“Calvin Coolidge and Race: His Record in Dealing with the Racial Tensions of the 1920s”

This excellent essay by Alvin S. Felzenberg highlights in bold relief how courageous and characteristically sensible Mr. Coolidge was when it came to race. It is widely unknown that he was the first President to push forward a national discussion on these issues, not Lyndon Johnson or any of Coolidge’s five predecessors. But that is not all he did. He also publicly confronted the Klan in public speeches and events around the nation, he acted decisively to end segregation policies inherited from the Wilson years and he reminded Congress of their Constitutional duty to uphold equality under the law through anti-lynching legislation. Even more, his correspondence with various folks looks like a “who’s who” of minority leaders of the 1920s. He commuted the prison sentence of Marcus Garvey. He detested the veiled racism of affirmative action and made sure that his appointment of people like Perry Howard to the Justice Department were made for their character and competence not their color. He kept an open door in his pursuit of advice from attorneys like Ruth W. Whaley and educators like Howard University’s Emmett Scott, who praised Coolidge’s defense of “ordered liberty,” understood by Americans at the time as responsible self-government. “Law and order” for “blacks” was not a racist code phrase, it was that wonderful coupling of freedom with responsibility. Scott continued,

This address brought great encouragement to thoughtful representatives of the twelve million colored people of the United States. The principles above stated by you include most or all of what they hold near and dear in connection with their citizenship. The one thing for which they have struggled since the Republican Party conferred upon them … freedom and enfranchisement has been this American ideal of “ordered liberty.” The colored people suffer many disabilities among them persecution by a hooded order which seeks to exclude them from the privileges of American citizenship. They also suffer from discrimination in the Federal service and from segregation in many Departments of our government. This discrimination is a legacy which has come to your administration. They know Calvin Coolidge. They know his traditional friendship and they know of his distinguished services in behalf of their race.

Perhaps most importantly, while one President (Woodrow Wilson) was promoting a truly bigoted spin on America’s past, the novel turned film “The Birth of a Nation,” Senator Coolidge was instrumental in shutting it down in Boston theaters. His unbiased respect for all people was simply who he was, not a device to win political power. He is ignorantly attacked today as another racist relic of our prejudiced past. The truth, if actually sought however, shows that minorities had few friends as brave and loyal as Mr. Calvin Coolidge.

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