March 4, 1909 – Newly Elected President Taft Applauds the End of Racism in the South

On this day in history, a mere twelve years after the Supreme Court sanctioned racial segregation in public facilities in Plessy v. Ferguson, William Howard Taft delivered his inaugural address, speaking in depth about all the progress made in the South toward the rights of African Americans.

U.S. President, William Howard Taft, center, reviewing the parade after his inauguration as 
President March 4, 1909.

U.S. President, William Howard Taft, center, reviewing the parade after his inauguration as 
President March 4, 1909.

The new president assured his fellow Americans, in a variation of “some of my best friends are blacks”:

I have not the slightest race prejudice or feeling, and recognition of its existence only awakens in my heart a deeper sympathy for those who have to bear it or suffer from it, and I question the wisdom of a policy which is likely to increase it.”

He then discussed the Fifteenth Amendment (which granted African American men the right to vote by declaring 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.”).

President Taft admitted that the fifteenth amendment had not been generally observed in the past, but “the tendency of Southern legislation today is toward the enactment of electoral qualifications which shall square with that amendment.”

When President Taft took office, however, as Ira Katznelson observes in his book Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time,

By 1908, the South had perfected a political system to guard white supremacy successfully even in counties with black majorities. A host of mechanisms ensured virtually no chance to vote for African-Americans, and a low-turnout franchise for white citizens. These devices included white primaries, declarations that political parties were restricted private clubs, poll taxes, property tests, literacy tests, and understanding clauses that tested for arcane knowledge of the provisions in state constitutions.”

%22Colored%22_drinking_fountain_from_mid-20th_century_with_african-american_drinking

In fact, throughout the years since 1900, racial conflict had plagued the nation. Some of the better known race riots include incidents in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1900, Springfield, Ohio in 1904, Brownsville, Texas, in 1906 and Springfield, Illinois in 1908.

Legislation designed to solidify “Jim Crow” practices in the South also proliferated in this time period, such as anti-miscegenation laws (Alabama, 1901; Florida, 1903, Mississippi 1906, Louisiana, 1908), as well as provisions mandating separation of schools and public accommodations. The Ku Klux Klan was also gaining ground again in the South, destined to reach its peak in the 1920s.

jim-crow-laws

President Taft contradicted himself in the speech, by acknowledging that “race feeling” is in some instances “widespread and acute.” He counseled that in those circumstances, however, governments should avoid exacerbating the problem by appointing members of the negro race to local public offices. This might, after all, “interfere with the ease and facility with which the local government business can be done by the appointee.”

Above all, Taft insisted:

…so long as the statutes of the States meet the test of [the Fifteenth Amendment] and are not otherwise in conflict with the Constitution and laws of the United States, it is not the disposition or within the province of the Federal Government to interfere with the regulation by Southern States of their domestic affairs.”

President William Howard Taft.

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