by Brett Hall
The similarities between 2020 and 1920 are startling.
100 years ago, a sickly President Woodrow Wilson was in his final year in office. World War I had left a muddy political landscape in its wake. The nation was emerging from a pandemic that infected a third of the global population and killed nearly 675,000 Americans. America watched from the sidelines as Russia experienced a violent revolution, which kept Americans on edge. Racial tensions came to a head the previous year in what was known as ‘The Red Summer,’ where 25 major riots took place in the United States as nearly 380,000 Black veterans returned from the war. Compounding the unease in the United States, voters would soon elect a new president and bring America into a new age.
The United States has had weeks of protest over the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, but this moment is only a snapshot in a long and brutal struggle for racial equality in the country. At this moment in history, pausing to study our past can give this moment perspective. Let’s step back 100 years and see how the President Warren G. Harding addressed civil rights during his administration.
The Presidential Election of 1920
By the summer of 1920, the presidential nominees had been selected and a battle between Ohio men was about to ensue: Ohio Governor James Cox on the Democratic side and Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding on the Republican side.
Many questions defined the 1920 presidential election. Should the United States join the League of Nations? How would the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and women voters impact the voting population as a whole? How would the nation handle not just a national recession, but also a global one? How should the country move forward after the devastation caused by World War I? Senator Harding suggested that the United States needed to rediscover the values that it held before the war and re-establish itself before going back onto the international stage. He called this a “return to normalcy,” which became his campaign slogan.
It would not be a “return to normalcy” for race relations following the war, however. During the War, Black Americans served their country valiantly overseas and proved to be valuable industrial workers on the home front. White Americans, however, expected them to obediently return to their pre-war, subservient roles. The resulting tensions between the White and Black communities reached a breaking point just as the fighting in Europe stopped. Going back to traditional values, such as those suggested by Senator Harding, would not correct nor calm the tensions in this new post-war world.
By the early summer of 1920, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its chief executive, James Weldon Johnson, identified Harding as a candidate who would listen to the organization’s interests. With many Black Americans registered as Republican and the potential for having a Republican majority in Congress, Harding was their best chance of advancing their agenda. During Harding’s nomination acceptance speech in Marion on July 22 before the campaign began, he stated:
I believe the Negro citizens of America should be guaranteed the enjoyment of all their rights, that they have earned the full measure of citizenship bestowed, that their sacrifices in blood on the battlefields of the republic have entitled them to all of freedom and opportunity, all of sympathy and aid that the American spirit of fairness and justice demands.
Harding had an early interest in civil rights going back to his days as editor and owner of his hometown newspaper, The Marion Daily Star. He used the editorial columns to promote minority owned businesses and to give a voice to Black and immigrant communities. In 1888, for example, White townsfolk in Marion were harassing a Black church congregation, which prompted Harding to respond with an editorial that stated if the White troublemakers did not stop, “the police should teach the rowdies a lesson.”
In August of 1920, Harding and Johnson met face to face in the parlor of Harding’s home to discuss the United States’ occupation of Haiti and anti-lynching legislation. At the conclusion of this meeting, the campaign decided to conduct a “Colored Voters Day” in September and invited the Black community to the front lawn of Harding’s home to discuss the issues of the day. Throughout the final months of the campaign, Harding and Johnson communicated regularly to coordinate NAACP and campaign messaging on the issues of lynching and the U.S. occupation of Haiti. Both Harding and Johnson were against the occupation of Haiti. Since the Department of the Navy was leading the campaign under Franklin D. Roosevelt, who just so happened to be James Cox’s running mate in the presidential election, it was easy for Harding to attack the Cox campaign and for Johnson to expose the atrocities taking place in Haiti.
On November 2, 1920—Harding’s 55th birthday—he won the presidency with 60.3% of the popular vote and 404 electoral votes.
The Harding Administration and Civil Rights
In his first months as president, Harding attempted to elevate Black individuals into high-level positions within the federal government. He ordered the Department of Labor and Department of Interior to hire qualified African Americans and sent a memorandum to his cabinet, asking if positions could be created or were available specifically for them. In April of 1921, Harding asked the Justice Department to look into race-related crimes, though the Department did little to address the issue. During his State of the Union address, Harding announced that he was forming an investigative committee to look into the lynching problem in the country; he intended the committee to be multiracial. While Harding was using his power in the executive branch to make America more inclusive, he struggled to get the backing from Congress to make dramatic and lasting changes to improve the lives of Black Americans. While these olive branch acts by Harding were meaningful, they were immediately overshadowed by the dark cloud forming over Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The Tulsa Race Massacre
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, headlines in newspapers across the country screamed about the explosion of violence in Tulsa, following weeks of veiled threats of violence towards Black Americans in the city’s White newspapers. A former judge was quoted in the local Tulsa paper as saying that Black men were the cause of the rising violence and crime spree in Greenwood, the Black neighborhood in Tulsa. Greenwood was one of the wealthiest and most prominent Black communities in the early 20th century, which earned it the nickname “Black Wall Street.” He said, “We’ve got to kick out the Negro pimps if we want to stop this vice.”
