Grimké's Tribute to Theodore Roosevelt - 100 Years Ago

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Last month marked the centennial anniversary of the death of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858 - January 6, 1919). His death was commemorated exactly one hundred years ago on February 19, 1919 in an address by Francis J. Grimké, which we remember today.

The man who occupied the White House at this moment in history was the noted Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson (his father Joseph Ruggles Wilson on the occasion of Woodrow’s 1897 ordination to the office of ruling elder famously declared: "I would rather that he held that position than be president of the United States”). Meanwhile, Grimké was serving as pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Grimké and Wilson had a difficult past history: In September 1913, Francis Grimké had written to President Wilson opposing his administration’s newly-enacted policy of segregating the federal service. Francis’ brother, Archibald Grimké, was serving at the same time as head of the D.C. branch of the NAACP, and also opposed President Wilson’s policy of racial exclusion towards African-Americans, leading a protest of 10,000 citizens to a church a few blocks away from the White House in protest of what he termed the “New Slavery.” Francis Grimké later continued to speak out against segregation of the U.S. armed forces during World War I.

While President Wilson’s tenure in office was a great disappointment to Francis Grimké on the grounds of Wilson’s treatment of African-Americans, Grimké had the utmost respect for President Theodore Roosevelt, who, as Grimké had observed in an October 1901 sermon, famously dined at the White House with Booker T. Washington, much to the dismay of many American whites. In the eulogy which Grimké delievered on February 19, 1919, he drew a distinction between the two presidents,

"What a contrast there is between Woodrow Wilson and a man like Theodore Roosevelt. How different is the impression that the two men make upon you. Mr. Roosevelt impresses you at once, not only with his extraordinary vigor of body and mind, but also with his bigness of soul, with his great-heartedness, with his broad humanitarian principles, with his interest in and desire to give every man, of whatever race or color, an even and equal chance in the race of life. You never find him standing in the way, set ting himself in opposition to the progress of any class or race of human beings: you never find him wallowing in the mire of a narrow, degrading, ignoble race prejudice. You find him always reaching out himself for the largest and the best things, and saying to every other man, be he white or black. 'Come on and do likewise, — make the most of yourself and of your opportunities.' Theodore Roosevelt possesses not only a virile personality and a big brain, but also a big heart, — a great soul, — a man who has caught the vision of what it is to be a man, animated by the spirit of Jesus Christ, built after His model, and not a mere thinking machine, cold, calculating heartless.

"The contemptible little business in which Mr. Wilson and his southern friends and admirers are engaged, of trying to keep the colored people from going forward by endeavoring to block their way, by doing everything they can to impress them with their inferiority, and to beget in them a spirit of contentment in a condition of inferiority, is in marked contrast with the high minded, liberty-loving, justice seeking, kindly, brotherly spirit of Mr. Roosevelt. Humanity is not likely to make very much progress in pushing forward the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, in enthroning in the hearts of men the great ideal of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man; and the practical realization of this great ideal in the everyday life of the world, in all the relations existing between man and man, except under such leaders as Theodore Roosevelt. Leaders of the type of Woodrow Wilson will always be a clog on the wheels of progress as humanity moves on towards the goal, — the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."

For Grimké, the difference between the two men, based largely on Roosevelt’s ability to deal with men of all colors as men, and Wilson’s evident desire to keep African-Americans within a second class status based on the color of their skin, was enormous. The text chosen by Grimké for Roosevelt’s eulogy was: “And the king said unto his servants, Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel” (2 Samuel 3:38). Theodore Roosevelt was beloved by Grimké, and the tenderness and respect which he held for the former President is as evident in this address as is the palpable bitterness and disappointment with which Grimké viewed the current president.

It is not often that God sends into the world a man like Theodore Roosevelt; only once in a great while, only once in many centuries. What Shakespeare said about Hamlet may be truly said of him,

He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.

Surely, not in our day shall such a unique personality appear on the stage of action.

This is the tribute of an African-American Presbyterian pastor who ministered in Washington, D.C. during the administrations of two presidents whom he saw as very different men. Take time, if you will, to read his full address honoring the memory of Theodore Roosevelt, given 100 years ago today exactly, which can be found in his Works, Vol. 1, beginning at page 174 at Francis Grimké’s author page here. For more on the life of Francis Grimké, see Thabiti Anyabwile, The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors (2007) at our secondary sources page here. To purchase Francis Grimké’s Meditations on Preaching, please visit our bookstore here.