Like sudden thunder in blue skies: A president scolds the South on race

Jennifer Cohron
Posted 8/3/17

In October 1921, Birmingham threw itself a birthday party.

A New York Times reporter marveled that the city had been “a country post office” only 50 years before and that in five decades it …

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Like sudden thunder in blue skies: A president scolds the South on race

Posted

In October 1921, Birmingham threw itself a birthday party.

A New York Times reporter marveled that the city had been “a country post office” only 50 years before and that in five decades it had transformed “from a hamlet of a few log cabins to a city of skyscrapers, beautiful homes, iron and steel smelters and factories.”

The city was feeling pretty good about itself as a train carrying President Warren G. Harding roared into town at 8:45 a.m. on Oct. 26.

Alabama had been one of only 11 states (all Southern) to support Democrat James M. Cox in the 1920 election, but the leaders of Birmingham chose not to dwell on that fact as they hung patriotic bunting and a picture of Harding on every street corner.

Schoolchildren waving American flags and beauty queens from all 67 counties greeted Harding at the train station. Flowers rained down on the president as he rode through the streets of Birmingham in a white Premocar built in the city by Preston Motors Corporation.

The New York Times, citing “old-time citizens,” speculated that it was the greatest reception in the city’s history. “Birmingham has 180,000 people within its limits and apparently all the residents were out to greet the president,” the paper reported.

At 11:30 a.m. Harding stepped to the podium at Capitol Park (now Linn Park).

“We have come here to pay tribute to the marvelous achievement of a brief half century to which this city and its industries stand as a monument,” Harding said. “They testify to us how far the South has progressed in a single generation: the generation since slavery was abolished and the rule of free labor and unfettered industrial opportunity became the rule of all our great Republic.”

The president then opined that the South had never been given its due for its industrial achievements during the Civil War – “It marked the beginning of that diversification of industry which has made the South of today an industrial as well as an agricultural empire.”

Harding then quickly noted that World War I, so fresh in the memories of all in attendance, had also been transformative for the nation. In particular, a great migration of black Americans from the South to the North and West had brought race relations to the forefront of the national conversation.

Some Southern gentleman surely began to squirm as the president noted that black soldiers had served their country just as patriotically as white soldiers.

Harding expressed a desire for Americans to find “an adjustment of relations between two races in which both can enjoy full citizenship.”

After a quick aside to assure the audience that blacks were not and would never be the social equal of whites, Harding delivered the line that would make national news the next day: “I would say let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.”

Harding then went a step further and advocated for equal educational opportunity.

“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 process of migration into all other sections,” Harding said.

Harding urged the people of Birmingham to “lay aside old prejudices” and “realize its need for him [black citizens] and deal quite fairly with him” in order to keep the new Southern economy expanding in the decades to come.

Never before had a president dared to lecture Southerners on race, and the segregated audience had a mixed reaction to his remarks.

“Parts of the speech appealed to the negroes in the audience and they gave vent to loud and lusty cheers to evidence their approval. On the other hand, only once or twice was there any applause from the white section and in both instances it was scattered,” the New York Times reported.

W.E.B. DuBois later referred to Harding’s speech as “sudden thunder in blue skies,” while also calling the president out on his remarks about social equality – “No system of social uplift which begins by denying the manhood of a man can end by giving him a free ballot, a real education and a just wage.”

Southern politicians were predictably outraged by the president’s speech. The most prophetic response came from Sen. Pat Harrison of Mississippi.

“If the president’s theory is carried to its ultimate conclusion, namely, that the black person, either man or woman, should have full economic and political rights with the white man and white woman, then that means that the black man can strive to become president of the United States, hold a Cabinet position and occupy the highest places of public trust in the nation,” he said.

Three decades later, a future African American secretary of state was born in the city of Birmingham, Ala.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.