The Menace Of Racial And Religious Intolerance


By Professor Charles A. Ellwood, University of Missouri, Columbia

A Presentation at the National Conference Of Social Work at the Fifty-Second Annual Meeting, Denver, Colorado June 10-17, 1925

Professor Charles A. Ellwood

Ed. Note: Charles Abram Ellwood (January 20, 1873 – September 25, 1946) was the 14th President of the American Sociological Society Association. Dr. Ellwood graduated from Cornell University in 1896; he became an exponent of the Middle States, first with his studying at Chicago, then in his transitional efforts to get located at Nebraska, then finally at the University of Missouri where he became one of the leading American sociologists for thirty years, before building another department at Duke University for still another fifteen years.

Dr. Ellwood was concerned that intolerance seemed to be growing in every form of American life and he concluded that intolerance was a handicap to social progress. Intolerance breeds separation, misunderstanding, and hostility between groups, which may lead to civic disorder and revolution. Repression that suppresses inter-communication also breeds revolution. Intercommunication is the organ of adjustment for conscious social change. His remedy was to convert the people to a scientific attitude of mind.


It is very strange that the topic which I have been assigned is one of the most difficult to speak upon at the present time. It would not have been fifteen or twenty years ago. Then everybody would have taken it for granted, and said, “Of course, racial and religious intolerance is a menace.” It is symptomatic of our time and of the change in the public mind that we have this topic on our program. I do not mean to say that it is going to be difficult to speak to you on this topic. You who are social workers are pledged in advance to racial and religious tolerance. But it surely is a difficult matter when we confront the American public; and there is no graver symptom of the condition of our civilization than that it has become difficult to speak in favor of tolerance and good will in our American society. We almost have to rub our eyes to realize that this is so. Yet I shall give you evidence that it is so. Permit me to add that there is no one to whom I would rather bring my message than this group of practical social workers; for if there is anyone who can help solve this problem, you can do it. Your program, as I understand it, is the resolving of conflict, whether it be economic, cultural, or racial, into cooperation for the welfare of all, with the ultimate aim of securing an adequate and normal life for all. In other words, your program is the building of a democratic and Christian civilization. While my calling is not in the line of practical social work, I believe social science and social work should go hand in hand. I have been identified with this body for twenty-five years, for at the beginning of my teaching I joined the National Conference of Charities and Correction, as it was then called, and attended my first meeting in Topeka in I900. Through the twenty-five years that I have been teaching sociology at the University of Missouri I have always stressed the point that social theory is for the sake of social work, that theory is no good without practice; and my department has tried to turn out many practical social workers. Some of them, I am glad to see, are a part of this audience. So I feel myself one of you, and I am going to talk to you straight from the shoulder, face to face.

I think there is no profession doing so much to solve the social problem, the great problem of the relations of men one to another, as the profession of social workers. There should be no profession, unless it is that of the ministry, that is doing so much to solve that problem, and yet I find some things about social workers that at times distress me. Like other professional workers, they tend to become engrossed in the technique of the profession and in local affairs, and so fail to see all that is going on around them. They fail, in other words, to understand the world in which they live. But could there be anything more fatal to scientific social work than that the. social worker should lack vision and fail to understand the world in which he is working? Of course, there may be some excuse. I think there is less of this among social workers than in any other profession I know of; but there ought not to be any of it at all. There is more ignorance of the world, I admit, in my profession of teaching; more ignorance in the ministry, and probably even among lawyers and journalists; still, least of all ought it to exist among social workers.

I find that many social workers do not know what sort of civilization has been growing up in this country since the war; particularly those of you who come from the East do not seem to realize that in the rural regions of the South and West there is growing up a civilization which is essentially undemocratic and un-Christian, because it is intolerant. I know, of course, that intolerance is not confined to the South or the West. I shall return to that later, but it especially manifests itself there. There are two sorts of provincialism in this country. We who live in the West and the South speak of the provincialism of the East, because the East knows so little about what is going on in the rest of the country. In that respect the East is provincial. There is another sort of provincialism that is more threatening in the South and West, where vast masses are removed from the great currents of culture, because there are so many relatively isolated communities in those sections, and so you have another kind of provincialism which is even worse than the provincialism which you sometimes find east of Buffalo.

