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The Republican president who called for racial justice in America after Tulsa massacre.
Warren G. Harding's comments about race and equality were remarkable for 1921.
It was just three days after the horrific violence in Tulsa, where hundreds of African Americans had been killed and the city's segregated black neighborhood — including 35 square blocks of prosperous businesses — had been destroyed by rampaging whites. Some buildings had even been firebombed from planes.
President Warren G. Harding spent the weekend worrying over how to respond to the massacre. Finally, he decided to accept a commencement invitation from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the nation's first degree-granting historically black institution.
He would use that moment in 1921 to seek healing and harmony — and several months later in Alabama, he would go much further with daring remarks about equality.
That was how a Republican president addressed racially fraught events nearly a century ago.
Despite the demagogues, the idea of our oneness as Americans has risen superior to every appeal to mere class and group," Harding declared. "And so, I wish it might be in this matter of our national problem of races."
Few people could have missed the symbolism of Harding's June 6 visit to Lincoln, Pa., near the small town of Oxford, about five miles north of the Maryland border. The university had been founded as the Ashmun Institute in 1854 but changed its name after the Civil War in tribute to the assassinated president. Early on, it was known as "the Black Princeton."
Harding wanted to acknowledge the searing anguish of Tulsa — the city where President Trump held a controversial rally Saturday night — not just for African Americans there but also across the nation. He also wanted to praise and honor Lincoln alumni who had been among the more than 367,000 black servicemen to fight in the Great War. One Lincoln graduate led the 370th U.S. Infantry, the "Black Devils." Col. F.A. Denison was the sole black commander of a regiment in France.
The return of so many black veterans from the First World War was in fact one of the catalysts for the country's increasing racial tensions from 1919 to 1921, with many whites threatened by the black veterans' newfound status and authority, to say nothing of the competition they posed in the job market.
In Tulsa, Army veterans were among the African Americans who sought to protect their homes and businesses from the white mobs — although newspaper accounts largely and falsely blamed the city's black population for the upheaval. It would be decades before the true scope and causes of the massacre were analyzed and understood.
Harding and his four-car caravan set off before dawn on that Monday, heading southwest from Valley Forge, Pa., where he and the first lady had been guests at a farmhouse owned by Sen. Philander Knox. When the entourage arrived at the campus, it stopped in front of a granite arch that had recently been erected in memory of "Lincoln men" who had fought and died in the war.Biden campaigns from his basement. Harding ran for president from his porch.
According to the university newspaper, the visit represented "the high-water mark in the history of the institution." Harding spoke extemporaneously in the sun-dappled setting, addressing the graduating class as "my fellow countrymen." He was there not just for their commencement but also to help dedicate the arch, and his words reflected a theme he sounded repeatedly during his presidency: that African American servicemen had paid through service and sacrifice for the nation to "make the world safe for democracy." They were due.
Then he turned to two of the day's most controversial subjects.
He called education critical to solving the issues of racial inequality, but he challenged the students to shoulder their shared responsibility to advance freedom. The government alone, he said, could not magically "take a race from bondage to citizenship in half a century."He also spoke briefly about Tulsa and offered up a simple prayer: "God grant that, in the soberness, the fairness, and the justice of this country, we never see another spectacle like it."
The fact that Harding chose a black university to make his only comments about the catastrophe spoke volumes about his intentions.
After he concluded, eyewitnesses reported, he congratulated every graduate individually "and shook hands with each one of them."That fall Harding became the first president to go into the Deep South since the Civil War. And in a speech that the city of Birmingham, Ala., thought would help celebrate its semicentennial, he instead veered dramatically.
Before a crowd of 100,000 — blacks and whites separated by a fence — he made a full-throated case for political, economic and educational equality among the races. He only stopped short of advocating for social equality. "Let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; and prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote," Harding proclaimed.Half of his audience erupted in cheers. The other half was thunderstruck. Some whites openly booed and hissed. A Mississippi congressman in attendance denounced Harding's words as "a blow to the white civilization of America."
The nation's 29th president died less than two years later, collapsing with a heart attack after a grueling speaking tour through the West and up into the Alaska Territory. For decades, his record on racial equality — a core belief — remained largely unexplored.
"No majority shall abridge the rights of a minority," he stressed when accepting his party's nomination in 1920. "I believe the Negro citizens of America should be guaranteed the enjoyment of all their rights, that they have earned their 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."
But America was not ready then, and today's protests and counterprotests reveal the progress still to be made. Almost a century ago, Harding asked Congress to pass an anti-lynching bill. The latest attempt just weeks ago was thwarted by another Republican, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.).
James D. Robenalt is the author of "The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War" and "Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland."
Washington Post, June 21, 2020
June 21, 2020
Voices4America Post Script. President Harding, a Republican President you may not know, in 1921 spoke for #RacialEquality after the #TulsaMassacre. #OutlawLynching Really worth reading, remembering and sharing.