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  • Writer's pictureMegan M

Racial Equality and Presidential Influence

This article contains violent and graphic images that may be disturbing to readers. Please proceed with discretion.

The year was 1870 and the black American men were Hiram Revels and Joseph Rainey. Four years after the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the ratification of the 14th Amendment, Hiram Revels was elected to the U.S. Senate and Joseph Rainey to the U.S. House of Representatives. Hiram was nominated to be Mississippi’s Senator by a vote of 81 to 15 (Source). Before the 17th Amendment in 1913, the state legislators, not citizens, elected all U.S. Senators. Approximately 75% of the Mississippi state legislators were white, which meant that Hiram overcame racial prejudice or that the state legislators did not racially discriminate. The Senate accepted his nomination by a vote of 48 to 8, but only after three existing Senators fought the nomination, claiming that Hiram did not have the required 9 years of citizenship since the Civil Rights Act was only passed in 1866.

With the seemingly swift inclusion of black Americans into prominent positions in American government following 1866, it’s worth investigating how the path toward racial equality lost steam. The 15th amendment was ratified in 1870, which granted black Americans the right to vote by mandating that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” While in Congress, Joseph Rainey advocated for equality among all people including other minorities such as Asian and Native Americans. More than that, he supported amnesty for Confederate soldiers. One could assume that Rainey recognized racism as a prior way of life, a mistake for which the Confederates could be forgiven to work toward a better America. From what’s documented about his term, Rainey appeared to be fighting for equality across the board, ready to move into a new era without the prevalence of racism. Unfortunately, the rapid move toward racial justice may have incited an equally expedient, if not quicker, move toward rekindled racial discrimination. In 1865, just one year after the Civil War ended, The Ku Klux Klan was formed.

Grant Sets the Stage After the Civil War

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was founded by white supremacists, some of which were Confederate veterans – evidence that not all Confederates were willing to accept slavery as a wrongdoing. The KKK wanted to preserve white political power in the nation and prevent any black person from gaining equality. This mission primarily took the form of severe violence and intimidation toward politicians and voters who did not support white supremacy. It’s estimated that thousands of people were killed due to Klan violence which included lynchings, fires, beatings, night rides, and overall riots.

Despite the KKK’s prevalence, their popularity was low outside of their white supremacist base. The racial equality amendments and the election of President Ulysses Grant (who helped lead the Union’s victory over the Confederates) in 1869, helped support the move toward racial justice. History was on the side of racial equality, at the time. In 1871 under Grant, the Ku Klux Klan Act was passed which allowed the federal government to take military action against persons or states who denied others their equal rights under law. The Act was intended to protect the civil and political freedoms of all Americans. Throughout the 1870s, Grant used the military force allowed in the Act, but many racist leaders were still elected back into power in the Southern States and had already started revoking the rights of black Americans. Grant held office from 1869 to 1877. President Rutherford Hayes, who followed in office from 1877 to 1881,

withdrew troops from the south and appointed two southerners to his cabinet (one being a previous Confederate soldier). Hayes himself was known to stand against slavery, but his efforts to reform the south didn’t take. His concessions show that he underestimated the ingrained racism in much of the south. Withdrawing troops and appointing white southerners was a hopeful extension of good faith, but Hayes did not receive any reciprocal guarantees from the south. In the case of Rutherford Hayes, inaction was action. By 1882, the Supreme Court ruled Grant’s Ku Klux Klan Act unconstitutional and the federal government no longer had the power to fight inequality from the top down. The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the leadership which followed were not enough to bring about lasting change for black Americans.

Wilson, Coolidge, and the KKK Wrangle the Roaring Twenties

Black Americans maintained membership in Congress through the late 1800’s, but between 1901 and 1929, zero black Americans were elected and the KKK was on the rise again. In 1920, the Klan fiercely recruited members and advertised an elitist status of joining the white-only, “patriotic” organization. At its height, the KKK was estimated to have approximately 5 million members at a time where. For reference, the total U.S. population in 1925 was approximately 116 million. The white supremacy of the KKK continued to be driven against black Americans, but also became more visibly opposed to other ethnicities and religions too. Violence was incited by the Klan again, but it was short lived. Ironically, the Klan’s large membership worked to its disadvantage and internal strife ensued over the future direction of the organization.