I believe that the first duty, then, of all of you is to clear your minds in regard to this matter. I am not trying to be sensational. I am going to give to you the sober and deliberate judgment which has come from my experience and study. I will have to emphasize, as my topic indicates, not the hopeful things, but those not so hopeful, and which we need to correct. Professor J. M. Mecklin, of Dartmouth, an eastern man born in the South, who has traveled all over the country to investigate the growth and meaning of the Klan movement and who has written the most scientific book about that movement, has said: “I think we must conclude that the American people are essentially an intolerant people.” I hope that conclusion is not true. I believe that the wave of intolerance which we are now experiencing is a temporary, rather than a permanent, thing. War psychology has had a great deal to do with it; still I shall also show you that its roots lie deep in our national life, and that it existed long before the war, but that the events of the last few years have brought all these things to the surface.

Our forefathers realized that if they were going to build a social system in which there was to be an adequate life for all, a society that was fraternal, toleration would have to be written into our federal constitution. Those who pride themselves upon their Americanism but show intolerance are, it seems to me, forgetting that. Our forefathers understood that the first steps toward a cooperative society were toleration, understanding, and good will among the groups which make up the nation, and it seems incredible that any of us should have forgotten it. But it was not simply our national forefathers who understood this. The Protestant reformers understood it, too, and freedom of conscience was their first principle, with religious toleration. That is the very principle of Protestantism, and yet some Protestants seem to have forgotten that freedom of conscience is their fundamental principle, and so some Protestants occupy today the position which Roman Catholics occupied four hundred years ago. They are not willing to allow freedom of conscience even within their own denominations. I can say this, because all my ancestors have been militant Protestants for three hundred years, and yet I have to be ashamed of some who call themselves Protestants today, because they have forgotten the fundamental principle of their faith. Not only that, but we have other bodies, vast bodies, that have committed themselves to the principle of tolerance, such as the Masonic bodies; but in spite of these traditions, we have found today that there has grown up in this. land a vast secret organization claiming millions in its membership, whose open and professed platform is anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-Negro, and anti-foreign. And the members of this organization believe with all their might that they are serving the republic by fostering these attitudes. They are sincere and conscientious people-and that is the tragedy of it! I have great numbers of my own friends in this organization. Many of them come from these bodies that pledged themselves years ago to toleration. This organization claims that our American institutions can only be perpetuated and preserved by keeping down the influence of the Catholic element in our population, or of the Jewish element, or of the Negro, or of the foreigner. It seems to me that these people, of all people, have been most misguided-misguided, of course, by illusion, but also by ignorance. They certainly need our sympathy, our understanding, our appreciation; but there is no way of overcoming their intolerance, so far as I can see, by tolerating their intolerance. I know some social workers, particularly community organizers, who say they are going to organize and work with every force in the community. But how can the social worker, how can the community organizer, recognize a society like this whose platform is intolerance? You simply cannot do it and be consistent with your principles. You may have to take such an organization into account in all that you attempt to do, but you cannot work with it without surrendering all you yourselves have professed and stood for.

Not all of the intolerance in our country is within this organization. This organization is but a part of our intolerance. There has always been, in our country, a good deal of anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-Negro, and antiforeign prejudice. All that this organization has done has been to organize it and to bring it to expression. But we have got to recognize that in itself it is but the expression of deep-lying tendencies which we have not outgrown in our national life, and which have been accentuated by the events of the last few years. We know that we cannot foster any forward movement in American society without meeting this intolerance. What has defeated thus far the twentieth amendment to the federal Constitution, for which, I hope, you are all standing? Nothing is involved in that amendment except the transfer of jurisdiction, as regards essential problems of child labor, from the state government to the federal government. There may be some important legal questions involved in that transfer, but there should not be any occasion for intolerance; yet I have found it as difficult to speak in favor of the child labor amendment before the average American audience as upon any subject I can mention. Do you know what has defeated the child labor amendment? The claim that it was socialistic and bolshevistic! Those two words! The mental attitude of many of our people is such that we cannot talk with them about the matter at all and get a proper response.

