Harding visits Birmingham – Galleon Inquirer

October 26, 1921

One hundred years ago, a Morrow County native stood before some 100,000 people in Birmingham, Alabama, and gave a powerful civil rights speech that shocked the country.

Warren G. Harding, fresh out of a crushing election, has enjoyed tremendous popularity after his successful campaign promising the country a “return to normalcy” after the Spanish flu pandemic and the First World War.

Harding chose to use that popularity to address race relations after the horrific massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which destroyed the thriving black community of Greenwood. In the context, Harding took office immediately after Woodrow Wilson who redistributed much of the federal government, firmly defended the Ku Klux Klan, and even projected Birth of a Nation in the White House.

With the end of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley’s presidencies, Harding showed great courage on his trip to Alabama, the first outing to the Deep South for a US president since the Civil War. It will be another 40 years before a president speaks again on the racial question in the great south.

Beginning his speech at Woodrow Wilson Park, Harding told the crowd that he was going to speak frankly to them “whether you like it or not.”

Now, parts of his comments, seen in today’s standards, are disturbing to read. Difficult and overwhelming to read. Yet all of his comments were groundbreaking for 1921, and black audiences listening to him in person applauded his insistence on black economic and political equality.

The president “has declared that black people have the right to all economic and political rights as an American citizen,” reported The New York Times. “The president made a bolder and clearer statement that Theodore Roosevelt never dared to make or that William Taft or William McKinley never dreamed of,” wrote civil rights leader WEB DuBois.

Here are some salient comments from his speech:

“I can tell you southerners, white and black, that the time is past when you are entitled to assume that the race problem is especially and especially your problem,” Harding told the audience. “This is the problem with democracy everywhere, if we hear what we say about democracy as an ideal political state. Whether you like it or not, our democracy is a lie unless you stand up for that equality, ”Harding added.

“These things give hope that we will find an adjustment in the relations between the two races in which both can enjoy full citizenship.”

“In anticipation of such a situation, the South may well recognize that the North and the West are likely to continue their drafts on its colored population, and that if the South wishes to keep its fields in production and its industry always in expansion, he will have to compete for the services of the colored man. He will realize his need for him and deal fairly fairly with him, the South will be able to keep him in such numbers that your activities will make him desirable.

“Is it not possible, then, that during the long era of readjustment we are entering, the Nation sets aside old prejudices and old antagonisms, and in the broad and clear light of nationalism, enters in a constructive policy in the face of these complex problems? “

As civil rights activists praised Harding’s speech, many prominent politicians in the South denounced him. Mississippi Senator Pat Harrison said, “If the President’s Theory is taken to its ultimate conclusion, it means the black man can strive to become President of the United States. Georgian Senator Thomas E. Watson said the president sowed “deadly seeds in the minds of the black race”. And Alabama Senator Thomas Heflin said: “As far as the South is concerned, we stand by the doctrine that Almighty God set the limits and boundaries between the two races and no Republican life can improve. his work.”

Less than two years later, Harding died suddenly at age 57, from what is now believed to have been a heart attack. In 1923 he was still enjoying considerable popularity, and some nine million Americans lined the railroad tracks on which his body was brought from San Francisco to Washington, DC.

Unfortunately for the country and Harding’s reputation, he did not subscribe to the idea of ​​practicing scrupulous personal and administrative behavior. He apparently failed to understand that upsetting the status quo often leads to retaliation. And he did.

Harding’s reluctance to immediately fire some of his lying and deceitful Cabinet members leads to the corruption of the Teapot Dome and Veteran Houses. It all came out after his death. What’s more, his deplorable marital infidelities have also dramatically reduced his popular standing – something much more forgivable among some presidents over the past 60 years.

In retrospect, do the scandals of the members of his cabinet, as well as his great personal failings towards his wife, justify ranking him now among the worst of all American presidents?

Certainly his appointment and support for the aggressive tax-cutting policies implemented under Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (continued under Presidents Coolidge and Hoover) helped lead America into the resurgence of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ of our country. economy.

President Harding also championed the 40-hour work week, tripled the number of improved roads, and created the Office of Management and Budget. As a senator, Harding supported and voted for women’s suffrage.

And at a critical point in our history, Harding went to Birmingham.

It deserves a much better reputation than it has today.

Andy ware

Mount Gilead

Newspapers document the reaction to President Harding’s speech.

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