Often seen as one of the worst presidents in modern US history Warren G. Harding’s administration was plagued with inequities and scandal. Unfortunately for Harding though he passed away in San Francisco from heart failure in August of 1923, and was never able to truly address the criticisms and allegations made against his presidency. Despite this and the commonly negative view of Harding, he was one of the first, if not the first, presidents of the twentieth century to actually address and support legislation against the lynching of blacks in the South.
On this day in 1921, President Warren Harding delivered the first speech by a president condemning the lynching of blacks by Southerners. Harding spoke out against these illegal hangings — committed primarily by white supremacists — in Birmingham, Ala., amid increasing racism and racial violence throughout the Deep South.
Large population shifts in the wake of World War I had raised racial tensions throughout much of the country. As the 1920 Republican presidential nominee, Harding had advocated civil rights for blacks, despite evidence of wide opposition among white voters. At the time, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reported that lynchings claimed the lives of, on average, two blacks every week.
In Birmingham, Harding voiced support for anti-lynching bills pending in Congress. Legislation seeking to curb the practice was initially sponsored in 1918 by Rep. Leonidas Dyer (R-Mo.); Sen. Charles Curtis (R-Kan.) sponsored a companion measure in the Senate. They called for $10,000 fines to be levied against any county where a lynching occurred, for the prosecution of negligent state and county officials in federal courts and for the lodging of federal murder charges against participants.
Although the House approved the bill in 1922, a phalanx of Southern Democrats mounted a successful filibuster against it in the Senate. Efforts to enact similar legislation languished on Capitol Hill until the 1930s, when Sens. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Edward Costigan (D-Colo.) took up the cause. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, refused to back their bill, fearing it would cost him Southern electoral support and jeopardize his 1936 reelection bid.
All of this may seem to us in the modern era as an obvious fact that should have been addressed and stopped with the full force of the federal government. However, at the time the perceptions of the black community by whites, both North and South, was that the former were something less than sub-human. Harding openly challenged this view with courage and dignity even at the peril of of attaining the presidency.
As I wrote almost two years ago, because of facts like this the history of the Harding presidency deserves another look in an effort to try and change contemporary perceptions of the man and his administration.
- What we need is another Harding. Seriously (cbsnews.com)
- Five Best: One-Term Presidents (online.wsj.com)
- US History Web Search: Roaring Twenties and Great Depression (modelbfw.wordpress.com)