After all, it is not within any secret organization that we find the intolerance of the country manifested, nor in opposition to attempts at reform legislation; but I am sorry to say that the most startling evidence of intolerance is in the religious realm and in the things related to religion. Before the war we were living in a fool’s paradise. We thought religious bigotry was about to die. We thought democratic ideals established. We thought trust in science and education was universal. But the events of the last few years should certainly dispel all these illusions. Much is being made at the present time of the great trial in Tennessee. It perhaps will tend to obscure some other things that are happening in our country in this connection. Yet, of course, I wish to say that, in a sense, too much cannot be made of that trial of a teacher in Tennessee for teaching what he believes to be moder science. This is the first time in nearly two hundred years, in the English-speaking world, that a person has been put on trial on a criminal charge for teaching something contrary to the Bible. It may be that they will try us soon for teaching that the earth is round. Do you know that such a trial as that could not take place in any of the more enlightened European countries? Yet it is taking place in our country. I think we ought to bow our heads in humiliation that this terrible ignorance of science is placing our nation before the world as the least enlightened, in this regard, among the great nations. It ought to be a humiliation to every one of us. It concerns social workers. If science cannot be taught, if freedom in one respect cannot be preserved, it cannot be with reference to other things either. The things which people object to most are scientific conclusions regarding personal, social, moral, political, and economic matters. We are fighting one of the great battles of the ages, the battle between light and darkness, between ignorance and enlightenment, between science and tradition. You cannot afford to remain neutral in such a battle because the forces that are attacking us are those of ignorance. Ignorance is forbidding something to be taught in the public schools, and making it a crime. But let us go on to other evidence.

Of course, when we have such things we must expect others like this: here is a heading from a newspaper-“Books on Evolution Burned in Kansas.” We are back in the Middle Ages, apparently. More than that, there is an inquisition being established for teachers in this country, particularly in the sections I have mentioned. I know, for example, of a case, where no charge was made that a certain teacher was teaching evolution, but the head of the school board said: “Miss Blank has never declared herself against evolution and I suspect she believes in evolution, and I do not think we ought to hire her for another year.” Can you believe that happened in America? An inquisition, not by Roman Catholics, but by Protestants! We must confront facts like these. School teachers all over the country are being turned out because they are trying to be true to their consciences, to the facts of science as they understand them, and to accepted scientific conclusions; and this is true not only of the common schools, but also of the colleges, particularly the denominational colleges, and it threatens to invade even state universities. Last year I had a graduate student investigate sixty-two southern denominational colleges. He found that social studies were free in only four or five. In every one of those colleges, beside the four or five, there were strings upon the teachers of social studies. They had to teach social, political, economic, and religious orthodoxy, or they would not be allowed to keep their jobs.

Why do I tell you these things? Because they are all illustrations of the public mind, illustrations of intolerance, and they touch, therefore, upon the whole question of intolerance. I have said that these things are particularly to be found in our South and West, but you all know there are plenty of antiques in the East, too: people who try to live in the light of yesterday, and say that what was good enough for their forefathers-what their fathers believed-is good enough for them. You know, however, we have the home of lost causes, in the South and West, and these lost causes are acting as a drag upon every forward movement. They are found, too, in the East; only the East is more in the main current of western civilization in general. But let us be frank, and say that, no matter whether it is East or West, North or South, ancestor worship is at the present time the great hindrance to progress in this country, as it is in China. By ancestor worship I mean saying that what was good enough for our fathers is good enough for us. Our fathers would be ashamed of us if they knew that we were saying such things. The law of life is progress, and the backward look does not help except as we try to learn the lessons of the past. Let us take whatever good the past has to give us, but let us take it just as we take anything else: to examine it, to find out whether it is good, and not simply traditionally and dogmatically.

