“Not-So-Silent”: Coolidge and Civil Rights

After writing Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (2009), I’ve bumped into a few articles that come to the same unorthodox conclusions about individuals I profile in my “race reader.” One such “unorthodox” column appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 25 November 2009. In “Not-So-Silent Cal Wrote with Eloquence,” Ryan Cole lauds Coolidge’s Autobiography as an example of his eloquence. Cole concludes that “Barack Obama isn’t the first man of letters in the White House.”

I have been told–but not verified–that Coolidge was the last president to write his own speeches. After reading Coolidge’s writings, published while he was president, I am not surprised in the least. “Silent Cal” could be a man of few words but when he had something to say, he did it like a master; and when delivering speeches, he knew that the audience was as important as the speaker. After all, the Ku Klux Klan was at high tide and he refused their offer to speak and chose instead group forums that represented the very minorities attacked by the Klan!

Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader includes two documents by Coolidge. I note that his record was mixed on race (and other issues) from a classical liberal perspective. Most significantly, he signed the immigration restriction act of 1924 which slammed the door shut on virtually all immigration from outside the Western hemisphere.

Nevertheless, he invoked the Constitution and classical liberal principles to defend blacks and white ethnics (Catholics, Jews) under assault by the KKK. While Coolidge was not a “perfect” president, one can appreciate him all the more because he did not have such an enlarged view of the presidency or of himself. Après Coolidge, presidential humility went out the window, with some presidents more egotistical than others.

Below readers will find some of my commentary followed by an excerpt from one of the documents in Race and Liberty in America (footnotes omitted):

“Coolidge Denounces White Racism” (1924)

Historians often compare “Silent Cal” Coolidge (1872–1933) unfavorably with the activist presidents of the Progressive Era. A survey of academic historians conducted in 1983 found that they rated ­Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson  as  “near  great,”  with  Coolidge  among  the  “ten  worst.” Th­e Ku Klux Klan was the hot civil rights issue of the 1924 election: it was a national organization directing its hatred not only at blacks, but especially at Catholics and others deemed less than “100% American.” Historians fault Coolidge for not denouncing the KKK by name during the campaign. Th­ey fail to note that the Democratic candidate—segregationist  John W.  Davis—called upon Coolidge to speak when the president’s son was dying from an infection—a two-month ordeal that devastated Coolidge. (Consider the irony: Davis is best known for defending segregation in the Brown v. Board case). Soon after his son’s death, Coolidge spoke eloquently of religious and racial toleration before a parade of one hundred thousand Catholics honoring the Holy Name Society. Klan leaders grumbled when the president refused to show up for their parade.

Also compare Coolidge’s strong denunciation of lynching with that of “progressive” presidents ­Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft. In a 1906 address, Roosevelt stated “the greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration, especially by black men, of the hideous crime of rape—the most abominable in all the category of crimes—even worse than murder.” In a 1909 message, Taft blamed lynching on “delays in trials, judgments, and the executions thereof by our courts.”  By contrast, Coolidge made no excuses and urged Congress to punish the “hideous crime of lynching.”

In the following document, President Calvin Coolidge responds to a man who  desired  a  lily-white  government.  ­The  Chicago  Defender,  a  leading  black newspaper,  praised  Coolidge’s  rebuke  with  the  front-page  headline,  “Cal Coolidge Tells Kluxer When to Stop.” Coolidge reprinted this letter in a collection of his presidential addresses.

My dear Sir:

Your letter is received, accompanied by a newspaper clipping which discusses the possibility that a colored man may be the Republican nominee for Congress from one of the New York districts. Referring to this newspaper statement, you say:

“It is of some concern whether a Negro is allowed to run for Congress anywhere, at any time, in any party, in this, a white man’s country. Repeated ignoring of the growing race problem does not excuse us for allowing encroachments. Temporizing with the Negro whether he will or will not vote either  a  Democratic  or  a  Republican  ticket,  as  evidenced  by  the  recent turnover in Oklahoma, is contemptible.”

Leaving  out  of  consideration  the  manifest  impropriety  of  the  President  intruding himself in a local contest for nomination, I was amazed to receive such a letter. During the war 500,000 colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it. ­They took their places wherever assigned in defense of the nation of which they are just as truly citizens as are any others. Th­e suggestion of denying any measure of their full political rights to such a great group of our population as the colored people is one which, however it might  be  received  in  some  other  quarters,  could  not  possibly  be  permitted  by one who feels a responsibility for living up to the traditions and maintaining the principles of the Republican Party. Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color, I have taken my oath to support that Constitution. It is the source of your rights and my rights. I propose to regard it, and administer it, as the source of the rights of all the people, whatever their belief or race. A colored man is precisely as much entitled to submit his candidacy in a party primary, as is any other citizen. ­The decision must be made by the constituents to whom he offers himself, and by nobody else. . . .

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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