“I would say let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.” – President Warren G. Harding, Birmingham, Oct. 26, 1921
With those pointed words, Harding pricked the conscience of the political world and put the South on the spot. While his remarks nearly a century ago were cutting, their impact on civil rights was fleeting. It would be decades before another president took on segregation and discrimination so forcefully and publicly again.
Harding’s speech, delivered 94 years ago, was the centerpiece of his visit to Birmingham to celebrate the Magic City’s 50th anniversary. In a town of 180,000 people, more than 100,000 turned out to hear him speak in Capitol Park. No warmer welcome, Harding said, had ever been extended to him.
But the president “hit them with a curveball,” said Ahmad Ward, head of Education and Exhibitions for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
“I can say to you people of the South, both white and black, that the time has passed when you are entitled to assume that the problem of races is peculiarly and particularly your problem,” Harding told the audience. “It is the problem of democracy everywhere, if we mean the things we say about democracy as the ideal political state.”
“Whether you like it or not, our democracy is a lie unless you stand for that equality,” he added.
The response was swift. “The segregated section of the park, where the black people were, erupted, but the white audience kind of got quiet on him,” said Ward. “This is the first speech by a sitting president about race specifically in the South, ever.”
“Most persons thought he would deliver the usual soothing-syrup speech, mixing in just enough of something else to give it national scope,” wrote The Birmingham News. “Therefore, the surprise was greater when he vigorously championed the black race.”
By taking on the race issue directly, Harding made national news. The president “declared that the Negro is entitled to full economic and political rights as an American citizen,” reported The New York Times.
“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,” wrote civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois.
Focusing on civil rights was not new to Harding. He had replaced President Woodrow Wilson, who had re-segregated the federal civil service. He advocated strong federal laws against lynching which, sadly, the U.S. Senate defeated several times during his term.
But Harding also knew that carrying a message of equality to the Jim Crow South was risky. Birmingham’s notorious racial segregation ordinances made it “unlawful” for blacks and whites to even “play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers.”
“It was a courageous move,” said Sherry Hall, site manager of the Harding Home Presidential Site in Marion, Ohio. “He could have avoided the whole subject. He did receive a backlash from it, a lot of letters and telegrams both pro and con.”
In retaliation the Ku Klux Klan started a rumor that Harding was a member of the group – which was ironic, considering that as a candidate in 1920 he faced rumors that he was partly black.
Nevertheless, his Birmingham speech is rarely cited by civil rights leaders. One reason is that he stopped short of calling for full equality.
“Men of both races may well stand uncompromisingly against every suggestion of social equality,” Harding said. “Indeed, it would be helpful to have that word ‘equality’ eliminated from this consideration. … Racial amalgamation there cannot be.”
DuBois, for one, noted the contradiction.
“No system of social uplift which begins by denying the manhood of a man can end by giving him a free ballot, a real education and a just wage,” he wrote.
Harding’s address, while unacceptable to modern ears, was boldly progressive for its time and place, and set an important marker for future presidents such as Harry S. Truman, the first to speak before the NAACP.
“It was a tone of, let’s have equal rights at the voting booth,” said Ward. “It sounds like a really mild concept, honestly. But for anyone to do this in the most segregated big city in the South, I know people took it as a slap in the face.”
The Birmingham speech is largely forgotten today. Schools have failed to teach about this and other early civil rights milestones.
“We see it all the time,” Ward said. “There are people who have no knowledge of the civil rights movement beyond Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. The movement starts way before then.”
On Nov. 20 at the Alabama Theatre, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute will give the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth Award to Vernon Jordan, a close adviser to U.S. Presidents from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton. Singer Smokey Robinson will perform. For tickets, contact the Civil Rights Institute.