According to folklore, putting salt on a bird’s tail allows you to catch it. In this Harper’s Weekly cartoon, presidential nominee Theodore Roosevelt applies the method in an attempt to capture blackbirds, which represent the black vote. The bull moose on the salt bag is a symbol of his Progressive Party, and the “Post No Bills” warning on the fence is a pun referring to President William (Bill) Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s Republican rival.
When black men gained voting rights during Reconstruction, the vast majority voted Republican. With the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, blacks in the South, where most lived, were increasingly kept from the polls by legal restrictions, intimidation, and violence. In addition, they faced the imposition of “Jim Crow” racial segregation in public facilities. In the late-1880s, a decades-long trend began of African-Americans moving from the rural South to urban areas of the North and West. That, in turn, helped give rise in the early-twentieth century to the emergence of new black leaders, such as W. E. B. Dubois, and the establishment of civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advanced of Colored People (NAACP).
Roosevelt had a relatively good record concerning the treatment of black Americans. As governor, he had overseen school desegregation in New York State. Shortly after assuming the presidency in 1901, he sought the advice of Booker T. Washington, the nation’s most prominent black leader. Washington was the first black officially entertained at the White House, which provoked a severe negative reaction from white Southern politicians and newspapers. In 1902, Roosevelt used a Memorial Day speech to condemn the lynching of blacks, and spoke out at other times against the practice. In 1903, the president withstood pressure to revoke his appointment of a black man as Collector of the Port of Charleston, South Carolina. Later that year, he closed a post office in Indianola, Mississippi, when white residents protested against his appointment of a black postmistress.
However, an incident in August 1906 marred Roosevelt’s race record. The white townspeople of Brownsville, Texas, accused some members of the all-black army battalion of a shooting spree that killed one man. Although two investigations produced no formal charges, Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 black soldiers. Fearing the loss of black votes, though, he did not announce his decision until after the November elections. Black organizations and newspapers vigorously protested the president’s action. (Decades later, an investigation revealed the black soldiers had been framed.) Because the discharges were carried out under the authority of Secretary of War Taft, the incident soured some black voters on his presidential candidacy in 1908. Roosevelt took full responsibility in order to save his protégé further political damage.
In 1912, some black voters looked to the new Progressive Party as a possible political alternative to Republican indifference and Democratic hostility. However, the Progressive Party National Convention in August was a disappointment. With Roosevelt’s blessing, the convention accepted “lily-white” delegations from the South and biracial ones from the North. His acceptance speech and the party platform ignored the plight of black Americans. Later that August, the nominee argued that blacks had earned the right of political participation in the North, but still needed white guidance in the South.
The Progressive Party’s position on race relations provoked Dubois to support the Socialist Party, though he eventually endorsed Democrat Woodrow Wilson on the eve of the presidential election. Other black leaders who initially backed Roosevelt and the Progressive Party, such as Perry Howard, returned to the Republican Party and endorsed Taft. Nevertheless, the Progressive Party established special bureaus in New York City and Chicago to reach out to black voters, with some success. The Republican Party probably received the lowest percentage of black votes in 1912 than it ever had before.