The Presidential Response to the Tulsa Riot

“For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness. But just because history is silent, it doesn't mean that it did not take place... And while darkness can hide much, it can never erase what happened. Thats why were here: to shine a light, to make sure America knows the story in full.”

The Tulsa riots noted by President Biden are a painful episode among many acts of racist violence in the United States.  One of the largely hidden parts of the history of this event is the Afro-idealist response of an American President:  Warren Harding.  June 7, 2021, is the 100th anniversary of Harding’s commencement speech at Lincoln University on June 7, 1921.  Mere days after the violent destruction of black wall street in Tulsa, Harding made a point of leaving Washington D.C. and attending commencement for America’s first HBCU:  Lincoln University.  Harding’s actions were a rhetorical strategy known as enactment.  His actions embodied a message he wanted to send.  Harding responded to the hateful violence at Tulsa by going to a bright light of black education in Pennsylvania.  He began his remarks by saying to the black graduates gathered:  “My fellow countrymen.”  He also prayed publicly at the event that such violence at Tulsa not happen again.  He continued in his remarks:  “Despite the demagogues, the idea of our oneness as Americans has risen superior to every appeal to mere class and group,” Harding declared. And so, I wish it might be in this matter of our national problem of races.”

On Monday, June 1 with regard to Biden’s remarks at Tulsa,  USA Today falsely reported “For a century, the Tulsa race massacre of May 31, 1921, went largely ignored by sitting U.S. presidents, never prompting a trip specifically to honor those killed in the once-thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood until now.”  In the next paragraph, they acknowledge that Harding was shocked and he hoped such a spectacle would never again be witnessed in this country,” USA Today does not acknowledge that those remarks were made at Lincoln and were an immediate and intentional response to the violence at Tulsa. 

The events of Tulsa were not isolated and there were dozens of such events in the early 20th century.  These violent activities by white supremacists peaked in 1919 after years of encouragement from the racist rhetoric and policies of President Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson segregated the federal workforce as president.  Wilson hosted a screening of the racist movie Birth of a Nation and as president of Princeton did not believe blacks were suitable to the kind of collegiate education Harding honored at the June 7, 1921 commencement.  Wilson endorsed “scientific” views of blacks as inferior and that leadership helped encourage violent events like those at Tulsa and elsewhere.  The silence surrounding Wilson’s successors of Harding and Coolidge should be an important part of our memory today. 

After these racist incitements from the Wilson White House, the American people had a unique opportunity to respond in the presidential election of 1920.  For the first time, women would have the right to vote -- including black women outside of the South.  Warren Harding, who was attacked by academics as “not white” and had been attacked as a child with racial slurs but was elected in a landslide with Calvin Coolidge as vice-president.  The only states that did not vote for Harding and Coolidge were states in the south from Texas to Virginia where black men and women could largely not vote.  Under Harding and Coolidge, racist lynchings declined from more than 70 a year to seven -- a 90% decline.  Harding later went into Birmingham, Alabama in October 1921 and proclaimed at the recently renamed Woodrow Wilson city park: 

"When I suggest the possibility of economic equality between the races, I mean it precisely the same way and to the same extent that I would mean it if I spoke of equality of economic opportunity as between members of the same race," Harding said. "Whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a lie you must stand for that equality." Looking at the black section of the segregated auditorium where he was speaking, he continued, "I want to be looking in their direction when I say these things because I am speaking to North and South alike, white and blacks alike. I am never going to say anything that I cant say in every direction and to all people exactly alike.”

A congressional member from Mississippi at the event denounced the speech as  “a blow to the white civilization of America.” These were also important and stunning remarks aimed squarely at racist segregation in the South which had rejected the Harding/Coolidge ticket just one year before.  The economic power of black Americans was clearly in view and lay at the heart of the massacre in Tulsa.  After Harding’s death in 1923, President Coolidge repeated this HBCU spectacle by attending and speaking at the commencement of Howard University in 1924 where he commended both the equality and heroism of black students. In the 1924 election, New Yorkers tried to stop a black man from running for public office and implored Coolidge to weigh in on the local race to preserve preferences for white candidates. Coolidge wrote to a local newspaper to declare: 

“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 purpose 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. You have suggested that in some fashion I should bring influence to bear to prevent the possibility of a colored man being nominated for Congress. In reply, I quote my great predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt: …I cannot consent to take the position that the door of hope -- the door of opportunity -- is to be shut upon any man, no matter how worthy, purely upon the grounds of race or color.” 

Coolidge gained essentially the same electoral results in his re-election of 1924, with the South repudiating his candidacy. 

There are at least four major measures of presidential quality provided by experts.  Wilson consistently rates near or in the top ten Presidents.  Harding ranks at or near the very bottom and Coolidge also receives subpar marks from academic experts.  It is this vicious ideological silence about presidents like Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge and the reciprocal reactionary hagiography protecting racial supremacism defended by Wilson that should be carefully examined by the public today. Harding’s speech on June 7, 1921, at Lincoln University should be remembered for the rebuke of racism that was needed and its contribution to “the story in full.”

Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of rhetoric and director of speech and debate at Southern Methodist Unviersity in Dallas, Texas.  He is the author of four academic books including his recent work:  Debate as Global Pedagogy:  Rwanda Rising. 

Image: Library of Congress

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