The relationship between the city of Tulsa and the Black community of Greenwood was already strained when Dick Rowland entered the picture. Rowland, a Black man, was working downtown on May 30 at the Drexel Building when, according to the commonly accepted theory, Rowland tripped as he got into the elevator. To catch his fall, he grabbed the arm of Sarah Page, who was the elevator operator—and White. When the elevator reached the first floor, a clerk heard what he thought was a woman’s scream and then apparently saw Rowland fleeing the building. The clerk believed that Page was a victim of an attempted sexual assault and called the authorities
The next day, Rowland was arrested in Greenwood and taken to the Tulsa County Courthouse. The word of the alleged attack spread through town quickly and made it into the local papers, one of which featured an editorial entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” A crowd of angry White men arrived at the courthouse that night demanding that Rowland be turned over to them to be lynched. The crowd was held at bay as the city spun out of control, but by 9:30, the crowd had grown to two thousand people. Thirty minutes later, a second crowd arrived—a group of about seventy-five armed Black men looking to protect Rowland. A White man attempted to take one of the Black man’s revolvers, and then a shot rang out.
All hell broke loose.
Over the next two days, an angry mob of White men killed an estimated 150 to 300 Black people, and Greenwood was completely burned to the ground.
James Weldon Johnson and the NAACP quickly jumped on the issue and wrote to the White House asking for the president to take action. The president’s personal secretary, George Christian, responded that the President “deplores” what happened and that he hoped “we may never have another spectacle like it.” Three days after the massacre, Harding traveled to an all-Black college in Pennsylvania to give his initial response to the incident. Several months later, he would travel to the Deep South to give his most pointed response to racism in the United States.
The Birmingham Speech
President Harding arrived by train in Birmingham, Alabama on October 26, 1921 to a station filled with dignitaries preparing to celebrate the town’s 50th anniversary. Not only was it a major anniversary, but Birmingham declared that it was also “Harding Day,” as cheering men and women lined the terminal to greet the president. The president and first lady led a parade through downtown, which featured bands and Confederate Army groups proudly displaying the Confederate battle flag. Around 11:30 am, the president and first lady made their way to Woodrow Wilson Park—which had recently been renamed—to a crowd estimated from 25,000 to 50,000; Black and White spectators were separated by a barbed wire fence.
Harding began his speech by praising Birmingham’s development into an industrial powerhouse. He discussed how the city had become wealthy to a point where it gained the nickname “The Magic City” in the short timespan of fifty years. The tone of the speech, however, drastically changed as Harding shifted the topic. He went into acknowledging the Great Migration of Black Americans to the North and stated that the South could no longer claim that the treatment of Black Americans was “their problem.” It was now a national issue. Harding went on to say:
A high-grade colored soldier told me that the war brought his race the 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. He was sure that the opportunity to learn what patriotism meant was a real opportunity to his race.
Harding told the crowd to “let the Black man vote when he is fit to vote: prohibit the White man voting when he is unfit to vote.” He suggested that Black men had bravely served their country during the war and had acted like model citizens. White people, on the other hand, had created tensions and violence towards the Black community and were acting in the “unfit way” that they accused Black people of doing. Harding placed the burden of guilt on White people in an attempt to show how their actions were negatively affecting others.
The speech resulted in mixed reviews as White America attempted to digest Harding’s speech in Birmingham. The South saw the speech as extremely disrespectful, especially since it was made at the celebration of the accomplishments of a growing city. “The president’s speech was unfortunate,” stated Senator Byron Harrison of Mississippi. “To have made it in the heart of the South, where in many states, the negro population predominates, was unfortunate in the extreme.” Meanwhile, Senator Thomas Watson of Georgia did not agree with President Harding’s claim that the issue of race was now an issue that affected the whole nation.
As the President is a native of Ohio, he cannot possibly understand our situation in the South, where the population is almost equally white and black. It is, therefore a great pity that a Northern man heading the highest office on Earth should go down in the South and plant their fatal germs in the minds of the black race.
One Southern newspaper claimed that the President was “digging up the charred corpse of the Civil War” with his speech.
It must be noted that Harding did not believe in social integration. As the United States was living under Plessy v. Ferguson, or “separate but equal,” Harding, like so many other White people, could not imagine a world where there would be social integration between the White and Black community. In his speech, Harding suggested that both the White and Black communities were against even the suggestion of social equality. Because of this belief, Harding shifted his attention to giving Black Americans equality under the law. Harding believed that Black and White Americans could live in harmony; his flawed logic showed that although he might have had good intentions, Harding was still a product of his times.
