The issue of civil rights, unlike slavery and female suffrage, is one that has not yet been truly settled in the United States. When people think of the Civil Rights Movement, they will often think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders, but it’s been fought even before 1776. An article could be written about all 44 presidents and their civil rights views. This one will only focus on presidents Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.
The Turn of the Century; Theodore Roosevelt, Republican, 1901-1909
Theodore Roosevelt was one of the Presidents more favourable to equal rights for African-Americans. However, he was often more likely to talk than to take action. Like many of the time, he genuinely believed whites were superior, but he also thought that many black individuals were better than some whites. Whilst he had the usual paternalistic views regarding Native Americans, he was more than willing to speak with Jews and Catholics – two persecuted groups at the time.
Booker T. Washington visits the White House
Many students of history will know that Theodore Roosevelt was the first to invite an African-American person to dinner at the White House. This man was Booker T. Washington, the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute and a prominent black businessman. After this dinner, which was in 1901, there was a furore in the press and among Southerners, who were appalled at a black man being invited to a formal dinner in the nation’s most famous House. For his part, Roosevelt was appalled and blindsided by the anger, as he had genuinely not expected that response. Though he continued to work with Washington, he chose pragmatism over a stronger equality message, and had further dinners marked down as “business meetings.”
Roosevelt had previously invited blacks to dinners as Governor of New York. The anger at the White House invitation meant that no African-American would be invited to a dinner there for another thirty years. He also spoke out against lynching, but took no action against the common and cruel practice. On top of this, he appointed African-Americans to several positions in government. When whites complained about this, or when there was racial tension, Roosevelt refused to back down.
The Brownsville Affair
One mark against Roosevelt was his handling of the Brownsville affair. In the town of Brownsville, Texas, the death of a bartender and injury of a policeman led to evidence being planted that implicated a group of black soldiers. Though they had alibis, they were still dishonourably discharged, something that cost them their jobs and future pensions. Roosevelt upheld this discharge but faced criticism from both blacks and whites. The Senate backed Roosevelt up, but this affair made him unpopular with many.
William Howard Taft, Republican, 1909-13
Unlike his predecessor, William Howard Taft was not as open to civil rights, though he would fare much better than his successor. He told Booker T. Washington to convey the message that African-Americans should stay out of politics altogether and unlike Roosevelt, bowed to racial pressure. He fired blacks in federal jobs in the south and only appointed a few in the north.
World War I: Woodrow Wilson, Democrat, 1913-1921
When you’re deemed to be racist by the standards of the early 20th century, you know you’re racist.
Woodrow Wilson is seen as the most racist post-Civil War President. His parents were staunch supporters of the Confederacy and slavery, with Wilson himself saying his first memory was of a man angrily announcing Lincoln’s election. His first two daughters were born in the South, as his wife refused to allow them to be born as Yankees. The third, Eleanor was born in Connecticut, where Wilson was teaching at the time.
Segregation of the Federal Workplace & Birth of a Nation
His first major act was to segregate the federal workplace at every level, including the Navy. Even bathrooms were segregated. Discriminatory hiring acts were brought in, with photographs having to be provided with job applications. This was something that had never been done before. African-Americans were struck from federal employment. Though Wilson publicly opposed and scorned lynching, he did want federal forces sent in when riots occurred in black areas. He screened the infamously racist Birth of a Nation in the White House, despite widespread protests and boycotts against the picture.
Whilst many blacks joined the World War I effort, they were kept in segregated units, away from combat and in menial roles. When confronted about his segregation policies, Wilson said this:
Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen. If this organization is ever to have another hearing before me it must have another spokesman. Your manner offends me … your tone, with its background of passion.
A civil rights journalist, Oswald Garrison Villard, was seen as important by the White House, but even after the following statement, nothing changed:
[The Wilson administration] has allied itself with the forces of reaction, and put itself on the side of every torturer, of every oppressor, of every perpetrator of racial injustice in the South or the North.
