Following the first world war, large population shifts had raised racial tensions throughout much of the country. As the 1920 Republican presidential nominee, Harding had advocated civil rights for blacks, in spite of wide opposition among white voters. At the time, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reported that lynchings claimed the lives of an average of two African-Americans per week.
Speaking in Birmingham, Harding voiced his support for anti-lynching bills pending in Congress. Legislation seeking to curb the practice was initially sponsored in 1918 by Congressman Leonidas Dyer of Missouri and Senator (later Vice-President) Charles Curtis of Kansas, both Republicans. The bills called for $10,000 fines to be levied against any county where a lynching occurred, for the prosecution of negligent state and county officials in federal courts and for the lodging of federal murder charges against participants.
I have been searching online for a transcript of Harding's speech, but have been unsuccessful this far. However I did locate a copy of a speech Harding gave five days later (celebrating the semi-centennial of the founding of Birmingham, Alabama), which can be found here. In the speech Harding stated:
"I want to see the time come when black men will regard themselves as full participants in the benefits and duties of American citizenship; when they will vote for Democratic candidates, if they prefer the Democratic policy on tariff or taxation, or foreign relations, or what-not; and when they will vote the Republican ticket for like reasons...
"I believe in absolute equality in the paths of knowledge and culture, equality opportunity for those who strive, equal admiration for those who achieve; in matters social and racial a separate path, each pursuing his own inherited traditions, preserving his own race purity and race pride; equality in things spiritual; agreed divergence in the physical and material."
Although the House approved the anti-lynching bill in 1922, a group of Southern Democrats mounted a successful filibuster against it in the Senate. Efforts to enact similar legislation languished on Capitol Hill until the 1930s, when Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Congressman Edward Costigan of Colorado (both Democrats) took up the cause. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, refused to back their bill, fearing it would cost him Southern electoral support and jeopardize his 1936 reelection bid. It took 42 more years for Congress to enact broad civil rights legislation that, among other provisions, protected blacks against officially sanctioned discrimination. In 2005, the Senate passed a resolution formally apologizing for its repeated failure to enact anti-lynching bills.
I can only imagine what kind of reception Harding was met with when he gave these speeches. Whatever his legacy may be, Warren Harding is to be admired for his courageous advocacy for racial equality at a time and place in which such candor would not have been popular or politically advantageous. It's nice to know that there have been times when principles mattered more than politics. Hopefully we have not seen the last of those times.