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.

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