Praise for the Ku Klux Klan
One of Wilson’s most famous academic works spoke in praise for the KKK. Wilson claimed that blacks had not been allowed to vote, not due to their dark skin, but because of their “dark mind.” He also invited former Confederates for a celebration and laid a wreath at the Confederate Memorial. These were his words about the Civil War:
The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers.
The Roaring Twenties: Warren G. Harding, Republican, 1921-1923
Though Harding is often rightly seen as one of the nation’s worst presidents, he had a very solid record on civil rights. The most famous example was his 1921 speech in Birmingham, Alabama, in the heart of Klan country. To a crowd of both blacks and whites (segregated under Jim Crow), Harding eloquently spoke about racial equality. He talked about how blacks had bravely served in World War I, only to come home to hatred.
Furthermore, he spoke about the need for equality in areas like education, even though he recognised change would not come immediately. Harding spoke out against integrated schooling, but wished for better schools for blacks. Though he did not harbour the strong racial prejudices that other presidents did, Harding was against miscegenation. After the speech, the African-American audience responded with absolute excitement. Their reaction was in stark contrast with the white crowd, as well as the Governor of Alabama and other government officials, who sat in shocked, stony silence.
Presidential Support for an Anti-Lynching Bill
Policy on blacks in federal office was overturned, with many reaching high stations in the Department of Labour. Harding did not advertise this, fearing it would harm the southern, white conservative vote. He also did not reverse segregation or speak openly against the Klan. One highlight was his support for the Dyer Bill, a federal anti-lynching bill. Southern Democrats pushed it out of the Senate, and Harding abandoned it in order to pass a shipping bill he really wanted.
Civil Rights meets Southern Democrats: Calvin Coolidge, Republican, 1923-1929
Calvin Coolidge had a generally solid grasp on the issue of civil rights. In his first State of the Union, he spoke about the need for racial equality and against lynching, which he decried as “a hideous crime.” More anti-lynching bills were pushed in Congress, but the Southern Democrats once again worked to keep them out. Whilst Coolidge did not hire any known Klan members, he also did not hire any blacks in prominent roles and kept their employment quiet.
At his commencement address at the historically black Howard University, he praised the African-American World War I veterans and their courage. He also suggested the use of federal funds to give Howard a medical school. Coolidge wanted blacks to have better care and for African-Americans to have more opportunities to achieve middle-class status.
When a black dentist was nominated to be candidate in New York’s 21st district, Coolidge received a letter of complaint, but wrote back saying he was angered by the idea of race stopping someone from voting or running for office.
Citizenship for Native Americans
He wasn’t only known for support of civil rights concerning African-Americans. In 1924, he signed the Indian Citizenship Act. Though two-thirds of Natives already had citizenship, the act conferred full citizenship upon all of them, all while permitting that they retained their land and traditions. As well as this, he appointed a committee to examine dealings with Native Americans. It is fair to say that many Natives may not necessarily have wanted to be a part of this United States, but it was also revolutionary in that it saw them as citizens as opposed to aliens.
The Great Depression: Herbert Hoover, Republican, 1929-1933
Unlike his Republican predecessors, Herbert Hoover was not a strong champion of civil rights. When he was Secretary of Commerce under Coolidge, Hoover did successfully manage to desegregate the department. However, we didn’t see much of this type of action during his Presidency.
In order to stop racial friction, Hoover removed African-Americans from top Republican Party positions in order to end the Democratic stronghold in the South (known as the lily white movement). Whilst he did hire more blacks to federal positions than his two predecessors combined, he was reluctant to pass any federal anti-lynching laws. This was a trigger for African-Americans becoming Democratic voters, even though it did not solidify until FDR’s time.
On Native Americans and Immigration
Hoover’s policy on Native-Americans was positive due to the heritage of his Vice President, Charles Curtis. He wanted the federal role in Native affairs minimised, and wished instead for them to act as individuals.
One thing that many criticise Hoover on is immigration policy. In an attempt to cut numbers and to get more jobs for natives, Secretary of Labour, William N. Doake, invoked a policy of mass deportations. Around one million Mexican-Americans, mainly concentrated in Southern California, were deported to Mexico. Around 60% of these people had been born in the USA, making them automatic citizens.
