In 1883, the US Supreme Court ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional, in what proved to be a devastating decision for African-Americans, especially those in the south. The Act of 1875 had prohibited racial discrimination in public places and its repeal severely limited the power of the federal government to guarantee equal status under the law to blacks. State legislatures throughout the south took advantage of the ruling to enact laws that legalised racial segregation in public places, such as schools, hospitals, and restaurants. Such discrimination had many defenders, especially the eloquent and highly influential southern orator Henry W. Grady. The southerner toured the United States in the late 1880s making speeches on what he called the ‘New South’. In these speeches he claimed that the northern media had had overplayed the poor relations between whites and blacks in southern states. Grady’s speeches were about more than race-relations; he also stressed the need for the south to industrialise and make itself a vital part of the United States. Those features of Grady’s thinking were laudable but his analysis of the ‘race problem’ was wilfully misleading and utterly supportive of a society that was grotesquely prejudiced against blacks.
In December 1889 Grady spoke at Faneuil Hall in Boston on ‘The Race Problem in the South’. He told his audience, including former, and future, US President Grover Cleveland, that southern blacks ‘were happy in their cabin homes, tilling their own land’. He rubbished the claims of northern commentators, such as O’Reilly, that blacks were marginalised or subject to regular violence. Black ‘agitators’, he declared, were responsible for spreading this falsehood among gullible or anti-southern journalists. Grady evidently told his audience what they wanted to hear and his speech was interrupted for applause at least twenty-nine times. Over the following days, newspapers in Boston and across the north extolled Grady’s speech and the promise it offered of a rapprochement between the north and the former confederacy.
O’Reilly was one journalist who disputed this consensus. In The Pilot he chastised Grady and the attitude which the southerner represented, writing that: ‘Never did oratory cover up the weaker points of a repulsive cause so well…’ O’Reilly did more than editorialise and, in his paper, he printed a series of articles which disputed the claims advanced by Grady and which highlighted the realities of southern life. Throughout the 1880s black communities had to contend with increasing violence from white mobs. One particularly brutal occurrence was the massacre of eight black men by over one hundred whites in Barnwell County, South Carolina, during December 1889. O’Reilly responded to the event with one of his angriest editorials:
The black race in the South must face the inevitable, soon or late, and the inevitable is - DEFEND YOURSELF. If they shrink from this, they will be trampled on with yearly increasing cruelty until they have sunk back from the great height of American freedom to which the war-wave carried them. And in the end, even submission will not save them. On this continent there is going to be no more slavery. That is settled forever. Not even voluntary slavery will be tolerated. Therefore, unless the Southern blacks learn to defend their homes, women, and lives, by law first and by manly force in extremity, they will be exterminated like the Tasmanian and Australian blacks. No other race has ever obtained fair play from the Anglo-Saxon without fighting for it, or being ready to fight. The Southern blacks should make no mistake about the issue of the struggle they are in. They are fighting for the existence of their race; and they cannot fight the Anglo-Saxon by lying down under his feet.
This article brought O’Reilly much criticism across the United States, some of which he printed in The Pilot. In reply to a claim from the St. Louis newspaper Church Progress that: ‘It is neither Catholic nor American to rouse the negroes of the South to open and futile rebellion’ he wrote: ‘True, and the Pilot has not done so. We have appealed only to the great Catholic and American principle of resisting wrong and outrage, of protecting life and home and the honor of families by all lawful means, even the extremest, when nothing else remains to be tried.’ O’Reilly further defended his editorial by claiming that blacks in the south were ‘fighting for the existence of their race’ and that if they failed they would be ‘exterminated’. The reality of southern life was a topic that O'Reilly returned to on many occasions.
Despite all O’Reilly’s writings in support of civil rights and in opposition to prejudice he would play a different role in the long-running campaign to obtain voting rights for women. Throughout his time with The Pilot O’Reilly was a consistent opponent of women’s suffrage. His attitudes to women's struggle to gain the vote are analysed in detail in my biography of O'Reilly. They were an amalgam of many influences, partly religious, and partly based on O'Reilly's view that society and civilisation was ultimately underpinned by violence. Society, he argued, was a fragile blend of competing interests, each of which were backed by men willing and able to fight for what they believed.
