President Calvin Coolidge: Civil Rights Pioneer

June 16, 2016

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President Calvin Coolidge gives the commencement address at Howard University, June 6, 1924. (Library of Congress)

President Calvin Coolidge is known for many things, including his championing of limited government, his deft handling of the 1919 Boston Police Strike, and his responsible stewardship of the federal budget. But how often do we recall his pioneering gestures to improve race relations in the fraught decade of the 1920s? We were recently reminded of President Coolidge’s noble actions by the Hon. Kurt Schmoke, president of the University of Baltimore and former Baltimore mayor.

A few years ago President Schmoke wrote an article at Politico.com about President Calvin Coolidge’s June 6, 1924 commencement address at Howard University, a historically black institution in Washington, D.C. In his article President Schmoke referenced Coolidge’s speech, in which the President spoke of his high regard for the record of service black soldiers exhibited during the First World War: “The colored people have repeatedly proved their devotion to the high ideals of our country. They gave their services in the war with the same patriotism and readiness that other citizens did …. The propaganda of prejudice and hatred which sought to keep the colored men from supporting the national cause completely failed. The black man showed himself the same kind of citizen, moved by the same kind of patriotism, as the white man.”

Schmoke also notes that President Coolidge called for funds to be appropriated to establish a medical school at Howard University in his first State of the Union message to Congress in December 1923. “About half a million dollars is recommended for medical courses at Howard University to help contribute to the education of 500 colored doctors needed each year,” the President said. By this act, Coolidge hoped to improve the state of medical care for the black population. He also sought to grow the black middle class by adding more black professionals to society.

Not only that, but Coolidge spoke out in defense of the political enfranchisement of blacks. In 1924 Army Sergeant Charles Gardner wrote to Coolidge in protest when Republicans nominated a black dentist as their candidate in New York’s 21st Congressional District, based in Harlem. Coolidge’s response encapsulated his disdain for racism: “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.”

These are just a few examples of President Coolidge’s noble record of encouraging America to set aside the sad legacy of racism and look forward to the fulfillment of the basic ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence. All Coolidge fans can be proud of how the President judged people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

6 Responses to “President Calvin Coolidge: Civil Rights Pioneer”

  1. Madelyn Price

    I always thought of Coolidge as a man of silence, but this changes everything. He stood up for his ideals, and in his silence came a protest. He really, I believe, is what America needs right now.

  2. I was very touched by President Coolidge’s commitment to uplifting all members of society. He appears very thoughtful and understood the long-term consequences of not leaving any one segment of the population behind because of the color of their skin.

  3. Marc Parella

    Goldwater emulates Coolidge in 1964 and is emasculated as a racist. And yet a sobering review of the Coolidge record is clear: that equality comes from those who advocate for it… not pander to it.

  4. Raymond

    Indeed. Those who champion it and not pander to it. You could also say “those that champion equality, not those who stand idly by and say “I don’t get in the way of it”. Goldwater and the libertarian applications starting with Nixon through Reagan did just that. They supported no government action that supporting racism, but equally so they supported no government action that actively worked to defeat it where it already existed. Example would be that the American middle class starting the into 1940s was built off many things to include easy credit through the FHA program and the GI bill for returning soldiers, and unions. from 1940s to the civil rights movement, african americans and latins (and also indian and pakistani americans to name a few) were openly denied access to these items of those decades. The result was the equivalent of having a high speed internet for day trading for one group, and a low speed internet for others competing to get the same access for information for trades. So after decades of one group benefiting and the other trying to keep up but simply not being able to, this was officially corrected. However the damage had already been done. What Goldwater types and many people who speak today insist is that while they agree these events I named are tragic, they argue that there is no justification to address it directly…. often saying my even speaking it is the error.

  5. Chris Gregory

    The role of police unions in the 21st century in protecting and enabling police brutality and racism, highlighted by the crisis in Minneapolis cause by George Floyd’s death, points to another lesson we can learn from Coolidge on civil rights. In the face of the 1919 Boston police strike, Coolidge steadfastly rejected the police’s right to unionize, fired the entire force, and rebuilt it from scratch. If only mayors and governors would have the courage to do so in 2020. Police unions have no place in a democracy. Coolidge shows that the long tradition of American conservatism offers real solutions to the racial injustices that persist today.

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