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The Administration of President William McKinley: “An Extraordinary and Incomprehensible silence on the subject of our wrongs”

[A] man of jelly, who would turn us loose to the mob and not say a word.— Editor T. Thomas Fortune on William McKinley.

In his speech of April 28, 1880 at the Republican State Convention in Columbus, McKinley assailed the electoral frauds perpetrated by Democrats in the previous years. Reminding his audience of Democratic tactics in the election of 1876 where they, “unwilling to acquiesce in the result, they sought to secure electors by unworthy means in the States of Florida, Louisiana, and Oregon” in order to win. McKinley stressed the seriousness of the situation in the South where a one-party system was then emerging. “They have succeeded in silencing the Republican voice of the South, and the Republican Representation in Congress from that section will soon be only a reminiscence.” Describing the dramatic drop in Republican votes in several districts, McKinley gave an example of one predominantly African-American district's decline in Republican votes from 9,616 to 6. He lamented that entire districts had “been disfranchised by the use of the shotgun and the bludgeon, . . . “:

Are free thought and free political action to be crushed out in one section of the country? I answer No, no! but that the whole power of the Federal Government must be exhausted in securing to every citizen, black or white, rich or poor, everywhere within the limits of the Union, every right, civil and political, guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws. . . .

McKinley maintained his focus on the issue of free ballots during the 1880s. At a campaign stop in Ironton, Ohio, October 1, 1885, he stressed the importance of securing the “free enjoyment of the ballot” ridiculing those who “profess to believe that the discussion of this question is reviving the memories of the war” and that they “should close our eyes to Southern outrages.” He calculated that, according to the proportion of blacks in the South, of the eighty-four representatives from the region, fully thirty-five should have been representative of blacks (if not actually black themselves). Only two black men were elected to sit in Congress the previous years, according to McKinley. He concludes that the facts make it clear “that suffrage in the South is suppressed, and that the theft of the ballot, the free enjoyment of which is the most sacred of all our civil rights, is openly and glaringly practiced, . . .“ He answered the critics whom he said, will charge, “You are waving the bloody shirt” by asserting that what he was pointing to was occurring not during the war or immediately afterwards, but “what took place only last year.”

In one speech focused on the details of the fair elections legislation, McKinley told Democratic members of Congress “that you will diminish the cost of the administration of this bill in the ratio that you diminish fraudulent voting, false counting, stuffing of ballot boxes and suppressing the voice of the Republicans in the South.”

. . the consciences of the American people will not be permitted to slumber until this great constitutional right, the equality of the suffrage, equality of opportunity, freedom of political action and political thought, shall not be the mere cold formalities of constitutional enactment as now, but a living birthright which the poorest and humblest, white or black, native born or naturalized citizen, may confidently enjoy, and which the richest and most powerful dare not deny.

After the official declaration of war on Spain, April 25, 1898, a group of black leaders led by P. B. S. Pinchback met with President McKinley at the White House to pledge African American support for the war effort. While they also recalled for McKinley the history of black patriotism via participation in America’s wars, their promise of loyalty to the American cause in the war against Spain proved to be a source of controversy within African American communities across the nation. While some prominent figures contended that an enthusiastic black participation in the war would yield multiple benefits, others registered profound dissent with this view. Many blacks agreed with the man who said, that his patriotism was “kind of weak” “by the treatment we receive at the hands of the general government as to protecting us in our rights at home.” Thousands of blacks answered President McKinley’s call for 125,000 volunteers. The war accelerated the consciousness of African Americans as to the overall global context of their particular situation as well as knowledge of the details of the geographic aspects of the structures of race in the United States. The coming together of African Americans from all areas of the country allowed them to share experiences and discuss the common and contrasting features of their local racial circumstances.

Born in Niles, Ohio in January 1843 to Nancy Allison McKinley and William McKinley, Sr., the future president was the seventh of nine children. His father was a manufacturer of pig iron and an abolitionist. McKinley did well in school but at seventeen years of age was forced to drop out after suffering bouts of nervous and physical exhaustion. During the war he won recognition for heroism and courage after he braved enemy fire to deliver food to troops fighting at the front in the Battle of Antietam in 1862. Following the war McKinley set up a law practice in Canton, Ohio and became involved in local politics as a Republican. The first political speech McKinley made was in favor of black suffrage and the Fifteenth Amendment when Ohio was on the verge of ratifying it. His statements and voting record indicated that he was consistent in his support for black political, social, and economic rights. Standing on principle McKinley once checked out of a New Orleans hotel after it refused to let a black group meet with him there.

After defeat of the, Lodge Federal Elections bill, labelled the “Force Bill” by those opposing the African American right to participate in politics, McKinley changed his focus to a more nationalistic emphasis on sectional reconciliation. As a presidential candidate, McKinley’s campaign marked a another giant step of the party toward forgetting, ignoring or downplaying the problems of democracy in the South. The former Ohio governor ran on the first Republican platform since the Civil War that did not include an insistence that federal power be used to enforce black voting rights in the South. McKinley’s stance on this matter was widely approved by the key northern newspapers, political institutions, and politicians.