Following the speech, Harding received a compelling letter from a man from his home state of Ohio that asked questions specifically about his beliefs regarding equality. The author stated that “Common sense would tell us that we cannot have economical equality without inviting social equality. If you desire political equality I am wondering just why a negro should not be supposed to be appointed a Cabinet member?”
After weeks of input from newspapers, senators, and the public, Harding decided that his best option forward would be to return to Congress and pass meaningful reform.
The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill
Harding’s support of a federal anti-lynching law was aired in a speech to Congress in April 1921, where he made his first remarks about the race issue. In that speech, Harding stated, “Congress ought to wipe the stain of barbaric lynching from the banner of a free and orderly representative democracy.” The Dyer Bill would make it a felony for local and state law enforcement officers to refuse to protect an individual in their custody and fined a county where an individual was lynched. It forced the county to pay $10,000 to victims’ families in instances where law enforcement was deemed responsible for an individual’s death. While the bill was introduced before Tulsa, the debate became heated after the tragedy there.
Black Americans filled every corner of the gallery when the bill opened for debate on the floor of the House of Representatives in January 1922. During the two days the bill was on the House floor, the debate was fierce. Representative Thomas Sisson of Mississippi stated that the lynchings were a justified response to rape and that the violence would not end until the “black rascals keep their hands off the throats of white women.” Congressmen Henry Cooper of Wisconsin attacked Sisson for advocating for mob rule, which led to cheers and applause from the Black Americans in the gallery. Southern Democrats yelled from the floor to the gallery, “sit down n*****s.” The Southern Democrats delayed the bill from coming to a vote by challenging its constitutionality and stating that it was an overreach of federal power. The bill was ultimately brought to a vote in January 1922, passing easily with a vote of 230 to 119.
The victory, however, would be short lived. Several Southern Democrats blocked the legislation from a vote before the Senate was adjourned in the fall of 1922. At the start of a special session of Congress, Southern senators announced that they would block all business. Harding historian Robert Murray says the message was no Congressional business until “we get an understanding that this bill won’t be passed.” Murray also believed that Southerners considered the bill “the most daring and destructive invasion of states’ rights in history.” Tensions between the parties reached an all-time high. For the first time in history, a minority group of senators employed a filibuster that specifically targeted a single piece of legislation. After a week of deadlock, the Republicans surrendered, and the bill was dropped.
The reason for the bill’s abandonment soon became clear. During the same session of Congress, the House passed a ship-subsidy measure. When the Senate minority blocked the Dyer Bill, they blocked all other bills as well, including the ship-subsidy bill. The Republicans voted to drop the Dyer Bill in order to pass the ship-subsidy bill. Republican Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge explained to the press: “Of course the Republicans feel very strongly, as do I, that the [anti-lynching] bill ought to become law [but] we had to choose between giving up the whole session to a protracted filibuster or going ahead with the regular business of the session.”
When the Dyer Bill stalled, a firestorm of criticism was directed toward the Republican Party and President Harding. Many Americans were amazed that the Southern Democrats had so much power in Congress and were able to defeat the Republican Party, which held a 24-seat advantage in the Senate. Others questioned the processes that were used to take the Dyer Bill off the table. Republicans blamed the bill’s death on the Democrats’ manipulation of Senate rules, while Democrats held the defeat of the bill as a victory for states’ rights, echoing the rhetoric of the former Confederacy. Johnson said that he was not surprised by the Republican Party’s “betrayal” of the NAACP and the Black American community, specifically targeting President Harding for his public silence until after the bill failed in the Senate. He believed, like many Americans, that the Republican Party was not 100 percent devoted to passing anti-lynching legislation after they so easily conceded to the Southern Democrats’ demands.
While Harding and his administration sought to bring political and economic—though not social—equality to Black Americans, ultimately they were unable to make a lasting impact. His goodwill efforts to use the powers of the executive branch did not lead to the lasting legislative solution that would have provided a building block for change. In the end, Harding was unable to break a small minority in Congress to get results. Power was in the hands of a minority of government officials looking to suppress the progression of racial equality. While Harding established the first formal working relationship between a president and the NAACP, it would be decades before their lobbying efforts would result in true codified progress.
Democracies are slow moving, non-linear institutions that take time to develop as long as those with bad intentions are left in positions of power. Many residents, Members of Congress, and Supreme Court Justices have tried to promote meaningful progress for Black Americans, but have failed over the years because of road blocks intentionally built into the system. Filibusters to prevent racial equality from advancing, laws written in ways that still disenfranchise Black Americans, state governments rebelling against the wishes of the federal government, and law enforcement intentionally targeting Black Americans with unfair policing tactics were just a small sampling of things happening during President Harding’s time in office.
It’s 2020. The problems from Warren Harding’s day are still here. We have a lot of work to do.
Brett Hall is a high school history and government teacher in Marion, Ohio, where he also volunteers as a Staff Researcher with the Harding Presidential Sites.