Photo Source: National Archives

The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1921 may have contributed to the sudden resurgence of the KKK in the 1920s. Wilson had an unfavorable record on racial equality. He segregated departments in the federal government and required that all federal job candidates submitted a photo with their application. He also held the 1915 viewing of the racist film “The Birth of a Nation”, which was originally titled “The Clansmen”. With Wilson making it clear to the American people that racism was acceptable, the KKK of the 1920s had new fuel for their fire and a sense of validation and righteousness. When President Calvin Coolidge succeeded Wilson, from 1923 to 1929, he had a contrasting approach to racial equality. Coolidge, although often overlooked in history, was an outspoken supporter of black Americans. He praised their contributions to the American military in World War I and he prioritized the appropriations needed to support better education and literacy in non-white communities. While Wilson allowed the uprising, Coolidge quelled it. By 1930, KKK membership had precipitously declined.

So far, history has shown that America’s political and social environment are inherently tied to one another. White supremacists have fought to keep white persons in positions of political power since the Reconstruction era. The events of the late 1800s and early 1900s should serve as a warning to today’s political climate, with President Donald Trump encouraging and even directing the use of force on peaceful protestors. Racism has existed in America since its inception, and there’s a socio-political pattern of activity. Racism has thrived when there is encouragement from political leaders, local or federal, and when white supremacists are permitted to commit acts of domestic terrorism without repercussion.

Transitional Lull, Roosevelt Stands Down

Moving to the mid-1900s, the KKK activity had declined but racism was still as pervasive. Between 1882 and 1968, the NAACP reports that 4,700 people were lynched and 72% of those people were black. Those numbers also only represent the recorded lynchings. Anti-lynching legislation had been proposed in Congress back in 1918, but it failed to pass in both chambers. The bill would have declared it a capital murder for groups to lynch, along with charging a fine for the action. When President Franklin Roosevelt held office, from 1933 to 1945, he failed to support the laws. He was pressured by southern congresspeople to not pursue antilynching. If he did, the southern statesmen threatened to hold up any other future legislation. President Roosevelt convinced himself that too much of America was at stake to risk losing southern support – a pitiful excuse. Here, again, is an example of weak leadership in the political system that allows racism to continue. Failing to support an antilynching law, which may only penalize a few thousand people who commit the crime, has the same effect as being pro-racist. The fact that the law was so heavily opposed sent a clear signal that racism was still alive and well.

Pivotal Change from Truman and Johnson in the Civil Rights Era

With the next President in office, a new uprising had started: the march toward the Civil Rights Act of 1968. President Harry Truman, in office from 1945 to 1953, was an ally in the charge. In 1948 he signed an executive order ending segregation in the military and in the federal government. Although Truman grew up in the south where his parents owned slaves, he’s an example of how perceptions can change through individual thinking, listening, and learning. Truman learned racism in his upbringing, but he cast aside those teachings and recognized each man as equal. Truman may have received criticism in other areas of his Presidency, but he historically changed America on racial equality. In the twenty years that followed, America witnessed a nonstop fight for civil rights. And it was a fight. Black people, and white people supporting black people, gave their lives fighting for racial equality. Peaceful protests were a hallmark of the era, and violence was used only as a retaliation strategy. The Civil Rights Movement was an era that seemed to take two steps forward, one step back. Brown versus Board of Education was argued in the Supreme Court in 1954, ultimately leading to the desegregation of public schools. One year later in 1955, teenager Emmett Till was beaten to death, his body maimed and desecrated by white assailants, for allegedly flirting with a white girl. To this day, his Mississippi memorial has a history of being vandalized, including by being shot at, for no apparent reason other than racism; in 2019 it was made bulletproof.

Photo Source: NBC News

After Emmett’s murder in 1955, it took nine years to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act that desegregated all public places and guaranteed equal employment opportunity. This legislation can be credited in part to the black people who began physically integrating themselves into white only areas and demanding equality. One important landmark along the way was when President Dwight Eisenhower, who served from 1953 to 1961, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which made it a federal crime to obstruct another person’s right to vote. Without diminishing his role in the 1957 Civil Rights Act, generally, Eisenhower was neutral on the Civil Rights movement. Nothing memorable stands out about his term except that he didn’t ferociously oppose the movement. The next multi-term President, Lyndon Johnson, who served from 1963 to 1969, did have memorable moments.

When Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded John F. Kennedy following JFK’s assassination, the United States was in the midst of the Vietnam War. Much of Johnson’s legacy is remembered unfavorably due to his handling of the war, however he made significant advances for racial justice that may not have been achieved under a President unbothered by race relations. LBJ started his term after the 1963 March on Washington, and he was prepared to carry out the vision that was marched for. He signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as described earlier, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited the requirement of literacy tests for voting and allowed federal investigation into the use of the poll taxes (one year earlier poll taxes were made illegal in federal elections). These Acts were met with brutality and deadly force. Prior to the Voting Rights Act being passed in May of 1965, the peaceful Selma to Montgomery demonstration in March 1965 resulted in police attacking the protestors. First with batons and tear gas, and then for one unlucky man, with a firearm. Multiple beatings ensued and the unlucky man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, died. The officer responsible for shooting Jimmie was only recently charged in 2007, after he admitted to firing his weapon in a 2005 interview. Investigations were launched after the incident in 1965, but no arrests were made. While great advances were being made with legislation, the criminal system was not holding murderers and assaulters accountable for their actions. Racism persisted because there was still no penalty for racially motivated violence.

Consider today, in 2020, how America is still seeing the murders of black men being explained away or justified by authority figures. The white men responsible for killing Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black student out jogging at the time of death, were not arrested until two months after the killing when an incriminating video surfaced. Two prosecutors in the case had recused themselves from bringing charges, and the third prosecutor delayed charges even after seeing the video. Ultimately public outcry led to arrests. This type of blatant disregard for racially motivated killings has been commonplace for far too long in America’s history. Going back in time to the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968 by a white man, James Earl Ray, who had escaped from a Missouri prison. His motivation for killing MLK is documented in an obscure fashion. Despite some witnesses attesting that the man expressed racist sentiment and that he had used a deliberate racial slur, the government archives report that the majority of witnesses could not confirm that. It was said that, “it could not be relied on as proof that Ray harbored the kind of deep-seated, racial animosity that might, on its own, trigger the assassination of Dr. King.” The reports go on to note the motive as ego driven. Ironically, Ray’s lawyer was a known white supremacist according to TIME. Ray was also renting a room across the way from MLK’s balcony, which seems hard to dismiss as a coincidence. There are questions still lingering around the MLK assassination but dismissing the murder as unrelated to race is a clear mischaracterization given the time period and circumstances. The dismissiveness is one more instance of the criminal system allowing racism to prevail.

Nixon Reverses Course and Silently Adds to Systemic Discrimination

The end of the Civil Rights Movement is marked by the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which required equal housing opportunity regardless of race. At this point, black Americans would have all of the same rights as White Americans – at least on paper. The election of President Richard Nixon, in office from 1969 to 1974, may have served as warning that the progressive social reform Johnson championed was not accepted enough to overcome the voter divide on Vietnam. Nixon and future President Ronald Reagan, who was in office from 1981 to 1989, were recorded having conversations with one another where they denounced African Americans and used racial slurs to define them. Twelve years of leadership between the two of them did not produce any advances in racial justice. In fact, it produced the opposite. Although black Americans were equal on paper, undercurrents were silently oppressing them. Mass incarceration was kickstarted by Nixon who initiated the “war on drugs” which included mandatory sentencing, increased federal resources to combat drug use, and no-knock warrants. The “Schedule” ranking of drugs was also created where Schedule 1 drugs were said to have the highest potential for abuse, and marijuana was designated to that category. Curiously, this designated marijuana as more addictive than cocaine, which is a Schedule 2 narcotic. As the war on drugs progressed, and through today, people of color were arrested at rates disproportionate to whites. Here’s a direct quote from one of Nixon’s top aides in a 1994 interview with Harper’s Magazine:

“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

While Nixon pushed through anti-black legislation, his supporters were either willfully ignorant or happy to look away with their Nixon facilitated tax cut in pocket. When President Gerald Ford, in office from 1974 to 1977, succeeded Nixon, he had a full plate. The Vietnam War was grinding on and America was still recovering from the Watergate scandal. Ford had a great record on race, voting for and advocating for civil rights in the past, and in the late 1970’s (and early 1980’s) progress toward educational opportunity and wealth equality for black Americans had been improving despite Nixon’s war on drugs. The total percentage of Americans in poverty had remained around 10%, which is an improvement from the 17% to 20% range just prior to the Civil Rights Act. Unfortunately, despite only making up 11% of the population, blacks still carried an outsized share of the nation’s economic suffering, representing about 30% of impoverished Americans.


