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President Calvin Coolidge: Strong Words, Weak Actions

There should be no favorites and no outcasts; no race or religious prejudices in government. America opposes special privileges for any body and favors equal opportunity for everybody.--Calvin Coolidge

Mr. Hoover is too busy having his picture taken and Mr. Coolidge, when an Arkansas mob burns the body of an imbecile, feeding the bonfire with lumber torn from a Negro church, while the mayor of the city keeps the Negro leaders imprisoned in their own business block. Mr. Coolidge tells the world of the privileges of American civilization––W. E. B. Du Bois

After President Harding died in San Francisco, Vice-President Calvin Coolidge took the oath of office in the sitting room of the Coolidge family farm in Plymouth, Vermont on August 3, 1923. The new president continued the Harding policy of ignoring black interests and striving to placate the South. The unprecedented prosperity of the Coolidge years were marked by a continuation of the status quo in the South with respect to black civil rights. Like his predecessor Harding, President Coolidge hid behind the doctrine of “state’s rights” to avoid his obligation to enforce the Constitution. On the surface, however, Coolidge’s racial rhetoric was for the most part, a breath of fresh air.

Born on July 4th, 1872, Coolidge was raised in a remote Vermont environment and later attended Amherst College in Massachusetts. John Calvin Coolidge was born to John Calvin Coolidge who was a farmer, shopkeeper and local politician. His mother, Victoria Josephine Moor died when he was only twelve years of age. Coolidge recalled, “[T]he greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me,” concluding “[L]ife was never the same again." After graduating from Amherst, Coolidge read law at the firm of Hammond and Field. Entering the political arena Coolidge was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and later for mayor of Northampton. By 1916 he was elected Lieutenant Governor, and by 1919 inaugurated as Governor of Massachusetts.

Despite relatively progressive racial rhetoric Coolidge’s actual political behavior differed little from his predecessors. After the death of Harding and Coolidge's rise to the become president it was soon clear that African American interests ranked far down on President Coolidge’s list of priorities. Coolidge’s emphasis was on business and financial affairs as illustrated by a January 1924 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington D.C.:

. . . the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world. . . .

Later in 1924 Coolidge was nominated for a term of his own under the slogan “Keep Cool with Coolidge.” Among the Democrats in 1924, William G. McAdoo, a former Wilson cabinet member, competed for the nomination against New York's Al Smith, vying for the anti-black vote at a convention dominated by debate over whether to condemn the Ku Klux Klan. Ultimately the resolution to condemn the Klan lost by a single vote signaling the emergence of a conflict pitting southern anti-black forces, sometimes termed Dixiecrats, against more racially liberal northern forces. This development was doubly significant since this was the first American political convention to be broadcast on radio across the nation. Eventually, John Davis of West Virginia was nominated while Governor Charles W. Bryan of Nebraska was named the party's vice-presidential candidate.

The Republican Coolidge offered racially liberal rhetoric that his policies failed to duplicate. To his credit, Coolidge’s first inaugural message included an appeal for legislation by Congress to prevent and punish what he described as “the hideous crime of lynching.” Asserting that it “is both a public and private duty to protect those rights” he noted that “the negroes are by no means the sole sufferers,” victimized by these crimes but nevertheless were the “majority of the victims.” Given the tremendous moral influence and prestige wielded by a sitting president, even in the areas of the nation that politically opposed him, this was in all likelihood one ingredient of the gradual decline in lynching.

In his inaugural speech, while groping for positive points to mention in reference to his black constituency, he later noted the inclusion of monies within the federal budget for the training of African-Americans in agricultural and medical courses at Howard University. President Coolidge also discussed a proposed commission to be created to foster better understanding between blacks and whites in industrial areas characterized by the heavy in-migration of African Americans. Altogether the listing of achievements under the two Republican administrations of Harding and Coolidge illustrates how few concrete benefits African Americans received as a result of overwhelmingly supporting the Republican Party. At the same time black economic, social, cultural, and, especially, political power, long dormant was undergoing qualitatively leaps as the steady migration from rural areas proceeded. The temptation of both political parties to compete and strategize around the black vote increased markedly during the post-World War I period and the 1920s.

