Fifty years from its founding, Birmingham inspired a presidential visit. But Warren Harding’s speech surprised a Roaring Twenties audience ignorant of the city’s future in matters of race.
In October of 1921 Birmingham was 50 years old–old enough to be sensible, young enough to be carefree.
On Wednesday morning, Oct. 26, Birmingham was all dressed up and awaiting the crowning event of her Golden Anniversary – the visit of President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding. The skies were as blue as a day in June, with not a cloud in sight. Though it was autumn, the day was hot – plenty of bright sunshine.
The presidential party arrived on a special train over the Southern Railway at 8:45 a.m. As it turned into the Terminal Station, the President was accorded a 21-gun salute by gunners of the Alabama National Guard. At that moment, all industrial plants, shops, fire engines and train engines — anything that could make noise – sounded their whistles and engines through all quarters of the city.
There were 32 people in the presidential entourage, including Secretary of War John Weeks, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, Alabama Sen. Oscar Underwood, reporters from New York and Washington, D.C., the Associated Press, United Press and International News services. They proceeded down Fifth Avenue North to the Tutwiler Hotel with thousands of people lining the streets. At 10 o’clock a grand civic parade of 10 marching bands looped the entire downtown business district for more than an hour.
Around noon, Mr. Harding began an address from a rostrum at Woodrow Wilson Park [now Linn Park], in front of one of the largest gatherings in Birmingham up to that time, as many as 40,000 people. A large section of the park, bounded by a wooden railing, was set aside for black people.
Outside the park, the voices of newsboys called out the noon editions of the newspapers: The News! The News! All About President Harding!
The crowd listened to the president with great interest. At the beginning of his speech, he praised Birmingham: “Mr. Mayor, Citizens of Birmingham, and People of the South: . …We have come here to pay tribute to the marvelous achievement of a brief half-century to which this city and its industries stand as a monument. They testify to us how far the South has progressed in a single generation; the generation since slavery was abolished and the role of free labor and unfettered industrial opportunity became the rule of all our great republic.”
Then the president spoke frankly, turning to his left to address many of his remarks to the “Negro” section. He appealed to the nation to “lay aside old prejudices and old antagonisms” and to support a constructive policy of racial relationship. In his soothing voice of “velvet” as the newspapers called it, he spoke of the right of the American Negro to broad political, economic, and educational advantages. When he called for economic equality, a thunder of applause came up from the segregated section.
Then Mr. Harding turned to the white section. Above the din of the crowd, he departed from his prepared remarks to say: “Whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for that equality.” There was another roar from the black section when Mr. Harding looked to them again, laid down his manuscript, and said: “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 can’t say in every direction and to all people exactly alike.”
At the close of the President’s address, more cheers broke out, and a band played “Dixie.” Mr. Harding shook hands all around and walked to his automobile. His day was filled with more activities and he didn’t depart Birmingham until after midnight.
The city was startled by the president’s remarks. Most thought he would deliver the usual gushing speech, mixing in just enough substance to give it national scope. No one expected such affirmative support of black and white racial equality.
When news of the speech reached Washington the next day, it was the talk of that town as well. Many politicians believed that Harding, in mentioning the issue of race, had tarnished the most enthusiastic reception he had received since his inauguration. Southern Democrats privately criticized the speech. Republicans commended it as “Lincolnesque,” a courageous address delivered in the heart of the South.
Sources: The Birmingham News and Birmingham Age-Herald newspapers.
[This article is first in a series of relevant, dated news stories written from Birmingham newspaper archives. Guest contributor Art Black is a technical writer for KBR engineering firm in Birmingham. He is currently conducting research on Rickwood Field.]