There is no dogma of evolution. You know that the whole interpretation of life is worked over by scientific investigation continually, and science knows no dogmas. It knows only tentative conclusions, “working hypotheses.” Religion and politics will be progressive only when they also say, “We, too, know only working hypotheses.” The outlook, of course, is not one without hope; but it is my duty to tell you the consequences of this conservatism, this intolerance, this inability to see that the civilization we are trying to build must proceed with an open mind. I must tell you the consequences. You know them already. Suppose we go on in the frame of mind we have now, what is going to happen? It does not require any sociologist to tell you. Science is only the use of common sense. In the first place, if we try to live by the past and will not tolerate new ideas and the free discussion of those ideas-and the essence of intolerance is in the suppression of free expression of opinion-if we do that, we are bound to cease to progress. If you want a static society, you have only to put the ban upon the inventive individual whose ideas are different; insist upon conformity, and all progress will be shut off. This has been the experience of history. The past shows that those nations that have been most tolerant have been most progressive. How can you get any progress at all when you have the closed mind? The indispensable thing for progress is the open mind, the mind willing to examine, to listen, to learn, and not only that, to cooperate. Our forefathers, therefore, knew a little social science when they ~wrote toleration into our Constitution. They knew that was the best way to bring people to agreement, to bring them to work together, to bring about progress. When you have intolerance in society along any line, people are going to be afraid to express their opinions, are going to be afraid to lead into new fields, going to be afraid to take up the great battle for truth and right, and so for progress. Smother the conscience of the individual, deny him free expression of opinion, and you put an end to all improvement in your social order. Intolerance, of course, sanctifies the social order, and says it was made once for all. Is that justifiable? Oh, no, we are learners-we always have been, and always will be-learners in the greatest undertaking this universe knows: the building of a righteous human world. We cannot afford, therefore, to say that we know it all, because we are all so ignorant. The scientific attitude of mind is open-mindedness, the love of truth, the search for truth, for facts, willingness to investigate and consider, fairness to opponents. That is the scientific attitude, and it is indispensable for progress.

There is something worse than this about intolerance, and you ought to know it. Intolerant people generally believe they are preserving the social order,  that they are keeping things fixed and quiet when they put on this policy of “hush-hush,” saying you may not talk about the wrongs of this class or that group. But what are they really doing? What happens in human society when people cannot settle their differences by talking them over, by having free and friendly discussion? It may not always happen, but it is likely to happen, that if they cannot settle them by discussion, they will fight over them. Intolerance breeds mutual suspicion, antagonism, aloofness, separateness, and separateness leads to misunderstanding, and the road is clear to conflict, to war, and to revolution. President Wilson expressed this when he said that “repression is the seed of revolution.” How many people are we repressing in this country? Read the recent book of Professor Herbert A. Miller, of the Ohio State University, on Races, Nations, and Classes. He points out one class after another in this country that feel themselves at the present time repressed, or even suppressed. If repression is “the seed of revolution,” then ponder carefully as you read that book. He says the Roman Catholic element in this country feels itself repressed; that the Negro has felt repression, more than almost any other people, at our hands; that many Jewish people in certain localities feel it; that many foreign nationalities feel it. What are we doing? Making enemies for American society and for American institutions. Those who believe in repression believe that in this way lies security. They are misguided. The Czar and his followers believed that, and instituted repression against nationality and religion in Russia, against this and that element, and when one form of repression did not work, they tried another; they sent people to Siberia, they imprisoned them, and executed them. They did it all for the stability of Russian society-and now look at Russia. Did all their repressions and intolerance help? Will repression and intolerance help us any? Were not our forefathers right? Listen to them, and let us give the greatest amount of freedom of speech and of opinion consistent with courtesy, decency, and truth. Were they not right in thinking that, as the Englishman says, this free expression of opinion is a safety valve?

