William Howard Taft on Negro Progress

Program Information

Series: A Moment in Time
Duration: 00:05:41
Year Produced: 2008

In the middle of a horrific winter storm, in March 1909, William Howard Taft, took the oath of office and reflected on the future of race relations in America.

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Lead: In the middle of a horrific winter storm, in March 1909, William Howard Taft, took the oath of office and reflected on the future of race relations in America.

Intro.: A Moment in Time with Dan Roberts.

Content: Almost 10 inches of moist snow blanketed D.C. on March 4, 1909. Howling winds and temperatures hovering around the freezing mark ripped up trees, telegraph and telephone poles and brought transportation to a standstill.

The New York Times reported that 6,000 men with 500 wagons worked through the night clearing snow and shoveling sand on the parade route even while snow and sleet continued to come down. A large crowd, though, assembled in front of the Capitol, but for the first time since the second inauguration of an ailing Andrew Jackson in 1833, 76 years before, the ceremony was moved inside the Capitol.

At 11:45 AM, President Theodore Roosevelt and President-elect Taft strode down the center aisle of the Senate Chamber. After the oath of office was administered, Taft delivered his address, the second longest of a U.S. president. He promised to continue the progressive reforms of Teddy Roosevelt and then spent a considerable time on race relations and discrimination in the South. His sentiments in the inaugural address mirror those contained in one of his speeches recorded on wax cylinder during the campaign.

The Republican platform refers to the Amendments to the Constitution that were passed by the Republican Party for the protection of the Negro. The Negro, in the forty years since he was freed from slavery, has made remarkable progress. He is becoming a more and more valuable member of the communities in which he lives. The education of the Negro is being expanded and improved in every way. The best men of both races in the North as well as in the South ought to rejoice to see growing up among the Southern people an influential element disposed to encourage the Negro in his hard struggle for industrial independence and assured political status.

The Republican Platform adopted in Chicago explicitly demands justice for all men without regard to race or color, and just as explicitly declares for the enforcement and without reservation, in letter and spirit of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. It is needless to state that I stand with my party squarely on that plank in the platform. And I believe that equal justice to all men and the fair and impartial enforcement of these Amendments is in keeping with the real American spirit of fair play.

The irony of Taft’s analysis is just how separated it was from the reality of life as an African American. Sounding like Pollyanna in morning clothes, Taft seems unaware of the waning support of Northerners for black progress, the growth of white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. He appears disconnected indeed ignorant of the newly restrictive southern state constitutions which disenfranchised blacks and poor whites or of the regime of Jim Crow laws, or of the flight of thousands of African-Americans into northern cities. The Republican candidate and new President seems to lack an understanding of the deep rift developing in the black community between the accommodationists such as Booker T. Washington and the growing radical approach to race relations exemplified by W.E.B. DuBois. It is almost as if, if he says these encouraging words a developing social cancer can be dismissed or at least ignored.

Taft’s upbeat approach reveals an ambiguity, indeed a drift away from the traditional Republican advocacy for the African American and in the direction of the attitude of most people, north and south. American’s commitment to full equality was conditioned and marginalized by deep racial prejudice. It would be only three short decades before blacks would be on the search for a new political champion finding it in the post-Roosevelt Democratic Party. This shift also affected the Republicans. After many years in the political wilderness, in the 1960s the GOP found its political revival among southern white voters, mostly former Democrats, dubious of, indeed, opposed to full social and political equality for blacks.

At the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.