On Race Relations and Presidential Power, Part 3

Also see Alvin Felzenberg’s 1988 essay, “Calvin Coolidge and Race: His Record in Dealing with the Racial Tensions of the 1920s,” and his book “The Leaders We Deserved (And a Few We Didn’t),” especially pages 304-310 on Coolidge. The chapter on race relations in the 1920s (chapter 15) in the Wiley Companion to Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover is embarrassingly derelict in assessing the issues it gropes to explain, focusing all its energies on Garvey and DuBois while never mentioning the roles played by Trotter, Mrs. Walker, Booker T. Washington, Robert R. Moton, Emmett Jay Scott, and the numerous others with whom Coolidge dealt, with whom he collaborated, and backed to accomplish important tasks throughout his administration. The Wiley writers proclaim no one group spoke for the black community but then proceed to recount events as if such were, in fact, false (leaving the gravely erroneous impression that the NAACP and Garvey’s movement were the only competing visions then or now). It illustrates how backward scholarship on Cal is even now that these large segments of the record are left out. It is as if the conclusion that Coolidge did nothing on this front must be the final word, all other evidence suppressed to the contrary.

The Importance of the Obvious

The movie hit Boston theaters on April 10, 1915. Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Klansman, D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” met opposition immediately for its overtly racist slant of history, lionizing the Klan while vilifying the “undesired” elements in American society. It had already been shown and endorsed by President Wilson at the White House. Wilson had praised Griffith’s movie as “writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it’s true.” But it was not true. It was quickly becoming officially validated historical revisionism, neatly packaged pro-Klan propaganda. The fight was on to prevent so bigoted a film from gaining further cultural and official affirmation. William M. Trotter, editor of the Boston Guardian, zealously led much of the effort to petition Governor Walsh and the General Court to strengthen the law for its censorship. As the battle moved into the State House, something curious…

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