The violent aspect of racial discrimination did not end in the 1980s either. In 1981, members of the United Klans of America, a descendant group of the KKK, cut a black teenager’s throat and left him hanging from a tree in Alabama. The lynching of this young man, after his throat was already cut, was an intentional racially motivated message.

Photo Source: Southern Poverty Law Center

Reagan, Documented Civil Rights Opposer, Leads the 1980s

Through the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan held office from 1981 to 1989, the percentage of black Americans in poverty spiked up from 10% to anywhere between 12% and 14%. The upward trend correlating with Reagan’s presidency does not necessarily mean that he caused it, but it can be argued that he didn’t care about it. Reagan had a negative record on race. He was heard calling African diplomats “monkeys”, he wanted to repeal the Open Housing Act during his governorship in California, he advocated for the financial support of a university that openly discriminated on race, and he opposed legislation that provided equal footing for black Americans. Most of this was under the guise of First Amendment rights and reverse discrimination fears – he argued that it wasn’t fair or constitutional to restrict or provide opportunity based on race. Those type of arguments that attempt to discredit the impact slavery and segregation had on black Americans are still made today. Leadership supporting that narrative, especially Presidential leadership, increases the cloud of smoke around racial discrimination and allows it to persist by denying it exists.

Bill Clinton Breaks the Silence and Re-positions Racial Equality

President Bill Clinton, in office from 1993 to 2001, challenged that dismissive thinking in a 1995 address:

“The purpose of affirmative action is to give our Nation a way to finally address the systemic exclusion of individuals of talent on the basis of their gender or race from opportunities to develop, perform, achieve, and contribute...Now, there are those who say, my fellow Americans, that even good affirmative action programs are no longer needed… In deciding how to answer that, let us consider the facts. According to the recently completed glass ceiling report… in the Nation's largest companies only six-tenths of one percent of senior management positions are held by African-Americans…White males make up 43 percent of our work force but hold 95 percent of these jobs… Just last week, the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank reported that black home loan applicants are more than twice as likely to be denied credit as whites with the same qualification”.

Clinton emphasized the statistical evidence supporting the need for affirmative action and made a clear stand for equality. He brought racial issues into focus once again, arguably for the first time since the 1960s, and signed an executive order launching the “Race Initiative” in 1997. The Initiative attempted to engage Americans around the County to examine racism and find a path to “racial reconciliation”. As progressive as it may have been intended, it was met with mixed feedback. Criticism was heard from Clinton’s supporters and opponents, who made claims that the Initiative was making a mess of racial relations or not having an effect at all. In hindsight, was the feedback simply masking America being uncomfortable talking about race? Americans have admitted, almost 20 years later, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, that racial discussions are new and uncomfortable. They challenge previous thought, complacency, and individual values.

It’s worth mentioning that Bill Clinton, however, did sign the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 bill that enforced the “three strikes” rule that disproportionally affected black Americans.

Wartime America Prioritizes Foreign Response Under Bush

As Clinton ended his second term and President George W. Bush took office, from 2001 to 2009, America’s primary focused shifted, as it has in the past, to foreign policy and intervention. This time, particularly in the Middle East. However, race was a topic during his presidential bid. In a debate against his opponent Al Gore, the two were asked about their stance on enacting legislation to combat racial profiling in law enforcement. Bush acknowledged racial profiling as an issue but maintained that the handling of it belonged to States, not the federal government, and that federal intervention would be a last resort. Gore, without hesitation, said that he would sign an executive order to ban racial profiling in federal law-enforcement agencies and thereby enact the first Civil Rights legislation of the 21st century.

