One of the more vexing slanders that somehow persist in unmoderated internet forums is the totally baseless falsehood that Calvin Coolidge was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m not going to increase traffic to those sites by putting links here, but anyone who googles “Coolidge” and “KKK” gets to those pages where someone states this nonsense as fact; sometimes a History Channel documentation is cited as the source. This post is one more attempt to set the record straight.
President Coolidge shaking hands with Mississippi river hero Thomas Lee, 1925
Not only does not one of Coolidge’s biographers mention this, but the very idea runs counter to everything in Coolidge’s upbringing and indeed his actions as president. While some may wish that Coolidge had spoken out more forcefully against racism from the “bully pulpit”, he was never silent on the question of religious and racial intolerance, and his public statements are numerous. Coolidge biographer McCoy opines that Coolidge viewed the Klan as an organization that would shrivel and die when denied publicity. He therefore seldom denounced it by name, but consistently chose venues where he could demonstrate his sympathy for and solidarity with the Klan’s intended victims. Dedicating a hospital for African-American veterans in the heart of the South – Tuskegee, Alabama – the president closed his remarks by saying,
“Those who stir up animosities, those who create any kind of hatred and enmity are not ministering to the public welfare. We have come out of the war with a desire and a determination to live at peace with all the world. Out of a common suffering and a common sacrifice there came a new meaning to our common citizenship. Our greatest need is to live in harmony, in friendship, and in good will, not seeking an advantage over each other but all trying to serve each other.”
Similarly, in 1924, Coolidge reprimanded a man complaining by letter from New York about the Republican Party having nominated an African American for Congress:
“During the war five hundred thousand colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it,” and reminded the correspondent that the Constitution “guarantees equal rights to all (…) citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color.”
During that same campaign, Coolidge’s running mate Charles G. Dawes spoke out forcefully against the Klan while in Augusta, Maine, expressly against the wishes of local Republican Party officials, but apparently with the backing and approval of the president.
All in all, it must be admitted that Coolidge’s response on civil rights was not vigorous, although it was as good as Harding’s and certainly better than Wilson’s. He requested Congress on several occasions to use its power to punish lynchings, he referred complaints of voting rights violations to the Department of Justice, and he did secure some increases in appropriations for the education of African Americans. While stopping short of ending segregation in government offices as a matter of policy, he did intervene in individual cases and issued directives to stop segregation. He often was in touch with a number of African American leaders, particularly Dr. Robert R. Moton, the principal of the Tuskegee Institute, and James Weldon Johnson, secretary of the NAACP, but only rarely followed up on their concrete suggestions. It has been suggested that inaction by Republican presidents in the 1920s was a factor in the abandonment of the GOP by blacks in favor of the Democrats, which has endured to this day.
I have mentioned before my understanding that Coolidge was a leader of the “hedgehog” type, focusing on a very few big things he wanted to accomplish. It is possible that his interest in matters such as antilynching legislation had to be sidetracked in order to focus on the central themes of efficiency in government, debt reduction and tax reduction.
More on Coolidge and his views on tolerance h e r e.