When people think of presidents who were for civil rights, they tend to think of Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson and sometimes Ulysses Grant as well. All three of these men deserve this reputation, but there are more who deserve recognition they don’t get. Benjamin Harrison, although often regarded as one of the “forgettable” and “custodial” presidents, stood as a consistent advocate for equal legal rights for blacks. His administration made the last major effort until the 1950s to combat the denial of the vote for Southern blacks. He also supported the Lodge Elections Bill, which aimed to enforce voting rights but fell victim to a Senate filibuster. His Attorney General, William H.H. Miller, ordered suits filed over voting rights violations in the South, but Southern juries nullified most of these efforts (Calhoun, 89). This was an excellent contrast to presidents such as Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley, whose approaches to black voting rights were lackadaisical at best. Cleveland was the worst example, having opposed the Lodge Federal Elections Bill, deriding it as the “Force Bill” and along with the McKinley Tariff placed this bill as the centerpiece of the campaign, Democrats alleging that “Negro domination” of the South would occur if it was enacted (Loewen, 398-399). Cleveland believed that all matters pertaining to race belonged on the state level, giving the white South a free hand to do what it pleased.
McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft would not play a particularly active role in working towards improving the legal situation for blacks in the South, but Warren G. Harding would try. In 1920, the Republican platform, which was an expression of what Harding supported, explicitly endorsed an anti-lynching bill in response to post-war racial violence and the high incidence of lynching of Southern blacks. It was also significant that Harding gave a speech in Alabama in 1921 before a segregated audience in which he called for equal citizenship between blacks and whites, leading to cheers from the black section and stone silence from the white section (Bailey, 2016). In 1922, the House passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill by a commanding margin but it died in a Senate filibuster. His successor, Calvin Coolidge, would also advocate to no avail an anti-lynching bill but would successfully give his backing to increasing funding to Howard University and would even give the Commencement Address at the University. While none of these three men have accomplishments in this field that come close to those of Lincoln, Grant, and Johnson, it would nonetheless surprise the layperson to know that support for civil rights was more widespread among the presidents than thought.
Bailey, G. (26 October 2016). This Presidential Speech on Race Shocked the Nation…in 1921. History News Network.
Retrieved from http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/164410
Bushong, W. (2015). The Life and Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. The White House Historical Association.
Calhoun, C.W. (2005). Benjamin Harrison: The American presidents series: The 23rd president, 1889-1893. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
Loewen, J.W. (1999). Lies across America: What our historic sites get wrong. New York, NY: The New Press.
Schmoke, K.L. (8 May 2013). Calvin Coolidge, rights pioneer? Politico.