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This Presidential Speech on Race Shocked the Nation… in 1921

One hundred years ago, Warren G. Harding traveled deep into the heart of Klan country and delivered a sermon on civil rights that was decades ahead of its time.


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person standing facing huge crowd

Photo courtesy History.com

In October 1921, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, celebrated its semi-centennial with the biggest party any of its 178,000 residents could remember. Founded fifty years earlier as the planned site for a major railroad crossing, Birmingham had become a thriving industrial center with an exploding population, earning it the nicknames “The Pittsburgh of the South” and “Magic City.” During the week of reverie, as The Birmingham News reported, an aerial circus flew over the city, turning loops across the smoke-stained sky. One performer hung from a rope by his teeth. Sixty-seven beauty queens from every county in Alabama took part in fashion shows, and two local baseball teams, the Elyton Warriors and the Cahaba Invincibles, dressed in period uniforms to play a game under the rules of the 1870s.

But the festivities’ highlight was set for Wednesday, October 26: the day Warren G. Harding, the very popular 29th President of the United States would arrive. He’d been elected in a landslide in the first year that women – many of whom, like him, supported Prohibition – had the right to vote for President. An Ohio Republican, Harding agreed to travel to Birmingham in part as a favor to his old Senate colleague Oscar Underwood, a Democrat. Despite their party differences, Harding and Underwood remained close friends, but Harding had a second reason to visit the solidly Democratic Deep South, one that would not please the white population of the strictly segregated city and state.

Harding and his wife Florence arrived in Birmingham via Atlanta and Charlottesville, Virginia, along with cabinet members. As Harding and his entourage left the train station for the city, the Alabama National Guard fired a 21-gun salute, and every factory whistle across the city answered in welcome. The New York Times reported that more than a hundred thousand people lined the streets as the President and First Lady rode in a white Premocar manufactured by the city’s Preston Motor Corporation. They were accompanied by two members of Birmingham’s “Pioneers of 1871,” former mayor John B. Wood and African-American barber Frank McQueen. The crowd threw flowers into the open vehicle as they drove to the Tutwiler Hotel where, from a balcony, the presidential party reviewed the rest of the parade of Civil War veterans, marching bands and factory workers.

At 11:30 a.m. Harding travelled to a local park that had been recently renamed for Woodrow Wilson – Harding’s predecessor and a vocal racist and open segregationist. A large crowd had gathered; a chain separated the white and black onlookers waiting to hear the President. After remarks by Alabama Governor Thomas Kilby and Birmingham Mayor Nathanial Bartlett, Harding took the stage.

old shot of a downtown street

Birmingham News announcing the President’s visit and the Semi-Centennial program, October 3, 1921

He began as he often did in a somewhat rambling style, unsure of his facts and admitting it, discussing the early history of the region. He marveled at the industrial success of Birmingham after Reconstruction and how the South had overcome its agricultural dependence to enter the modern world. The necessity to produce war materials during the Civil War led the South to develop its industries from scratch. It was, Harding said, one of the few good things to come out of the Civil War, and suggested historians pay as much attention to that advancement as to the military and political aspects of “that unhappy conflict.” Soon, Harding would offer another historical analysis.

Pointing to the white audience members, Harding said the end of World War I three years earlier had given the nation a new challenge to face. “If the Civil War marked the beginnings of industrialism in a South which had previously been almost entirely agricultural,” he continued, “the World War brought us to full recognition that the race problem is national rather than merely sectional.” Attracted to an increased demand for labor and higher wages in the northern states, Harding described what would later be called the Great Migration of blacks from the South. Of the population shift, Harding said, “it has made the South realize its industrial dependence on the labor of the black man and made the North realize the difficulties of the community in which two greatly differing races are brought to live side by side.”

African Americans had served the country during the war, Harding pointed out, “just as patriotically” as whites. Blacks, he said, “were transported overseas and experienced the life of countries where their color aroused less of antagonism than it does here. Many of them aspire to go to Europe to live.” The service brought African-American soldiers their “first real conception of citizenship – the first full realization that the flag was their flag, to fight for, to be protected by them, and also to protect them.

