February is when we Americans pause to note Black History Month, Valentine’s Day, and Presidents’ Day. Allow me a little literary license to connect all three: Black Americans ought to love Calvin Coolidge.
For multiple reasons, Americans of every ethnicity should get better acquainted with our 30th president. Coolidge was the last chief executive to balance the budget in every year of his presidency. His administration also cut tax rates dramatically and reduced the national debt substantially. After five and a half years in the White House, he left the federal government smaller than he had found it. He earned the nickname “Silent Cal” because he was a quiet, good listener in social settings. Surprisingly, he also held more press conferences than any other president, with an average of nearly two conferences per week.
In 1924, a man named Charles Gardner wrote to Coolidge to protest the Republican Party’s nomination of a black dentist for a New York congressional seat. Coolidge’s unequivocal reply could have been written by Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King Jr.:
My dear Sir:
Your letter is received, accompanied by a newspaper clipping which discusses the possibility that a colored man may be the Republican nominee for Congress from one of the New York districts. Referring to this newspaper statement, you say:
'It is of some concern whether a Negro is allowed to run for Congress anywhere, at any time, in any party, in this, a white man’s country. Repeated ignoring of the growing race problem does not excuse us for allowing encroachments. Temporizing with the Negro whether he will or will not vote either a Democratic or a Republican ticket, as evidenced by the recent turnover in Oklahoma, is contemptible.'
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 defense of the nation of which they are just as truly citizens as are any others. The suggestions 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 propose 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.'
Yours very truly,
A flinty New Englander and staunch individualist, Coolidge never possessed a racist bone in his body. Two months before his response to Gardner, black students greeted him warmly when he delivered the commencement address at Howard University.
“Racial hostility, ancient tradition, and social prejudice,” he told them, “are not to be eliminated immediately or easily. But they will be lessened as the colored people by their own efforts and under their own leaders shall prove worthy of the fullest measure of opportunity..”
In a message to Congress just weeks after taking office in August 1923, Coolidge declared that the rights of the country’s black citizens were “as sacred as those of any other” citizens and that it was “both a public and private duty to protect those rights.”
Coolidge’s predecessor and 1920 running mate, Warren Harding, held similar views, by the way. In October 1921, Harding journeyed to Birmingham, Alabama, to denounce racism in front of an audience of 30,000 — thereby becoming the first American president of the 20th century to openly call for the political equality of blacks. Both presidents, and fellow Republican Herbert Hoover after them, did much to reverse the segregation within the federal government that Democrat President Woodrow Wilson had put in place.
Coolidge strongly pushed for anti-lynching legislation, but it was mostly blocked in Congress by Democrats. Given his personal philosophy as well as his actions as president, it’s inconceivable that Coolidge would praise the pro-Klan film The Birth of a Nation (as Wilson did) or that he would nominate a Klan member to the U.S. Supreme Court (as President Franklin Roosevelt did — namely, Hugo Black).
When black athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Roosevelt snubbed him by inviting only the white Olympians to dinner at the White House. Coolidge would never have been so callous.
Originally, the focus of Presidents’ Day was upon Washington and Lincoln, but in recent years it’s become an opportunity to more broadly assess the records of other presidents as well. It’s especially appropriate this year to dust off old Silent Cal, not just because his basic decency, character, and performance deserve widespread appreciation, but also because on Aug. 2, 2023, we will mark the centennial of his becoming president when Harding suddenly died.
Among the reasons to pay tribute to Coolidge, add this one: On equal rights, he was ahead of his time and much of the country, and way ahead of the other major political party.