Classroom Activities

  1. Who do you think is the target audience for Harding’s speech in Birmingham? How would you characterize the immediate audience for the speech, or those who actually heard it delivered? How might that audience have differed from the broader audience that read the speech later in newspapers? Do you think Harding tried to speak to both audiences?
  2. Discuss Harding’s ethos at the time of the speech in Birmingham. How did Harding try to shape his own ethos in the speech itself? Do you think Harding’s ethos in 1921 was the same as his historical reputation? How is Harding viewed today, as opposed to how the public viewed him in 1921?
  3. Consider Harding’s organizational strategy in his speech in Birmingham. Do you think he buried his discussion of “social equality” in the middle of the speech intentionally, and what effect do you think that might have had on public reactions to these ideas? Contemplate how Harding’s speech might have been received differently if it had been devoted entirely to questions of “social equality,” or if the speech had begun with a discussion of equality and civil rights.
  4. How did Harding’s speech stylistically reflect its “boosterist” focus? What tropes or figures of speech emerge from the text that speak to Harding’s use of boosterism to persuade?

Student Research

  1. Several historical commentators conclude that Harding’s 1921 speech in Birmingham was the most important speech by a president on the issue of race and equality since Lincoln or since the Reconstruction period. Research presidential oratory on race since 1876.Are the historians correct? Are there any other meaningful statements by presidents before 1921 on the issue of race and equality for African-Americans?
  2. Read Booker T. Washington’s famous Atlanta Exposition address of 1895. Put Washington into conversation with Harding.How were their views about equality for African-Americans different?  How were they similar?
  3. Find the anthology entitled Race and Liberty in America. How does this anthology position Harding (and others) as alternatives to more traditional or conventional rhetorical voices on civil rights? How does this anthology reflect ongoing and persistent tensions about the historical and contemporary understandings of civil rights history?
  4. Find and read Harding’s speech at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, given in May of 1922. Consider how, in that speech, Harding constructed and preserved the memory of Abraham Lincoln. Then consider that speech in comparison to Harding’s 1921 Birmingham speech. How was Harding’s articulation of the memory of Lincoln different from, or consistent with, his arguments about “social equality” in the Birmingham speech?

Citizenship Resources

  1. In 1920, College of Wooster professor William Chancellor published an attack on Warren Harding, asserting that he was descended from African-American ancestors. Consider how negative campaign attacks like this may or may not have influenced Harding’s policy positions and public oratory as president.Do you think presidents, once they are elected, still respond to criticisms made when they were candidates?  In general, how would you describe the relationship between campaigning and governing?
  2. How does “social equality” differ from “political equality” in Harding’s understanding of these terms? How does Harding’s sense of social equality speak to the role of the federal and state governments in preserving and protecting equality, particularly for individuals denied full equality?
  3. In 2019, Congress held hearings on the issue of “reparations” for America’s history of slavery, with several noted individuals testifying in favor of the idea. How do you think calls for reparations reflect an evolving understanding of “equality?”How do advocates of reparations make the case that full equality cannot be achieved without reparations?