From the Inaugural Address of William Howard Taft

I don’t speak about politics on this blog very often. Frankly, I don’t find politics itself to be very interesing: it is a sphere of human discourse that I find all too obsessed with appearance over substance, and expediency over justice. While this might form the basis of a faintly amusing reality TV show, it’s not at all funny when you realize that your rights as an individual are subject to the whims of such forces.

But today is Inauguration Day. President Barack Obama has taken his oath, and is now our 44th President. I think that requires some brief acknowledgement, and this message might serve as a brief letter to my future self regarding what I was feeling on a day where perhaps, just perhaps the nation changed course (hopefully for better).

During the endless news coverage leading up the ceremony, one of the talking heads on the news mentioned that 100 years ago to the day, President Taft asserted during his speech that “Negroes were Americans”, and that it was remarkable that 100 years ago, this was not so completely accepted that it required explicit mention. I found that intriguing, and dug out Taft’s Inaugural from The Avalon Project:

.The Avalon Project : Inaugural Address of William Howard Taft

I’ll quote the part having to do with racial relations, and place some emphasis that I’ll explain below::

I look forward with hope to increasing the already good feeling between the South and the other sections of the country. My chief purpose is not to effect a change in the electoral vote of the Southern States. That is a secondary consideration. What I look forward to is an increase in the tolerance of political views of all kinds and their advocacy throughout the South, and the existence of a respectable political opposition in every State; even more than this, to an increased feeling on the part of all the people in the South that this Government is their Government, and that its officers in their states are their officers.

The consideration of this question can not, however, be complete and full without reference to the negro race, its progress and its present condition. The thirteenth amendment secured them freedom; the fourteenth amendment due process of law, protection of property, and the pursuit of happiness; and the fifteenth amendment attempted to secure the negro against any deprivation of the privilege to vote because he was a negro. The thirteenth and fourteenth amendments have been generally enforced and have secured the objects for which they are intended. While the fifteenth amendment has not been generally observed in the past, it ought to be observed, and the tendency of Southern legislation today is toward the enactment of electoral qualifications which shall square with that amendment. Of course, the mere adoption of a constitutional law is only one step in the right direction. It must be fairly and justly enforced as well. In time both will come. Hence it is clear to all that the domination of an ignorant, irresponsible element can be prevented by constitutional laws which shall exclude from voting both negroes and whites not having education or other qualifications thought to be necessary for a proper electorate. The danger of the control of an ignorant electorate has therefore passed. With this change, the interest which many of the Southern white citizens take in the welfare of the negroes has increased. The colored men must base their hope on the results of their own industry, self-restraint, thrift, and business success, as well as upon the aid and comfort and sympathy which they may receive from their white neighbors of the South.

There was a time when Northerners who sympathized with the negro in his necessary struggle for better conditions sought to give him the suffrage as a protection to enforce its exercise against the prevailing sentiment of the South. The movement proved to be a failure. What remains is the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution and the right to have statutes of States specifying qualifications for electors subjected to the test of compliance with that amendment. This is a great protection to the negro. It never will be repealed, and it never ought to be repealed. If it had not passed, it might be difficult now to adopt it; but with it in our fundamental law, the policy of Southern legislation must and will tend to obey it, and so long as the statutes of the States meet the test of this 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. There is in the South a stronger feeling than ever among the intelligent well-to-do, and influential element in favor of the industrial education of the negro and the encouragement of the race to make themselves useful members of the community. The progress which the negro has made in the last fifty years, from slavery, when its statistics are reviewed, is marvelous, and it furnishes every reason to hope that in the next twenty-five years a still greater improvement in his condition as a productive member of society, on the farm, and in the shop, and in other occupations may come.

The negroes are now Americans. Their ancestors came here years ago against their will, and this is their only country and their only flag. They have shown themselves anxious to live for it and to die for it. Encountering the race feeling against them, subjected at times to cruel injustice growing out of it, they may well have our profound sympathy and aid in the struggle they are making. We are charged with the sacred duty of making their path as smooth and easy as we can. Any recognition of their distinguished men, any appointment to office from among their number, is properly taken as an encouragement and an appreciation of their progress, and this just policy should be pursued when suitable occasion offers.

But it may well admit of doubt whether, in the case of any race, an appointment of one of their number to a local office in a community in which the race feeling is so widespread and acute as to interfere with the ease and facility with which the local government business can be done by the appointee is of sufficient benefit by way of encouragement to the race to outweigh the recurrence and increase of race feeling which such an appointment is likely to engender. Therefore the Executive, in recognizing the negro race by appointments, must exercise a careful discretion not thereby to do it more harm than good. On the other hand, we must be careful not to encourage the mere pretense of race feeling manufactured in the interest of individual political ambition.

Personally, 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. Meantime, if nothing is done to prevent it, a better feeling between the negroes and the whites in the South will continue to grow, and more and more of the white people will come to realize that the future of the South is to be much benefited by the industrial and intellectual progress of the negro. The exercise of political franchises by those of this race who are intelligent and well to do will be acquiesced in, and the right to vote will be withheld only from the ignorant and irresponsible of both races.

The thing that I found interesting was that even while Taft was asserting that Negroes were Americans, he was asserting the rights of states to create literacy tests (what we now refer to as Jim Crow laws) to keep the “uneducated and uninformed” from participating in elections. Such laws were passed in many states, and were routinely used to prevent blacks from registering to vote. It wasn’t until the 1960s that these laws were struck down, by the Voting Rights act of 1965, and by decisions in the Supreme Court like Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, and South Carolina v. Katzenback. Yesterday, we celebrated Martin Luther King Day, and of course Dr. King was responsible for voter registration drives in Alabama, precisely because of this issue.

As I watched the news coverage, there is one thing that I realized, looking at the images of African-Americans waiting for the inauguration to begin. There is something in their faces that I can understand intellectually, but which I acknowledge I cannot feel, at least with anything approaching their intensity. I voted for Obama because I believe he is a thoughtful man, with good ideas and good ideals. But for many Americans, he’s much more than that. He’s a symbol of progress.

Here’s hoping that he’ll be more than symbol, that he’ll be an agent of real change.

Good luck, Mr. President.