On October 26, 1921 President Warren G. Harding visited Birmingham, Alabama, which, founded in 1871, was celebrating fifty years of being a city in the New South. While the Fifteenth Amendment passed in 1869 stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the reality was different. “Black Codes,” or state laws that restricted the freedoms of African Americans, managed to obstruct black voting by enforced literacy tests, poll taxes, hiding the locations of the polls, economic pressures, and threats of physical violence.
President Harding arrived at the Birmingham Terminal Station early in the morning to occupy the lead car in a grand parade. He delivered an official address to the city at 11:30 a.m. to a large crowd. Historians report that Harding’s plan was to use this speech to make his first public show of support for the Republican National Committee’s plans to reorganize the party in the South. He argued that race was becoming an issue and could no longer remain a solely regional concern. He spoke of the great migrations of black laborers to the North during World War I, and took note of the service given by black soldiers during the war. Then he audaciously referred to political equality as a guarantee of the U.S. Constitution: “Let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.” While white listeners fell largely silent, African Americans cheered from their segregated section of the park. Calling for “an end of prejudice” Harding went further than any president since Abraham Lincoln.