Libertarians often point out that Progressive-era President Woodrow Wilson (in office 1913-1921), together with his other bad qualities, was thoroughly awful on the subject of civil rights for black Americans: he re-segregated the federal civil service, demoted and snubbed black federal officials and dignitaries, and wrote favorably about the Ku Klux Klan, even helping bring in D.W. Griffith’s Klan-fest “The Birth of a Nation” as the first motion picture to be screened in the White House. Soon a revived version of the Klan had picked up enormous momentum, peaking by the early 1920s at a membership of millions, hostile not just to blacks but to Catholics, Jews, urban intellectuals, and cosmopolitan influences in general.
Then the spell broke. In the second half of the 1920s the Klan’s ranks collapsed, and by 1930 it was but a shadow of its former self, down from millions to perhaps tens of thousands. What happened?
Many things happened, but one of them was the presidency of Calvin Coolidge, who served from 1923 to 1929. The Coolidge Presidential Foundation recently published a piece by University of Baltimore president Kurt Schmoke, formerly mayor of Baltimore, entitled “The Little Known History of Coolidge and Civil Rights.” As Schmoke makes clear, the Vermont-born president’s record was a shining spot in an era that otherwise reflected little credit on American race relations.
Consider, for example, the practice of lynching, widespread and informally tolerated around much of the nation. With the sole exception of the war year of 1917, which had 36, America saw at least 50 lynchings in each year between 1883 and 1922, the last year before Coolidge took office; the recent peak had come at war’s end with 70 lynchings in 1919 followed by a drop to 51 by 1922. But 1923, the year Coolidge took office, saw a drop to 29, and never again was the number to rise above the mid-20s; in his final year, 1929, there were 7. In the 1930s, Congress debated a national anti-lynching law, but Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt was notably tepid toward the idea. Not until 1936 was the number of lynchings consistently reduced to below 10 a year.
Coolidge took a particular interest in the cause of Howard University in Washington, D.C. And he spoke out on behalf of the interests of blacks, the foreign born, and other minorities on many other occasions as well, grounding his views in a civic patriotism that held its distance from nationalist passions of blood and soil. Writes Schmoke:
Coolidge gave his most pointed rebuke to the Klan spirit during his 1925 speech to the American Legion in Omaha, where he said “whether one traces his Americanism back three centuries to the Mayflower, or three years of the steerage, is not half so important as whether his Americanism of to-day is real and genuine. No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat.”
Something to think about on this President’s Day.