“These things lead one to hope that we shall find an adjustment of relations between the two races,” Harding continued, “in which both can enjoy full citizenship.”

By now the white section of the crowd stood in stunned silence as the black section began cheering wildly. Harding was quick to state that he was not advocating social equality between blacks and whites. The very word “equality” should be eliminated from the national debate, the President said. “I would say let the black man vote when he is fit to vote,” Harding added. “Prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.”

The Alabama governor and the state legislators seated behind him sat in stone silence. Harding, who once admitted he was not a gifted public speaker, was just getting started.

Harding referenced The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, a book by Lothrop Stoddard released a year earlier. Stoddard’s worldview, like that of popular African-American writer W.E.B. DuBois, was that the interaction between whites and non-whites would be the dominant issue of the twentieth century. But there was no subtlety about which side Stoddard preferred. Though his writings were at the time considered to be mainstream, and not the rants of a white supremacist, Stoddard achieved a backhanded kind of fame in The Great Gatsby, in which Tom Buchanan mentions a “book by this man Goddard” on the threats to white civilization. Harding, too, had some familiarity with Stoddard’s ideas, turning to them in the speech – and turning them upside down.

man giving speech from balcony with american flags

Warren Harding speaking at Woodrow Wilson Park in Birmingham.

“I would insist upon equal educational opportunity for [blacks and whites],” Harding said. “This does not mean that both would become equally educated within a generation or two generations or ten generations. Even men of the same race do not accomplish such an equality as that. They never will. The Providence that endowed men with widely unequal capacities and capabilities and energies did not intend any such thing.”

Harding did not advocate integration of the schools but argued for better schools for blacks. “I would accent that a black man can not be a white man,” he continued, “and that he does not need and should not aspire to be as much like a white man as possible in order to accomplish the best that is possible for him. He should seek to be, and he should be encouraged to be, the best possible black man, and not the best possible imitation of a white man.”

He concluded by discussing education and labor, proclaiming that Birmingham’s next fifty years could be even more glorious if the city’s legislators and citizens had “the courage to be right.”

As he finished there was almost no applause from the white audience, and a thunderous response from the blacks. Reaction to the speech in the following days was about as divided as the crowd.

The Birmingham Post called the speech an “untimely and ill-considered intrusion into a question of which he evidently knows little.” Mississippi Senator Pat Harrison said, “If the President’s theory is carried to its ultimate conclusion, then that means that the black man can strive to become President of the United States.” Georgia Senator Thomas E. Watson declared Harding had planted “fatal germs in the minds of the black race.” The junior senator from Alabama, Thomas Heflin, said, “So far as the South is concerned, we hold to the doctrine that God Almighty has fixed the limits and boundaries between the two races and no Republican living can improve upon His work.”


New York Times’s coverage of Harding’s speech, published October 27, 1921

Some senators were supportive of Harding, including fellow Ohioan Frank Willis, who said the country “will applaud President Harding’s clearness of statement and patriotism of purpose.” Harding’s friend Oscar Underwood praised the speech as well. In the coming years Underwood would openly oppose the Ku Klux Klan, essentially committing southern politicking career suicide. Decades later, John F. Kennedy would utilize Underwood’s story as a prime example of “that most admirable of human virtues – courage” in his Pulitzer-winning book Profiles in Courage.

The most vocal support for Harding’s speech, according to The Times, came from the black leadership of the day. Marcus Garvey, head of the separatist Universal Negro Improvement Association, sent a telegram to the President “on behalf of four hundred million negroes of the world.” He wrote: “All true negroes are against social equality, believing that all races should develop on their own social lines. Only a few selfish members of the negro race believe in the social amalgamation of black and white.”

W.E.B. Dubois had misgivings about Harding’s repeated emphasis that he was not calling for social equality or racial amalgamation, but he wrote: “the sensitive may note that the President qualified these demands somewhat, even dangerously, and yet they stand out so clearly in his speech that he must be credited with meaning to give them their real significance. And in this the President made a braver, clearer utterance than Theodore Roosevelt ever dared to make or than William Taft or William McKinley ever dreamed of. For this let us give him every ounce of credit he deserves.”

