Harding vs. FDR: Race Relations


Since the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the federal government had rarely lifted a finger to help America’s black population when Warren Harding entered the White House in March 1921. The last civil rights bill had come in 1875. The plight of African-Americans was left up to the states. Washington had long since washed its hands of the issue. 

But there had been some progress made in the ensuing decades. Blacks were moving into more prominent government positions and Washington DC was an integrated city, for the most part. 

Under the Wilson administration, however, Washington was re-segregated, to include much of the city as well as the federal government, black officials were removed from offices, and the House passed a Wilson-backed law to make racial marriage a felony in DC.

Harding came into office with a desire to do something to better the lives of black Americans. He called for a federal anti-lynching law, a new civil rights law, a commission on race, condemned the horrific violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma and called for an investigation into the massacre, and delivered a commencement address at an all-black college in Pennsylvania, Lincoln College, which had become known as the “Black Princeton,” and shook hands with each graduate, some 400 in all. The university proclaimed the day “the high water mark in the history of the institution.”

But in perhaps his most audacious act, Harding traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, the heart of the old Confederacy, and delivered a speech to a segregated audience in which he called for equal political rights and equal opportunities in education for the nation’s black population. “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. FDR would never have considered such an act of courage.

By contrast, FDR had never been a racial egalitarian. He routinely used the “n-word,” even in private letters. At his Hyde Park estate, the black staff members had to eat in the kitchen rather than the staff dining room. While in the White House, the staff remained segregated as well. Even his beloved Warm Springs resort for polio victims remained a “whites only” facility, and where black staff members resided in the basement rather than the better accommodations for whites.

Indifferent to blacks while governor of New York, Roosevelt moved into the presidency in 1933 with no intention of changing his ways. He never once used the bully pulpit of the presidency to push for equality and civil rights. 

FDR sold out American blacks for political gain. He ignored their plight in order to curry favor with powerful Southern Democratic committee chairmen in Congress. For FDR, passing New Deal legislation was more important than civil rights, if it was ever important at all. 

First Lady Eleanor cared far more for the nation’s African American population than did the President. She joined the NAACP and, like Harding, pushed for anti-lynching laws. FDR refused to support the effort for fear of angering the South. When the Costigan-Wagner Bill emerged in Congress during FDR’s first term, both Eleanor and his mother urged him to support it. He refused. 

One of the most popular New Deal programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps, instituted segregated camps. Black reporters were barred from FDR’s press conferences. And Eleanor also worked to integrate the US military, but again FDR refused to budge. 

In a major bone to the South, Roosevelt appointed Alabama Senator Hugo Black to the US Supreme Court, even though Black had been a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. It is also interesting to note that it was Black who wrote the Court’s Korematsu opinion.

In perhaps one of FDR’s most shameful racial insults, he ignored Jesse Owens, four-time Olympic gold medalist at the 1936 games in Berlin. It is a great myth of history that Hitler refused to meet with Owens after the American track star humiliated the “master race” in front of the Fuhrer. Hitler didn’t meet with any victorious athletes. “Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me,” Owens later said. “The president didn’t even send a telegram.” When the Olympic team was invited to the White House after the games, in the midst of FDR’s re-election campaign against Alf Landon, Owens was not included. 

FDR apologists hang their hat on Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, issued in June 1941, which forbade race-based discrimination in the defense industry. It also created the Fair Employment Practice Committee. But this was more about providing enough labor in the total war FDR was planning to enter rather than improving the lives of black Americans.

It wasn’t just the country’s blacks who were snubbed by FDR; Jews fared little better. Harding lamented the awful treatment the Jewish people had endured throughout history and appointed the first Jew to a high-profile government position, naming Albert Lasker to head the US Shipping Board. Lasker also had a major role in Harding’s successful campaign for President in 1920. Another Jew was named the minister to Persia. But when thousands of Jews were seeking entrance into the United States to escape Hitler’s rampage during World War Two, they were denied entry. 

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. 

Sources and Further Reading

Bruce Bartlett, Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Burton W. Folsom, Jr., and Anita Folsom, FDR Goes to War: How Expanded Executive Power, Spiraling National Debt, and Restricted Civil Liberties Shaped Wartime America, New York: Threshold Editions, 2011.

Andrew Napolitano, Dred Scott’s Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

Lawrence W. Reed, “Jesse Owens: ‘Character Makes the Difference When It’s Close,’” Fee.org, August 21, 2015.

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