Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Civil Rights Hero: Calvin Coolidge

The presidency of Calvin Coolidge began unexpectedly with the death of President Warren Harding in August 1923. As vice president, Coolidge took the oath of office and became president, taking over the Harding administration in mid-term.

Although Harding’s years as president have been overshadowed by a series of financial scandals - mostly surrounding oil drilling rights in the “Teapot Dome” area - historians have discovered that Harding himself had nothing to do with the fact that the Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, received funds in a manner which was unethical and illegal. Harding either didn’t know about payoff, or found out about it only shortly before his death. Although there is no proof, some historians have speculated either that the news shocked Harding badly and caused his death, or that Harding perhaps committed suicide upon learning of the scandal. But good historians don’t engage in speculation.

In any case, the scandal diverted attention from the Harding administration’s many worthwhile achievements. During the Harding years, the United States made significant progress toward reducing taxes, reducing the national debt, reducing government spending, and reducing the annual budget deficit. This led to better economic conditions, especially for the lower and middle classes, who experienced rising real income.

President Harding also took significant steps in the realm of civil rights. Before Warren G. Harding took office, African-Americans had suffered greatly under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who had been in office from March 1913 to March 1921. Wilson’s goal had been to undo the progress which Blacks had experienced during the Reconstruction Era. Some federal operations - the Post Office, for example - had been integrated or de-segregated. Wilson’s administration reintroduced segregation into these federal offices. Wilson had also worked to deter African-Americans from applying for admission into colleges and universities. Most notoriously, Wilson had praised the KKK in an essay he had written. Wilson also praised The Birth of a Nation, a film which was understood by many as praising the Klan, although it has never been quite clear whether the film’s director, D.W. Griffith, had precisely that intent. Wilson had also discouraged attempts by Republican congressmen to pass anti-lynching laws.

African-Americans were encouraged by the Harding administration’s departures from Wilson’s racist policies. Coolidge continued Harding’s work of ensuring civil rights for Blacks. While both Harding and Coolidge sought these advancements in civil rights, the two presidents worked in different ways, each according to his style and personality. Harding was a popular speechmaker, and used his skills to address large audiences, boldly stating that African-Americans held full and equal citizenship. Coolidge, by contrast, lived up to his nickname ‘Silent Cal’ and spoke little on any subject, including civil rights. Whereas Harding was a man of words, Coolidge was a man of action: both were needed; both moved the cause of civil rights forward. Coolidge took a firmer stand against the Ku Klux Klan and promoted anti-lynching legislation. Historian Robert Ferrell writes:

Coolidge may not have seen many blacks in Vermont or even in Massachusetts, and his position on injustice did not stand out on the grand tablet of presidential utterances on that subject. Harding had at least shown some interest and said some good things and, if only in contrast to Wilson, looked good on the issue. Coolidge’s predecessor had gone down to Birmingham, spoken to a mixed audience of whites and blacks, and said, “let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.” He advised his audience to “lay aside any program that looks to lining up the black man as a mere political adjunct” and asked for “an end to prejudice.”

Coolidge’s support for African-American civil rights was highlighted in the 1924 election. When the Democrats publicly embraced the KKK at their national convention, the Coolidge administration, in the form of Charles Dawes, began to speak decisively on the matter. Dawes, who had been a general during WWI, was Coolidge’s nominee for vice president. As Coolidge’s running mate, and as national candidate for vice president, General Dawes overruled some cautious voices within the party and spoke for the majority of the Republican Party in opposing the Klan. Observers wondered if Coolidge would support his running mate’s strong statements against the Klan; he did. Coolidge and his campaign cheerfully embraced the anti-Klan identity with the slogan ‘Keep Kool with Koolidge,’ mocking the KKK and letting the voters know that they would continue Harding’s quest for civil rights.

At the Madison Square Garden convention, the Democratic party refused to disavow Klan support, although Davis later made an anti-Klan statement, as did La Follette and Wheeler. General Dawes went to Maine, which was a notable Klan bastion, and told six thousand people at Augusta on 23 August that “I first desire to speak … relative to the Ku Klux Klan,” whereupon he made himself clear: “Government cannot last if that way, the way of the Ku Klux Klan, is the way to enforce the law in this country. Lawlessness cannot be met with lawlessness if civilization is to be maintained.” He had been told not to do so by party managers, but received an ovation. Afterward he visited Coolidge at the Notch, where political writers assumed that he was to be “spanked” for his Klan utterances. He later said that the president did not mention the Maine speech; the visit was a courtesy call. That fall, slogans adorned billboards, “Keep Kool with Koolidge” and Klansmen were telling one another that the Episcopal cathedral being built on Mount St. Alban’s in Washington was going to be the pope’s new home, where he could command the nation’s capital with field guns.

As the campaign continued toward the November election, the Democrat Party’s continuing connection with Klan encouraged Black voters to come to polling places in larger numbers, and to vote for Coolidge when they arrived. Historian Jonathan Bean writes:

The Ku Klux Klan was the hot civil rights issue of the 1924 election: it was a national organization directing its hatred not only at blacks, but especially at Catholics and others deemed less than “100% American.”

Coolidge’s habitual reticence meant that he did not deliver long fiery speeches against the Klan, but rather simply made it clear that he was opposed to the KKK. For Coolidge, one word was as good as a thousand. The voters seemed to understand this; they knew that a single “no” from Coolidge was more solid than a long tirade against the Klan. The Democratic candidate, John W. Davis, was pro-segregation and vocal about this stance. He continued to be active in politics and law after losing the 1924 election, and

Davis is best known for defending segregation in the Brown v. Board case.

Meanwhile, Coolidge took another swipe at the Klan by linking freedom of religion to the struggle against racism.

Coolidge spoke eloquently of religious and racial toleration before a parade of one hundred thousand Catholics honoring the Holy Name Society. Klan leaders grumbled when the president refused to show up for their parade.

Chicago’s leading African-American newspaper, The Chicago Defender, praised Coolidge’s anti-Klan stance. Coolidge continued by delivering the commencement address at Howard University, a historically Black college. This was an amazing societal breakthrough: an incumbent United States president giving the graduation speech at an African-American university in 1924. Coolidge had not delivered bombast; rather, he had made it quietly but firmly clear that he was against the Klan and would act to promote Black civil rights. The voters rewarded him by returning him to the White House in November 1924.