Many were, at the very least, surprised by Harding’s blunt message in the heart of the Deep South. But an examination of his record provides some indications he’d harbored these sentiments all along. Harding supported the Dyer Bill, which would have made lynching a federal crime, penalized local officials for negligence, and fined a county $10,000 if a lynching occurred in its jurisdiction. The bill passed the House of Representatives, but eventually died under filibusters in the Senate. (In 2005 the Senate formally apologized for blocking the Dyer Bill.) Harding had by the time of the speech made a few appointments of African-Americans to federal posts as well, marking a sharp contrast between he and his predecessor Wilson.

There was another, largely unspoken but widely known controversy hanging over the crowd at Woodrow Wilson Park and across the country: the accusation that Warren G. Harding was himself part black, a rumor he and his family had been fighting throughout his life. On the playground at school, Warren G. Harding fought classmates who called him “nigger.” His father-in-law Amos Kling openly called him the same, though later, as Harding advanced in business and politics, Kling relented slightly and called him a “smart nigger.” In the final days of the 1920 Presidential campaign, initially unattributed fliers appeared charging Harding was a “mulatto.”

crowd gathered at US Capitol

Harding’s inauguration at the Capitol Building, March 4, 1921

The putative author of the fliers was William Estabrook Chancellor of Wooster College in Ohio. A native of Dayton, Chancellor was a professor of history and politics at Wooster College, a prolific author of history and education books, and a partisan Democrat – not to mention a crude racist. Four days before the election, Chancellor was summoned to a hearing of the college trustees. Without usual niceties, he was dismissed. Chancellor fled to Canada, but returned to Ohio in 1922, and produced a longer pamphlet detailing the case against Harding’s white heritage, the crux of which was that his great-grandmother was black, making Harding one-eighth black – or in the quaint language of the day an “octoroon.” There were almost no records to support the conclusion; Chancellor relied on rumors and oral accounts from Harding’s ancestral countryside.

To this day, with the aid of the internet, the story has, if anything, gained traction. Radical opponents of Barack Obama who insist the current president is not a native-born American have taken up the Harding story as another lost cause. (There is an equally passionate conspiracy theory online that Harding was secretly a member of the Ku Klux Klan.) During Harding’s lifetime the rumors never derailed his career, but most whites had the same attitude as his father-in-law in matters of marriage and dreaded the amalgamation that Harding so strongly condemned in Birmingham.

pensive man posing

Warren Harding, ca. 1920

After the speech, Harding and his party returned to the hotel for a banquet. In the afternoon, Harding received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Birmingham Southern College and laid the cornerstone of the Masonic temple. The President and First Lady toured the city for the remainder of the day, stopping in at the various festivities and visiting Senator Underwood’s 91-year-old mother.

Around midnight the presidential party departed on its train. The city of Birmingham swept up the debris of the celebration around the segregated schools, the separate water fountains and restrooms, the back alley entrances for blacks, the laundromats that proudly advertised “We Cater Only to White People,” the government offices where blacks were not allowed and the other landmarks of the Jim Crow era.

It would be forty years before another President would give a speech like Harding’s and longer still until some of the goals he advocated in the park that day were made law. By then Harding was primarily remembered – if at all – for the Teapot Dome bribery scandal and was widely regarded as one of the worst Presidents in American history.

Over chicken and biscuits at the banquet, Harding made a few remarks about his friends in the Senate and the men and women who work in government. He said, “Men who are really worthwhile are simpler than they are appraised, and vastly greater than many partisans have measured them.”

To read the entire speech, visit Archive.org. For more on this topic, read “The Harding Era,” by Richard K. Murray, “Warren G. Harding,” by John W. Dean, and Francis Russell’s “The Shadow of Blooming Grove.”

Greg Bailey is a St. Louis based history writer and author of the forthcoming book The Herrin Massacre about an event during the Harding administration.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published October 26, 2016. This article is republished here with permission.

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