The fury over racial injustice that erupted within the wake of George Floyd’s killing has pressured Individuals to confront their historical past. That’s unfamiliar territory for many Individuals, whose historic data quantities to a imprecise mix of truth and delusion that was solely half-learned in highschool and is just half-remembered now.
If their historic data is missing, Individuals aren’t any higher knowledgeable in regards to the position of presidential management – and lack of management – on racial points. They might have heard that 5 of the primary seven presidents owned slaves, and so they know – or assume they do – that Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves.”
However even these tidbits of truth are incomplete. A number of different presidents, together with Ulysses Grant, owned slaves. And Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation was extra symbolic than virtually efficient, hated slavery however by no means thought-about Blacks equal to whites.
An trustworthy evaluation of American presidential management on race reveals a handful of brave actions however an abundance of racist conduct, even by these remembered as equal rights supporters.
Brady-Useful Assortment, Glasshouse Classic/Common Historical past Archive/Common Photos Group through Getty Photos
Our guide, “Presidents and Black America: A Documentary Historical past,” examines the file of the primary 44 presidents on racial points and explores their relationships with African Individuals. What emerges is a portrait of chief executives who had been typically blatantly racist and generally subordinated issues for racial justice to their very own political benefit.
Listed below are a couple of examples:
• Rutherford Hayes, president from 1877-1881, claimed to be a buddy of African Individuals’ rights. At his inauguration, he stated “a real self-government” have to be “a authorities which guards the pursuits of each races fastidiously and equally.” However he minimize a shady deal to win the presidency within the 1876 election, whose consequence was as hotly disputed because the 2000 Bush-Gore contest. In that deal, he agreed to withdraw federal troops from Southern states the place they’d been defending Blacks from the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist depredations. Over the following 20 years, Southern whites drove nearly all Black elected officers from workplace, typically by fraud and generally at gunpoint, and about 1,500 Southern Blacks had been lynched.
• William McKinley, president from 1897-1901, delivered an inaugural handle extolling equal rights and declared, “Lynchings should not be tolerated.” Nonetheless, he remained silent when white supremacists in Wilmington, North Carolina, staged an 1898 coup that ousted all Black elected officers and killed no less than 60 Blacks. His lack of response to lynchings prompted a Black-owned newspaper to look at, “The Negroes of this nation flip with impatience, disappointment and disgust from Mr. McKinley’s fence-straddling and shilly-shallying dialogue of lynch regulation.”
• Theodore Roosevelt, president from 1901-1909, believed in white superiority whereas concurrently advocating instructional alternative no matter race. In a letter to a buddy, he wrote, “Now as to the Negroes! I solely agree with you that as a race and within the mass they’re altogether inferior to the whites.”
Hulton Archive / Stringer/Getty
• Woodrow Wilson, president from 1913-1921, promised honest remedy for African Individuals in his 1912 marketing campaign. However as soon as elected, he defended his Southern Cupboard members who segregated staff in federal departments that hadn’t been segregated, writing, “It’s so far as potential from being a motion towards the negroes. I sincerely imagine it to be of their curiosity.” Black Democrat Robert Wooden of New York unsuccessfully urged Wilson to reverse the segregation coverage: “We resent it, under no circumstances as a result of we’re notably anxious to eat in the identical room or use the identical cleaning soap and towels that white individuals use, however as a result of we see within the separation within the races within the matter of soup and cleaning soap the start of a motion to deprive the coloured man solely of soup and cleaning soap, to remove him wholly from the Civil Service.” In a testy White Home trade, Wilson chastised William Monroe Trotter and different Black leaders, asserting that, “Segregation is just not a humiliation however a profit, and must be so regarded by you gents. In case your group goes out and tells the coloured individuals of the nation that it’s a humiliation, they are going to so regard it … The one hurt that can come shall be in the event you trigger them to assume it’s a humiliation.”
• Franklin Roosevelt, president from 1933-1945, was broadly admired amongst African Individuals. Whereas his New Deal applications didn’t profit Blacks and whites equally, Blacks did obtain advantages. However FDR’s actions had been at all times guided by his have to appease Southern segregationists in Congress to cross his different agenda gadgets. And his perspective may very well be condescending, as when he met with Black leaders about integrating the navy. He suggested a gradual method, notably with the Navy: “We’re coaching a sure variety of musicians on board ship. The ship’s band. There’s no motive why we shouldn’t have a coloured band on a few of these ships, as a result of they’re darn good at it.”
Political calculation has at all times been at work in presidential dealings with African Individuals, from George Washington to Donald Trump.
However typically, these dealings additionally mirrored condescension, indifference, racial bias and outright racism in chief executives who took a solemn oath to serve all Americans equally.
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The authors don’t work for, seek the advice of, personal shares in or obtain funding from any firm or group that may profit from this text, and have disclosed no related affiliations past their educational appointment.