In sharp contrast to his segregationist predecessor, President Warren Harding wanted to take some action in support of the nation’s black population. He called for a federal civil rights law, a federal anti-lynching law, a commission on race, spoke at an all-black college in Pennsylvania, and, in October 1921, traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, in the heart of the old Confederacy, to give a speech to a segregated audience on providing blacks with equal political rights and equal opportunities in education. That represented the height of political courage at the time.
In his Birmingham speech, Harding did not call for outright integration or equality in all things but a policy of fairness for the black man, including political equality and educational opportunities. “Despite the demagogues, the idea of our oneness as Americans has risen superior to every appeal to mere class and group. And so, I wish it might be in this matter of our national problem of races,” Harding said. American Democracy was a lie if blacks were denied political equality. “I would say let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote,” he told a largely silent white section of the audience, yet black listeners were enthusiastic. “I would insist on equal educational opportunity for both,” the President said, and he hoped that the “tradition of a solidly Democratic South and the tradition of a solidly Republican black race might be broken up.”
In economic matters, he called for “equality proportioned to the honest capabilities and deserts of the individual.” But more than just the two races, Harding called for unity pervading in American politics. “The one thing we must assiduously avoid is the development of group and class organizations in this country. There has been time when we heard too much about the labor vote, the business vote, the Irish vote, the Scandinavian vote, the Italian vote, and so on. But the demagogues who would array class against class and group against group have fortunately found little to reward their efforts,” he said, because of the “idea of oneness as Americans has risen superior to every appeal to mere class and group.” He hoped it could be so true of race relations, that the nation could “lay aside old prejudices and old antagonisms, and in the broad, clear light of nationalism enter upon a constructive policy.” With such an extraordinary speech, Harding became the first president of the 20th century to call for civil rights and the first to ever do so in the South.
Soon after the courageous address, the denunciations came quickly, and from the exact quarter that one might expect. Southern Senators denounced Harding’s address, in the words of Senator Pat Harrison of Mississippi, as “ill conceived,” “unfortunate,” and a “blow to white civilization.” Senator Tom Watson of Georgia said, “We are not going to permit social or political equality of the kind the President advocates because we know it would mean the destruction of the civilization our ancestors handed down to us.”
Republicans, though, applauded the speech. Senator William M. Calder of New York said he “heartily endorsed the President’s views.” Even Oswald Garrison Villard, a founder of the NAACP and grandson of the famous abolitionist, believed Harding to be sincere in his desire to help blacks, for he “clearly favored justice for the Negro which was the more interesting as he was charged with having Negro blood in his veins.”
Not content with just mere words, Harding soon threw his support behind a federal anti-lynching law authored by Leonidas Dyer in the House of Representatives, which would make lynching a federal crime. In fact, he had already called for such a law in his first message to Congress in April 1921. The Dyer Bill, with Harding’s support, passed the House in January 1922 but, with the strong bloc of Southern Democrats in the Senate, it was filibustered and killed.
Though Harding has been criticized for not doing enough for blacks and pushing harder for equality, at the time his actions were remarkable and far greater than any President up to that time.
Ryan S. Walters is an independent historian who currently teaches American history at Collin College in North Texas. He is the author of The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding by Regnery History.