By the 1890s African Americans were well aware that during that era white sectional reconciliation meant less white support for black civil rights. Battling tendencies that cropped up immediately after Appomattox, generational changes, economic miseries, technological development and other factors finally pushed lingering pro-civil rights forces to the periphery of the Republican Party in the 1890s.

On the Democratic side, Ben Tillman and other southerners became identified with the free silver forces early on–they expressed their support in racial and sectional terms, taking pride in their secessionist heritage. McKinley’s victory was fueled by a massive amount of corporate funding, between $3.5 and $4 million was spent on advertising and as much as $16 million for the entire campaign. The House of Morgan and Standard Oil alone contributed as much as the entire Democratic Party’s election budget. Over 200 million pamphlets were produced along with a primitive movie on the campaign for what remained a front porch campaign that witnessed some 750,000 visitors flock to McKinley’s home town of Canton, Ohio.

President William McKinley

William McKinley, 25th President

March 4, 1897 to September 14, 1901

Birth: January 29, 1843, Niles, Ohio

Death: September 14, 1901

Education: Allegany College, Albany Law School

Religion: Methodist

Profession: Politician, Lawyer

Political Party: Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of William McKinley Aug 23, 1999CSPAN

McKinley was able to campaign on a platform of national unity and the healing of sectional divisions and still not mention black emancipation and messy post-reconstruction events. Speaking to a organization of Confederate veterans McKinley said, “Let us remember now and in all the future that we are Americans, and what is good for Ohio is good for Virginia.”

Two weeks after the explosion on the Maine, the February 22, 1898 murder of Frazier B. Baker, the postmaster at Lake City, South Carolina increased criticisms of both McKinley and the coming war in Cuba. A mob set the African American’s house on fire, and shot him and his infant son to death as they tried to escape. Dampening any pro-war sentiment African Americans may have harbored, the debate within the national black community over the prospect of war with Spain and intervention in Cuba continued. After a struggle by pro-war elements for more recruitment of black troops were regiments of “immunes” those thought to be immune to tropical diseases, were set up for blacks. Consistent with the prevailing American notions of race, however, the only black commissioned officers that were allowed were lieutenants. All other higher-ranking commissions were to be held by whites. During the second wave of volunteer recruitment, President McKinley later allowed some all-black units be commanded by black officers after being prodded by black politicians propelled by outraged constituents. Despite many optimists who had hoped that black participation in the war would bring new opportunities and lessened prejudice against them, the post-war mood was one of disappointment. Not only had the murderers of Baker and his son gone unpunished, dozens of blacks were killed in new lynching while segregation entrenched itself even more firmly on the nation’s institutional structure.

By the time of McKinley’s administration African American activists were accustomed to black-supported Republicans falling far short of what they had promised during the campaign. In the fall of 1899, blacks in Boston, led by Archibald H. Grimke, sent an open letter to President William McKinley. The authors of the letter felt obliged to remind the president that they addressed the letter to him “not as suppliants, but . . . as American citizens, whose servant you are, and to whom you are bound to listen, and for whom you are equally bound to speak.” The letter protested the almost complete absence of free speech and the overall repression of blacks in the South. “Turn where he will, he encounters this cruel and implacable spirit. He dare not speak openly the thoughts which rise in his breast.” “Is there no help in the federal arm for us, or even one word of audible pity, protest and remonstrance in your own breast, Mr. President. . . .? “ they asked. Another follow-up letter to McKinley a year later criticized his appeals for sectional reconciliation at the expense of civil rights and justice for African Americans. “When you made your Southern tour. . . we saw how cunningly you catered to Southern race prejudice and proscription. . . .”

President McKinley seemed to agree and share their anger at southern voter fraud and disfranchisement. He openly stated: “Nobody has the temerity to assert that there has been any decrease or diminution of the Republican population to account for this change. No depopulation, no plague or pestilence has swept them from the face of the country; but oppressed, bullied and terrorized, they stand mute and dumb in the exercise of citizenship, politically paralyzed; and Congress not only refuses to provide a remedy, but is seeking to break down existing guarantees. Is this system of disfranchisement to be further permitted? Is the Republican sentiment thus be to be hushed in the South, and how long? . . . I answer, No, No! but that the whole power of the Federal Government must be exhausted in securing to every citizen, black or white, rich or poor, everywhere within the limits of the Union, every right, civil and political, guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws....”

Shrugging off the warnings of his personal guard, a jovial President McKinley dove into the crowd eager to shake hands with him at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901. Before he could shake the hand of Leon Czologosz, he was shot twice at almost point blank range by the angry anarchist. James P. Parker, an African American, grabbed Czolgosz preventing him from being shot again. Despite early optimism that the president would recover by September 14th he was dead.

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.