Calvin Coolidge presided over the apex of American wealth, decadence, and racism: the Roaring Twenties. Never before or since have the rich been wealthier or the poor poorer or the parties more extravagant or Klu Klux Klan more powerful. With millions of members and perhaps tens of millions of sympathizers, the Klan controlled the governments of several states and wreaked havoc across the Deep South, Upper South, and even the Midwest, lynching, beating, threatening, and harassing African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and Native Americans. For generations, they had been left unchecked. For generations, politicians all over the country had kowtowed to their demands or begged their support. Even a supposedly progressive President of the United States had openly expressed sympathy with their cause.
And yet against that tide, Calvin Coolidge, famous for his silence and reluctance to use government power, stood firmly.
1) He signed into a law a bill that made all Native Americans citizens of the United States. Since the Indian Crisis of the 1820s that led up to the Trail of Tears, the fact that the Native American Tribes were technically “independent nations” within the United States and their members therefore not “citizens” had been used as the major legal loophole to justify the theft of Indian land, the kidnapping of Indian children, and the relegation of Indians to miserable reservations where poverty was inescapable. He also instructed the Department of the Interior to begin major programs intended to make the Indian Reservations that dotted the western United States less horrible places to live. They weren’t hugely successful in that effort, as a trip to most American Indian reservations today will show, but Coolidge was a huge leap forward from his illustrious, progressive predecessor Teddy Roosevelt, who once joked that the only solution to the Indian problem in America was to exterminate them.
2) In his first State of the Union address after the death of President Warren Harding, he told the United States Congress that the rights of African-Americans were “just as sacred as those of any other citizen” and commanded them to protect them.
3) He constantly lobbied congress to pass tough anti-lynching legislation designed to finally force southern states to hold the mobs (frequently organized by the KKK) who murdered African Americans, often in plain daylight and with innumerable witnesses, accountable for their crimes.
4) He appointed no members of the Klu Klux Klan to public office, while retaining a number of African-Americans in office.
5) When he received a letter from a New York Republican complaining that his local party was considering nominating a black man for the US congress, he wrote back a response that comes as close as any President has ever come to telling one of his own voters, “ I hate you, you racist scum.”
…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 the 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 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 people, whatever their belief or race. A colored man is precisely as much entitled to submit his candidacy in a party primary as any other citizen…
Yours very truly, etc.
Though Coolidge provided serious material assistance to Native Americans, you might have noticed the help he offered African-Americans was mostly cosmetic. High minded talk, but little decisive action. As much as Calvin Coolidge seems to have believed in the fundamental (or at least legal) equality of African-Americans, he didn’t achieve much when it came to actually enforcing that equality.
Because despite the Republican Party dominating both the House and Senate, Coolidge was about the only Republican who believed in anything resembling the equality of black people. The party, in fact, had spent most of the 1910s purging almost all of its black members at the behest of “Lily-White Republicans” who wanted a strictly white Republican Party because they either believed in white supremacy, sympathized with white supremacy, or cared far more about stealing white supremacist votes away from the Democratic Party than they did about living up to the burden of being “The Party of Lincoln.” With Lily-White Republicans and southern Segregationist Democrats in firm alliance, Coolidge, like Truman after him, was unable to come anywhere close to getting a bill passed.
Still, even without congressional support, Coolidge’s administration marked the turning point in the battle for Civil Rights in America. For the first time, meaningful cracks in the white façade had shown: a president had advocated, if quietly, for equality, the Klu Klux Klan had found its first meaningful enemies in the combined forces of the Federal Government and the NAACP, and Native Americans were finally allowed to be Americans. It would still nearly forty years before meaningful Civil Rights legislation would be passed, but from Coolidge to Johnson there would only be one President who didn’t offer at least lip service to the need for Civil Rights legislation, and he would be hurled out of office in a landslide.