Saturday, May 9, 2015

Harding on Race—Birmingham, 1921

In October 1921, President Warren Harding had journeyed to Birmingham for the pageantry honoring the fiftieth birthday of what a booster called "the Magic City of the World, the marvel of the South, the miracle of the Continent, the dream of the Hemisphere, the vision of all Mankind." It was perhaps because Hugo Black had just won an acquittal for the Klan person who assassinated Father James Coyle that Harding was inspired to abandon his boilerplate congratulations and discourse instead on "the problem of democracy everywhere," race. "Whether you like it or not," Harding told the white members of his segregated audience, "unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for that equality." 
Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (2001, with 2012 Afterword), p. 455.

The full speech is more complicated. There are some amazingly great lines:
It is a matter of the keenest national concern that the South shall not be encouraged to make its colored population a vast reservoir of ignorance, to be drained away by the processes of migration into all other sections.
I would like to see an education that would fit every man not only to do his particular work as well as possible but to rise to a higher plane if he would deserve it. For that sort of education I have no fears, whether it be given to a black man or a white man. From that sort of education, I believe, black men, white men, the whole Nation, would draw immeasurable benefit. 
and his conclusion:
If we are just and honest in administering justice, if we are alive to perils and meet them in conscience and courage, the achievement of your first half century will be magnified tenfold in the second half, and the glory of your city and your country will be reflected in the happiness of a great people, greater than we dream, and grander for understanding and the courage to be right.
But there is a lot that is cringeworthy too:
Men of both races may well stand uncompromisingly against every suggestion of social equality. Indeed, it would be helpful to have that word "equality" eliminated from this consideration; to have it accepted on both sides that this is not a question of social equality, but a question of recognizing a fundamental, eternal, and inescapable difference. We shall have made real progress when we develop an attitude in the public and community thought of both races which recognize the difference
But there must be such education among the colored people as will enable them to develop their own leaders, capable of understanding and sympathizing with such a differentiation between the races as I have suggested$mdash;leaders who will inspire the race with proper ideals of race, pride, or national pride, of national pride, of an honorable destiny, an important participation in the universal effort for advancement of humanity as a whole. Racial amalgamation there can not be.
W.E.B. DuBois wrote an essay celebrating Harding's messages and showing the nonsense in the rest.

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