But we in America have not learned this lesson yet. We had an institution in the South which our forefathers believed should be abolished, and they talked freely about it when the Constitution was adopted, and for years thereafter; but after a time slavery became profitable, and they said: “It is a divine institution, and anybody who says it is not, is not of our faith,” and so they kept the institution until a great revolutionary war swept it away in tears and blood, a war from which we have not yet recovered. When are we going to learn these lessons of history? Of course revolutions are not made by agitators. The agitators only voice the discontent that already exists. Revolutions are made by the foolish policy of trying to stop progress and trying to prevent the discussion of grievances and of needed reforms. The same thing happened in France in the eighteenth century that occurred in Russia in the twentieth. There the French nobility tried repression after repression; church and state united in intolerance, of all sorts. Louis XVI was told by Turgot that the only way to fight revolution was by suitable reforms, but he would not listen; and France went through a dreadful convulsion from which she has not yet recovered. It has been the pride of English-speaking peoples, from Magna Charta until now, that they have learned so well to settle their differences by free and open discussion, but this tradition now, in the United States, seems to be lost, at least in certain sections.

Every social worker should be a teacher and should teach above everything else that we should constantly be inquiring into social conditions, studying these, and constantly discussing them. You are the vanguard of progress. If revolution is to be avoided in this country, it must be through efforts such as yours. Such efforts cannot be made under cover, nor without the cooperation of all. Therefore you cannot afford to neglect even the lowest and meanest element of the community. You must ask justice for all and adequate life for all. Why do revolutions occur? Simply for one reason: that conditions become intolerable for some section of the population, and that happens because other sections do not know how that particular section is living. Our tongues were made to tell each other our needs, to indicate how we can mutually help each other, and to learn to cooperate. There cannot be revolution, therefore, in a society that is open-minded, that is plastic, that is forward-looking, that is tolerant in the biggest and best sense of the word. In such a society everybody will be looking to see how they can help someone else, and nobody will have a grievance that may not be listened to. In such a society we would not bar foreigners, nor Negroes, nor Jews, nor Roman Catholics, nor any other element from participating in the best our communities offered. There are these repressed elements in the United States of America, and they feel the repression. Isn’t it our duty to do what we can to relieve them of the sense of repression and to help them to come up to the full measure of American citizenship, to the full promise of American life? And let me tell you, that promise of American life seems greater to many of those people than it does to us. I have been abroad several times, and I know that people in other lands look to our flag as a flag of hope; and when they come here, they find it sometimes a flag of disappointment. Let us see that it is not that any more in the future. Let us show everyone in our national household the hospitality that belongs to them as members of our national household. Intolerance will destroy every value for which this nation has stood. We all know that the values of life, the most precious things of life, are in the good will that other men have toward us and in our good will toward other men, and intolerance destroys these.

What is the remedy? I have said the scientific attitude, but I think something more is needed. I would call it true liberal-mindedness. That is what the social workers of this country need in order to assure social advance. What is a synonym for true liberal-mindedness? Two words: the open mind and the outreaching heart. You have got to teach your communities this remedy. You cannot keep quiet upon this most vital issue and be true to your ideals, to all that our nation has stood for and should stand for in the future. We are pursuing a course which is inviting shipwreck. We must stop it. We must tell our friends and neighbors to stop it. We must begin at home, with ourselves. Let us all deeply resolve that we will do all we can, without sacrificing truth and right, to unite, rather than to tear apart, humanity; that we ourselves will rise above all prejudice of class or creed or race, because we recognize all men as our brothers to whom we owe love and good will as unto ourselves; that in particular we will not allow any prejudice of race or color to injure our just and kindly and happy relations with our fellow-men, regardless of race or color; that we will not permit any differences of religion to separate ourselves from other good people, no matter what their religious beliefs may be; that we will not be religious bigots; that we will respect the honest beliefs of our fellows, whatever they may be; that we will finally try to seek out and to conserve the good in all men; that we will value men not because they belong to this group or that, but will value them as men, for what they are, and what they can do; and that therefore we will treat them all, regardless of class or creed or race, as ends in themselves, even as we consider ourselves ends; and that we will treat no one merely as a means to an end. Let us all so resolve with the help of God.

Source: Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Social Work At The Fifty-Second Annual Session Held In Denver, Colorado June 10-17, 1925. pp. 18-26.











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