Democratic Sen. Byron P. Harrison of Mississippi called the remarks “unfortunate in the extreme.” Sen. Thomas E. Watson of Georgia wondered why it was necessary for the speaker to travel to the South “to lecture their people.” Today’s historians regard the address as surprising. And even a cursory examination of the speech — its comments much commented upon when they were delivered, much ignored by its audience and then much forgotten over the century that followed — will prompt a reevaluation by modern Americans of a much-maligned president.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most remarkable speeches given by one of the most discredited presidents, a stemwinder by the redoubtable Warren G. Harding that was delivered in the Deep South and that chastised the region’s residents for their racial views. But with little provocation for it, and surely no reward for it, the 29th president urged his listeners in Birmingham, Alabama, to change their ways and to heed his words “whether you like it or not.”
There are few examples of an American president taking his listeners to task — criticizing them in uncompromising language — for so fundamental and deeply held views as Harding did when he told a gathering in a segregated parkland audience of 100,000 that their traditions were unsustainable, their practices unacceptable and their attitudes un-American. And yet that is what a president ranked eighth from the bottom in this year’s historians’ assessments of American chief executives did — and he did it amid Birmingham’s pride-filled celebration of its 50th anniversary.
“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,” he said, adding, “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.”
Whites in the audience were horrified. Blacks were exultant.
The speech was given in a onetime Confederate state the Republican president lost in the 1920 election by a landslide margin greater than 2-to-1. The remarks came four days after Harding condemned lynching at a time when NAACP reports said that two Blacks a week were being killed in the signature method of the time. They came five months after a mob rampage 650 miles away in Tulsa, Oklahoma — also largely forgotten in history until recent days — left as many as 300 Blacks dead and 35 square blocks of a prosperous Black neighborhood in ruins.
“The Birmingham speech put the question of race on the nation’s table a lot sooner than people realize,” said Sherry Hall, manager of the Harding Presidential Site in Marion, Ohio.
“He went to Birmingham to congratulate it on its 50 years of existence and to say it was the face of the new South, but he had some other things on his mind that shocked a lot of people.”
There were, to be sure, several cringeworthy passages in the president’s address, reflecting adamantine and paternal racial views of the time, especially in expressions of skepticism of “racial amalgamation” and his assertion that his views were “not a question of social equality.” He also referred to “natural segregations, without narrowing any rights [that are] satisfying natural inclinations and adding notably to happiness and contentment.”
But he also anticipated Black views of the 1960s and our own time when he said that the “Black man cannot be a white man, and that he does not need and should not aspire to be as much like a white man as possible in order to accomplish the best that is possible for him,” adding, “He should seek to be, and he should be encouraged to be, the best possible Black man, and not the best possible imitation of a white man.”
The president arrived in Birmingham by train, greeted by flag-waving throngs along streets full of flowers. He gave seven speeches that day, one to the “67 girls who had been voted the best-looking in Alabama.” The remarks he made in the Birmingham park should have made history, but didn’t.
“Partnership of the races in developing the highest aims of all humanity there must be if humanity, not only here but everywhere, is to achieve the ends which we have set for it,” he told the audience, full of veterans of both the Civil War and World War I. “Is it not possible, then, that in the long era of readjustment upon which we are entering for the Nation to lay aside old prejudices and old antagonisms and in the broad, clear light of nationalism enter upon a constructive policy in dealing with these intricate issues?”
In recent years, there have been faint signs of rehabilitation, reevaluation and revisionism for Harding.
“Harding was far ahead of his time in seeing the problems of racism,” John Dean, the Watergate figure who wrote a Harding biography, said in an interview. “He looked to the white people and told them we are one people. People are starting to realize that in his short tenure he was a remarkable president, especially when it came to race.”
David Kennedy, the Stanford historian, pointed out that Harding’s Republicans had the Black vote in the South locked up because the GOP was “talking about itself as the party of Lincoln.” But that Black vote was infinitesimal, and in any case, the president was talking to a group of people whose party loyalties rested comfortably with the Democrats, who accounted for every Alabama senator for more than a century between 1879 and 1981.
In his speech, Harding said he hoped “that we shall find an adjustment of relations between the two races, in which both can enjoy full citizenship, the full measure of usefulness to the country and of opportunity for themselves, and in which recognition and reward shall at last be distributed in proportion to individual deserts, regardless of race or color.” A century later, the hope persists.