On this day in 1921, President Warren G. Harding delivers a speech in Alabama in which he condemns lynchings—illegal hangings committed primarily by white supremacists against African Americans in the Deep South.
Although his administration was much maligned for scandal and corruption, Harding was a progressive Republican politician who advocated full civil rights for African Americans and suffrage for women. He supported the Dyer Anti-lynching Bill in 1920. As a presidential candidate that year, he gained support for his views on women’s suffrage, but faced intense opposition on civil rights for blacks. The 1920s was a period of intense racism in the American South, characterized by frequent lynchings. In fact, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) reported that, in 1920, lynching claimed, on average, the lives of two African Americans every week.
During the 1920 presidential campaign, Harding’s ethnicity became a subject of debate and was used by his opponents to cast him in a negative light. Opponents claimed that one of Harding’s great-great-grandfathers was a native of the West Indies. Harding rebuffed the rumors, saying he was from white “pioneer stock” and persisted in his support of anti-lynching laws. Although the anti-lynching bill made it through the House of Representatives, it died in the Senate. Several other attempts to pass similar laws in the first half of the 20th century failed. In fact, civil rights for blacks were not encoded into law until Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Harding’s public denunciation of lynching would appear insincere if one were to believe allegations that he had actually been inducted into the Ku Klux Klan while in office. In 1987, historian Wyn Wade published The Fiery Cross, in which a former Ku Klux Klan member claimed to have witnessed Harding’s initiation into the Klan on the White House lawn. Scholars have since pored over Harding’s papers, but have found no evidence to support this allegation.