That difference of opinion highlights America’s overarching divisiveness on the separation of powers and the appropriate implementation of the Constitution. On one hand, Section 8 of the Constitution lists federal powers as mainly: taxation, armed forces, regulation of commerce, coining money, declaring war, and implementing all other laws “necessary and proper” for carrying out the listed powers in the Constitution. The 10th Amendment states that all other powers not mentioned in Section 8 are relegated to the States. This would favor Bush’s stance that States should handle racial profiling. Even the 14th Amendment that prohibited racial discrimination also stated that Congress (not the President) would have the power to enforce the amendment through legislation. Again, this supports Bush’s stance. The question arises – at what point is Presidential power needed? By the book, Bush is acting in accordance with the Constitution. However, the Constitution currently has 27 Amendments to correct inconsistencies with the execution and practical embodiment of its intent. With racial disparities still existing more than 150 years after slavery was abolished, it could be argued that a new Amendment or presidential power is needed to help enforce the 14th Amendment rights, which racial profiling is infringing upon.

The absolving of racial responsibility continued in Bush’s presidency as America invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Dead set on fighting foreign terrorism, Bush neglected the domestic terrorism happening through racial discrimination. Further, the Bush presidency was cutting taxes while still funding defense. Preoccupied with war and willfully ignorant toward domestic issues, the United States fell into the Great Recession of 2008 – and black Americans were hit hard. The Center for Global Policy Solutions reports that black Americans lost approximately 45% of their wealth whereas white Americans lost approximately 21%.

The First Black American Takes Office and Confronts Racial Issues Echoed in Earlier Years by Clinton

President Barack Obama takes office in the aftermath of the Recession and is in office from 2009 to 2017. As the first black American President, some cite this as proof that racism does not exist in America since a black man was elected to the nation’s highest office. However, Obama was elected in part by the increased turnout of black voters. Nearly all eligible black voters turned out to vote, which was a relative increase of 5% black voter turnout from the previous election. Of the black Americans who turned out, 93% voted for Obama. Turnout from other minority groups such as Hispanics also increased. A higher turnout of non-whites is hardly an indication that racism does not exist, but rather an indication that non-white voices are becoming louder. Obama also won the presidency on the economy and healthcare, which the majority of voters held as the highest issue of importance. In addition to leading the nation out of recession, Obama also attempted to improve the lives of black Americans. He did this implicitly through the Affordable Care Act which reduced the rate of uninsured black Americans by approximately 33%, but also explicitly by denouncing police brutality, specifically in the wake of Ferguson, Missouri where the black teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer.

As Obama’s second term came to end, racial relations were strained. Critics of Obama say that he worsened the tensions. However, like the push back on Clinton’s Race Initiative, was this criticism more of the American discomfort talking? Just as the KKK was formed a year after the Civil War, racial prejudice was reinvigorated by the end of Obama’s presidency. The parallel shows that for every effort toward racial justice, there has been a consistent opposition. The 21st century white nationalists were emboldened by the next elected President, Donald Trump, in office from 2016 to the present day (2020).

White Nationalism Thrives with Donald Trump

Trump exemplified hatred and prejudice to the American people from his frequent insults toward minorities, his mocking of the physically disabled person on live television, and his recorded remark of grabbing women “by the pussy”. He conveyed to the American population that it was okay to treat others, particularly those at a historic disadvantage, in this manner. Upon the police killing of George Floyd, Trump did not denounce police brutality or systemic oppression and, in fact, encouraged the use of force on peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors. President Trump brought back the acceptance of racism that was witnessed under Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. Even today, racial discrimination is blatantly seen through violence, and the lack of presidential leadership allows it to continue.

How this History Affects Today, The Road to Racial Equality Continues

What lessons of the past can be applied to today? As activism and legislation pushes toward racial equality, America is not as good as its last action. History has shown that progress can easily be reversed by allowing race relations to take a back seat. Presidential leadership can either further racism or slow racism. It would be naive to assume that a neutral presidency does not impact race relations. The phrase “silence is support” is heard around the nation in today’s racial justice protests and that same phrase applies to the Presidency. To avoid backtracking years of progress, America must continually address and push the issue of equality. Come the November 2020 election, America will face a decision about whether this is the Confederate States of America or the United States of America.

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