cocksure as an old preacher I used to listen to on Sundays when I taught school one summer down in the backwoods of Georgia, sometimes to my edification and often to my amazement.

On one particular Sunday, after taking a rather cryptic text, he took off his spectacles and

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