It was those competing interests which were the driving force of history and if the disparate groups that formed the social order failed to compromise then violence was the inevitable result. According to O’Reilly, the delicate balance of society would be skewed by women’s suffrage. His reasoning was that women are physically the weaker sex so it was worse than futile to give women the vote. They would never be able to protect their interests through force and would be trampled upon by men. The ensuing disregard for law would set a brutal and dangerous precedent that would spread anarchy throughout the land. ‘A vote, like a law’, he once declared, ‘is no good unless there is an arm behind it; it cannot be enforced. This is a shameful truth, perhaps, but it is true.’
This belief caused O'Reilly to move away from principles that were otherwise central to his world view. Although he would not have seen it this way, O’Reilly was a man who toiled on behalf of so many of the disenfranchised groups of the United States but who was willing to deprive women of the chance to live a full life. In his defence of the Irish, blacks, Jews, and others O’Reilly was continually vigilant for those commentators and politicians who sought to limit the freedom of achievement of particular groups. This vigilance was absent when it came to suffrage for women and O’Reilly repeatedly resorted to listing virtues and characteristics that he believed were inherent to women and which made them perfectly suited to their historical mission as ‘queen of the household’. For O’Reilly they often seemed to be wholly defined by these supposed characteristics:
"We want no contest with women; they are higher, truer, nobler, smaller, meaner, more faithful, more frail, gentler, more envious, less philosophic, more merciful - oh, far more merciful and kind and lovable and good than men are. Those of them that are Catholics, are better Catholics than their husbands and sons; those who are Protestants are better Christians than theirs. Women have all the necessary qualities to make good men; but they must give their time and attention to it while the men are boys."
O’Reilly’s attitude would persist in the pages of The Pilot long into the future. James Jeffrey Roche, who joined the paper in 1883 and who later followed O’Reilly as editor of the paper, revered his friend and former boss. Roche followed his idol’s line on many issues, including that of women’s suffrage. The above passage from O’Reilly, he considered to be ‘one of the best ever’ responses to the supporters of women’s suffrage. O’Reilly, Roche, and others like them would remain unmoved by the arguments of women who sought to climb down from their pedestal and who refused to let such lists be the limits of their lives.
'All who teach are ours. The priests of all future dispensations shall be members of the press. Ours is the newest and greatest of the professions, involving wider work and heavier responsibilities than any other. For all time to come, the freedom and purity of the press are the test of national virtue and independence. No writer for the press, however humble, is free from the burden of keeping his purpose high and his integrity white. The dignity of communities is largely intrusted to our keeping; and while we sway in the struggle or relax in the rest-hour, we must let no buzzards roost on the public shield in our charge.'
O’Reilly had a clear vision of how the press should function and from the beginning of his time with The Pilot in 1870 he used the newspaper to do battle on behalf of America’s underprivileged. In 1879 he gave a speech to the Boston Press Club in which he described this vision to his audience of fellow editors and reporters. In O’Reilly’s eyes, the journalist held an august and vital position in society. Journalism, he believed, should be something more than mere muck-raking and manufactured outrage. The press should seek to move beyond sensationalism and to explain the world to its readers in an honest and clear manner.
By the 1880's O’Reilly had emerged as a consistent public adversary of racism and he was often asked by civil rights groups to speak or write on race-relations. He was, for example, an open opponent of anti-Semitism and, on one occasion, The American Hebrew magazine asked O’Reilly to provide his analysis of anti-Jewish sentiment in the United States. Yet, amid all O’Reilly’s writings and activity in support of minorities of one form or another, it was the issue of black civil rights to which he would most often return, although it had taken him a few years to clarify his thoughts on this subject. We will return to this issue in a later post.