Coolidge's forgotten civil rights legacy speaks to us today

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Historian Jon Meacham's 2018 book, "The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels," is an accessible look at previous times of upheaval in our nation's history.

The book's chapter on the early 20th century deals with women's suffrage, the "Red Scare" after World War I and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Meacham writes of the efforts — genuine, but modest by today's standards — of President Warren Harding and his vice president and eventual successor, Calvin Coolidge, to oppose the Klan.

"Taciturn and enigmatic, an embodiment of New England rectitude, frugality and learning, President Coolidge was a more interesting man than either of many of his contemporaries or most historian have thought him," Meacham writes. "Though he, like Harding, refrained from taking the Klan on by name, Coolidge offered the country some glimpses of its better self."

In a footnote, Meacham adds "Coolidge was better on matters of race than is generally thought, if it is thought of at all."

The decision not to attack the Klan by name was done in part to deprive the group of publicity. It seemingly had a positive effect, as did an improving economy, greater restrictions on immigration and a less polarized social atmosphere after World War I.

"Under Coolidge, there came no federal anti-lynching law, but lynchings themselves became less frequent and Ku Klux Klan membership dropped by millions," writes Coolidge biographer Amity Shlaes.

In the five years before Coolidge became president, the number of reported lynchings averaged 59 per year. During the seven years when Coolidge was president for all or part of a year, the number of lynchings decreased by more than threefold.

The reticence to denounce the Klan by name had a cost, however. One Coolidge scholar cited by Meacham claims that this led some African American leaders, particularly younger ones, to question their adherence to the Republican party.

The Coolidge Quarterly

The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation is headquartered in Plymouth Notch and is actively involved in the Coolidge State Historic Site. It publishes the Coolidge Quarterly newsletter devoted to the president's legacy. The decrease in lynchings during the Coolidge administration is quantified by statistics cited by the Quarterly.                                                                                                                        

Kurt Schmoke, president of the University of Baltimore and former mayor of Baltimore, wrote an article in the Nov. 2016 issue of this publication, "The Little Known History of Coolidge and Civil Rights."

In his first State of the Union message in 1923, Coolidge called for a major appropriation to traditionally black Howard University in Washington, D.C.

"Coolidge's $500,000 foundation helped improve medical care and health outcomes for African Americans. It also laid the groundwork for future presidents to build upon, sending more federal dollars to Howard," Schmoke writes. "This enabled the university to catalyze the creation of a middle class in the African American community."

In 1924, Coolidge gave the commencement address at Howard. He cited the exemplary service of African American soldiers in World War I.

"The black man showed himself the same kind of citizen, moved by the same kind of patriotism, as the white man," Coolidge said. "They were tempted, but not one betrayed his country. They came home with many decorations, and their conduct repeatedly won high commendation from both American and European commanders."

A letter and a speech

In August 1924, a black man named Charles H. Roberts, a dentist by trade, was nominated as a Republican to run for Congress in New York's 21st District. A man named Charles F. Gardner wrote to the president to protest.

"It is of some concern whether a Negro is allowed to run for Congress anywhere, at any time, in any party, in this, a white man's country," Gardner wrote. The implication was that the president could do something to stop this candidacy for the Republican nomination.

In a quick reply, which Coolidge two days later released to the press, the president said he "was amazed to receive such a letter." He went on to note the honorable service of a half a million black troops in World War I and to reject the thought he could or would interfere in a local Republican primary.

"Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color. I have taken my oath to support that Constitution. It is the source of your rights and my rights," Coolidge wrote. "A colored man is precisely as much entitled to submit his candidacy in a party primary, as is any other citizen. The decision must be made by the constituents to whom he offers himself, and by nobody else."

According to an article about the exchange in the Coolidge Quarterly by David Pietrusza, the "Brooklyn Times," an African American newspaper, wrote that "The President has made the clearest, quietest and most convincing statement on this subject yet made."

According to Meacham, the African American Chicago "Defender" ran the Coolidge letter under the headline, "Cal Coolidge Tells Kluxer When to Stop."

Coolidge's Oct. 6, 1925 speech to the American Legion Convention, held in Omaha, Nebraska, which can be found online, lays out his thinking on numerous topics, including race, immigration and foreign policy.

That August, the Klan had held a huge rally of 30,000 members on the National Mall in Washington, and this was clearly on the president's mind as he spoke to the veterans.

Here are some excerpts from his speech that may resonate today:

- "Whether one traces his Americanism back three centuries to the Mayflower, or three years to the steerage, is not half so important as whether his Americanism of today is real and genuine. No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are now all in the same boat."

- "If we are to have that harmony and tranquillity, that union of spirit which is the foundation of real national genius and national progress, we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language."

- "It is not possible to learn much from those who uniformly agree with us. But many useful things are learned from those who disagree with us; and even when we can gain nothing our differences are likely to do us no harm."

- "The generally expressed desire of 'America first' can not be criticized. It is a perfectly correct aspiration for our people to cherish. But the problem which we have to solve is how to make America first. It can not be done by the cultivation of national bigotry, arrogance, or selfishness. Hatreds, jealousies, and suspicions will not be productive of any benefits in this direction."

- "Because there are other peoples whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts, we are not warranted in drawing the conclusion that they are adding nothing to the sum of civilization. We can make little contribution to the welfare of humanity on the theory that we are a superior people and all others are an inferior people. We do not need to be too loud in the assertion of our own righteousness."

On his final day in office, March 4, 1929, Coolidge signed a public resolution that initiated a commission to design and construct a national monument to African Americans, according to an article by Rushad L. Thomas in the Coolidge Quarterly. This monument would be a "tribute to the Negro's contributions to the achievement of America."

Due to the opposition of southern Democrats in Congress, the legislation was signed with no funding attached. The project faded from view with the onset of the Great Depression, only to be resurrected during the civil rights era of the 1960s.

The eventual fulfillment of the idea came in September 2016, with the inauguration of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington. Barack Obama, our nation's first African American president, presided at the event.

Mark Rondeau is the Banner's Night Editor. He can be reached at 802-447-7567, ext. 138 or at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com.


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