In Sunday's New York Times, Yale historian Beverly Gage has an interesting article suggesting that Harding may have been the first "black" president in the sense that it is possible that he had a remote black ancestor. Unfortunately, Gage's article about Harding and race relations completely ignores the fact that Harding made a well-known speech advocating full legal equality for southern blacks in 1921, in Birmingham, Alabama. As W.E.B. DuBois pointed out at the time, Harding went farther in advocating equal rights for blacks than any other post-Reconstruction Republican president (the Democrats, at that time the party of southern whites, were even worse). Indeed, no president went as far as Harding in advocating equal rights for southern blacks for several decades thereafter. Harding also lobbied hard for a federal anti-lynching bill to curb the rampant lynching of blacks by whites in the South - again, the first post-Reconstruction president to do so (the bill passed the House, but died in the Senate due to the threat of Democratic filibusters). As DuBois pointed out in the linked article, Harding was not wholly free of the racism common among whites at the time. But he was a lot better than the vast majority of his contemporaries.
Include me among the skeptics. Here's what Rogers Smith and I said about Harding's civil rights record in our book, The Unsteady March:
To be sure, at its outset, the hopes of some civil rights advocates were stirred when Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding declared in the 1920 campaign that "the Federal government should stamp out lynching," and that the "Negro citizens of American should be guaranteed the enjoyment of all their rights, that they have earned their full measure of citizenship bestowed, that their sacrifices in blood on the battlefields of the republic have entitled them to all of freedom of opportunity, all of sympathy and aid that the American spirit of fairness and justice demands." In private, Harding told James Weldon Johnson, a leading black poet and playwright and the secretary of the NAACP, that he supported a new National Elections bill to secure black voting rights and that, if elected, he would overturn Wilson's segregation of the federal government by executive order.
Some blacks were also encouraged by the fact that Harding was rumored to be of African-American ancestry. These charges originated with Democratic propagandists and the issue roiled the campaign. The New York Times even published a genealogical history of the Harding family. Such rumors had followed the Harding family for years and, according to Harding’s major biographer, constituted a “shadow” over his hometown of Blooming Grove, Ohio. “How do I know Jim,” Harding once told a friend, “One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence.” Publicly, he was considerably less willing to question his forebears. Harding’s campaign manager averred, “No family in the state has a clearer or more honorable record than the Hardings, a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania, the finest pioneer blood, Anglo-Saxon, German, Scotch-Irish, and Dutch.”
Whatever his roots, once in office Harding gave little sympathy to black rights. In October, 1921, he resoundingly endorsed racial separatism in a speech to a racially mixed audience in Birmingham, Alabama. "Men of both races," he said, "may well stand uncompromisingly against every suggestion of social equality...Racial amalgamation there cannot be." This was "a question of recognizing a fundamental, eternal, and inescapable difference." On behalf of these propositions, he quoted another widely selling racist tract, Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy. Though Harding insisted social segregation was good for all, there could be little doubt where he would stand in the apocalyptic conflict Stoddard depicted. Yet Marcus Garvey telegraphed congratulations and “the heartfelt thanks of four hundred million Negros of the world” for the “splendid interpretation” Harding had given the “race problem,” since the President recognized that “all races should develop on their own social lines.” Such support could only have strengthened the President in that course. Formally complying with his campaign promises, Harding did call on Congress to enact anti-lynching legislation and to establish a commission to study American race relations, but his actual efforts on these matters were minimal. After the House passed an anti-lynching bill in 1922, Harding ignored pleas from the NAACP and did nothing to dissuade Senate Republicans from abandoning the bill in the face of a Democratic filibuster.
Harding's civil rights rhetoric was standard for Republican politicians of the era. Blacks were still firmly within the party of Lincoln, so Harding and others felt the need to give them lip service, but little more. The last serious Republican effort at civil rights legislation was the Lodge elections bill (the Force bill, as it's opponents dubbed it) in 1890. Republicans did put forward anti-lynching bills, but these efforts were half-hearted and symbolic since they knew they didn't have the votes to overcome a southern filibuster in the Senate. In addition, Harding supported efforts to purge the black-led "Black and Tan" state GOP organizations in the South and replace them with "Lily-White" organizations in an effort to dissolve the Solid South.
Harding wasn't the worst politician of his era when it came to civil rights (Woodrow Wilson easily wins that contest), but that doesn't mean he deserves any praise.