For President Coolidge, the sacrifices of tens of thousands of African American soldiers during World War I weighed heavily in favor of their argument for civil rights. In this spirit he opposed the suggestion that Charles Roberts of Harlem be pushed aside after he was nominated for to be a GOP candidate for Congress. On another occasion after a discussion focused on federal government workplace segregation occurred in a Cabinet meeting, Coolidge is quoted as saying: “Well, I don’t know what you can do, or how you can solve the question, but to me it seems a terrible thing for persons of intelligence, of education, of real character—as we know many colored people are—to be deprived of a chance to work because they happen to be born with a different colored skin. I think you ought to find a way to give them an even chance.”

Even these modest proposals were put forth cautiously by President Coolidge. The creation of such a commission embodied laudable aims but “these difficulties are to a large extent local problems which must be worked out by the mutual forbearance and human kindness of each community,” Coolidge said. In his second annual message to Congress, the mention of blacks was briefer and his appeal against lynching considerably weaker than that included within his first inaugural address.

Perhaps the disjuncture between positive sounding messages with respect to black interests and the amount and quality of positive action was wider

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.

President Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge, 30th President

August 2, 1923 to March 4, 1929

Birth: July 4, 1872, Plymouth Notch, Vermont

Death: January 5, 1933

Education: Amherst College

Religion: Congregationalist

Profession: Lawyer, Politician

Political Party: Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Robert Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma, August 30, 1998, CSPAN

for Coolidge than for most presidents. President Coolidge’s inaction came at time when black political power had been bolstered by a decade or more of heavy urban and northward migration. Longtime Coolidge aide, C. Bascom Slemp, wrote that one of Coolidge’s greatest achievements with respect to black interests was the appointment of an all-black semi-diplomatic commission to visit the Virgin Islands. Slemp also pointed to a letter to Charles F. Gardner, one that Coolidge himself was proud of, as evidence of Coolidge’s principles in the area of racial justice. In August 1924, President Coolidge responded to Gardner who had written the president of his distaste with the prospect of blacks competing for political office. This was, after all, “a white man’s country.” President Coolidge professed amazement that he would receive “such a letter.” Coolidge wrote Gardner:

During the war 500,000 colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it. They took their places wherever assigned in defense of the nation of which they are just as truly citizens as are any others. The suggestion of denying any measure of their full political rights to such a great group of our population as the colored people is one which, however it might be received in some other quarters, could not possibly be permitted by one who feels a responsibility for living up to the traditions and maintaining the principles of the Republican Party. Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or colour. . . .

Coolidge ended his reply to Gardner by quoting Theodore Roosevelt: “. . . I cannot consent to take the position that the door of hope—the door of opportunity—is to be shut upon any man, no matter how worthy, purely upon the grounds of race or color.” While Slemp’s description of this letter as a “second Emancipation Proclamation” is a fantastic exaggeration of its content and impact, it does illustrate the character of Coolidge’s racial liberalism. Any notion of Coolidge as a true racial liberal is undermined hard, stubborn reality. For example, at the Cleveland convention where Coolidge won the nomination of his party, chicken wire was used to fence off the black delegates from their white Republican counterparts.

Unfortunately, this former Virginia Congressman, Bascom C. Slemp, personally put the finishing touches on the segregation within the federal government that Wilson championed and implemented. William Monroe Trotter, who had known Coolidge before he became president, met with Coolidge at the White House to protest this. The president reportedly listened to Trotter’s presentation and declined to comment or discuss the issues he raised. The NAACP, finding a persistent pattern of segregation in a 1928 survey of government departments in Washington wrote in protest to President Coolidge on the situation that was “deeply stirring the sentiment of colored citizens throughout the United States.”

President Coolidge’s inaction on issues of concern to the national African American community occurred within the context of successive presidents who proved to be frustrating. These hard facts spurred a debate within the black national community of the 1920s. One problem was that of GOP’s contempt for the black vote and attempt to distance themselves from African Americans. Increasingly black activists and intellectuals along with other democratically-minded Americans, searched for alternatives. Contributing to this ongoing dialogue, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in The Nation an article entitled, “The Republicans and the Black Voter” prophetically asserting that the Republican Party would soon be unable to continue to take the black vote for granted. He pointed to four states, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Kentucky that the black voter “holds the balance of power.”

The administration of President Calvin Coolidge did little to improve African American prospects for social, political, and economic progress. Yet, Coolidge’s administration managed to take a few positive and token moves on behalf of black interests. In 1927, for example, Coolidge commuted the sentence of Universal Negro Improvement Association leader Marcus Garvey after he had served a large portion of it. Nevertheless, the overall impact of the Coolidge administration forced a wider recognition of the two-party trap African Americans found themselves in. As the election of 1928 approached African- Americans would take a harder look at the Democratic ticket.