Dear Straight Dope:
In regards to our 29th president, Warren G. Harding, I have two questions: Was he really inducted into the KKK during his presidency? Was his induction actually on the White House lawn (I have my doubts about this one)?
John Corrado replies:
You’re right to have doubts about that second question, because it’s the one I can unequivocally answer "no." What small evidence exists that Harding was inducted into the Klan makes no mention of a lawn ceremony – supposedly the deed was done in the privacy of the White House Green Room.
As to whether Harding was ever a member of the Klan – well, that’s an “unlikely” with a “perhaps” and a “but.” Some people say he was, but there’s little evidence to support the claim.
The main piece of evidence we have is from one Alton Young. On his deathbed Young confessed to renowned Klan-fighter Stetson Kennedy that he had been part of a team that had inducted Harding into the Klan during a private White House ceremony. The induction team allegedly was headed by Imperial Wizard William Joseph Simmons, founder of the revived Klan. According to Young, Harding rewarded the members of the induction team with special War Department license plates that allowed them to run red lights. Kennedy tape-recorded this confession and later turned the tapes over to historian Wyn Craig Wade, who then claimed Harding was a Klan member in his book The Fiery Cross (1987).
Unfortunately, that’s about all the evidence there is: one dying Klan member claiming to have inducted Harding and to have received “run red lights for free” license plates in exchange. Harding’s papers became available for public perusal in 1964, but so far no one – including the authors of several new and detailed biographies – has found any corroborating evidence whatsoever that Harding was a member of the Klan.
Fact is, had Harding joined the Klan, there would have been plenty of reasons to do so publicly. Though revived only in 1915, by the mid-’20s the Klan was already a powerful force in American politics – and I don’t mean just Southern politics, as the Klan of the 1870s and the 1960s was. The Klan had its headquarters in Indianapolis; the governor of Indiana was a Klansman. Oklahoma was placed under martial law as the governor tried to stamp out the Klan. Public bodies dominated by the Klan included the state government of Oregon and the city council of Anaheim, California. At the 1924 Democratic National Convention, the delegates voted down a plank condemning the Klan. It’s estimated that more than one in eight Americans was a member of the Klan at its height.
For any politician not relying on immigrant or Catholic votes, membership in the Klan was potentially beneficial. For Harding, it might have served an even better purpose – dispelling old rumors. From the beginnings of Harding’s political career, his opponents claimed he had African ancestors. (Amusingly, the first political opponent to assert this was Amos Kling; as Harding would later marry Kling’s daughter Florence, one has to wonder whether Kling actually believed what he said.) William Estabrook Chancellor, a Wooster college professor, wrote two pamphlet in 1920 allegedly proving Harding’s great-grandmother was black, which would have made Harding legally black in most states. While Chancellor’s "proof" consisted entirely of circumstantial and hearsay evidence, it caused consternation in the Harding camp. The Harding campaign eventually published its own pamphlet detailing the candidate’s ancestry, but the damage had been done.
In addition to rumors about his ancestry, Harding had a brother-in-law who had gotten married in a Catholic ceremony at a time when Catholicism was considered a seditious religion. What better way to prove to the racist masses that you’re not so bad by joining an anti-black, anti-Catholic organization like the Klan? If that were Harding’s reason for joining, though, you’d think he would have been much more public about it – why do something to quell rumors if you’re not going to tell anybody? Besides, the rumors were at their height in 1920 when Harding was still campaigning for the presidency. By Young’s account, Harding joined as president, after he’d won the office by the largest vote margin recorded to that point. It’s hard to believe Harding joined the Klan out of a desire to salvage his public image.
If Harding did join the Klan, then, it must have been out of private conviction. But again we run into problems – Harding was something of a progressive on racial issues. In 1921 he made a speech in Alabama calling for an end to lynching and the extension of full rights to blacks. He urged Congress to pass an anti-lynching law, which the House did but the Senate didn’t.
Then again, the Klan wasn’t merely anti-black; it was also anti-immigrant, and one of the first pieces of legislation Harding signed was an emergency measure to slow immigration into the U.S. By 1923, that act had been followed by others that reduced immigration into this country to a trickle. Still, why would Harding join an organization devoted to fighting immigration when he himself was already doing more to slow immigration than everyone else in the organization put together?
So that’s where it stands. If Harding joined the Klan, he did so for private reasons – so private that we can’t really figure them out, and so private that no one knew of his membership except the five people who inducted him. It’s easier to believe Alton Young was telling a tall tale to make himself seem important (remember the special license plates, after all).
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