The Great Depression and World War II: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democrat, 1933-1945
Franklin D. Roosevelt has a very controversial legacy in regards to civil rights. His wife Eleanor was a champion of civil rights, but this did not necessarily extend to her husband.
As a Democrat, FDR did not support anti-lynching legislation even though he opposed the practice. He also didn’t push to get rid of the poll tax, which disproportionately affected blacks. This was a case of pragmatism for him- without the support of the Southern Democrats, he would not get his New Deal programmes passed. Whilst African-Americans took advantage of the New Deal, it was not specifically designed for them and they did not reap the benefits like their white counterparts.
The Federal Council on Negro Affairs
He did, however, listen to the concerns that were brought to him. Throughout his entire presidency, the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, informally known as the Black Cabinet, held his ear (if not fully). It was his wife, Eleanor, who was more involved, as FDR felt that racial equality needed to be put on the back burner during the Depression and war years. It did not fully succeed – it wasn’t even a formal cabinet – but they did push for better community funds, and for the placement of African-Americans in top jobs. The leader of the council was a lady named Mary McLeod Bethune, a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Internment of the Japanese
One issue that many will be aware of is that of the treatment of Japanese-Americans.
Even before the war, the government had a list of “potential agitators” to be rounded up in case of issues with Japan. The internment of Japanese-Americans was under the pretence of national security, but the veneer of racism is clear to see. Though the public initially supported the Japanese, opinion started to change in the weeks after Pearl Harbour. Anyone with 1/16 or more Japanese lineage (that’s having one great-grandparent) would have to go. A small amount of other nationalities received the same treatment, but it was predominantly Japanese-Americans. Around 120,000 were forced into camps with limited healthcare and lack of freedoms. Though they were freed after the war, many had lost loved ones and nearly all had lost property and money. Some had already not been given citizenship due to laws at the time.
The Post-War Years: Harry S. Truman, Democrat, 1945-1951
Harry S. Truman’s legacy on civil rights was lukewarm at best. Like many in his time, he held personal prejudices, though he tended to not show this when legislating civil rights issues. In 1946, he used Executive Order 9808 to establish The President’s Committee on Civil Rights. This committee was made up of blacks and whites, as well as men and women. Their report suggested numerous improvements, such as a federal anti-lynching law and fair employment practices. Not all of these were implemented.
Desegregation of Military Forces
Executive Order 9980 prevented racial discrimination in civil service hiring. The Committee on Government Contract Compliance prevented defence contractors discriminating on racial grounds. His most notable contribution, however, was desegregating the armed forces. Truman had been disgusted at the treatment of African-American veterans on their return to the states. Executive Order 9981 led the Korean War being the first US military conflict in which soldiers were not separated by race.
Post-Presidency, he caused controversy by equating the peaceful lunch counter sit-ins with communism and accused communists of starting the peaceful protests. His exact words are as follows:
If anyone came into my store and tried to stop business I’d throw him out. The Negro should behave himself and show he’s a good citizen.
Martin Luther King, who had formerly respected Truman, was outraged and asked for an apology. The apology never came.
“Evil in Men’s Hearts”: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican, 1953-1961
I do not believe we can cure all the evils in men’s hearts by law.
This was what Dwight D. Eisenhower said regarding civil rights as he campaigned to be President. The respected General spoke of racial equality, but was quick to promise that the government wouldn’t intervene too much. This was probably to stop problems with conservative whites in the south.
Brown v. Board of Education
Though Truman had desegregated the armed forces five years prior, the law was going too slowly for the more egalitarian Eisenhower. He saw Washington, D.C. as a model for racial integration. He also pushed for things to move faster in military bases. This push for desegregation was ushered along by the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v Board of Education. The case was presided over by Chief Justice Earl Warren, a man put on the bench by Eisenhower.
Eisenhower publically praised the decision, but would later bemoan choosing Warren to be on the court: “I made two mistakes, and both are sitting on the Supreme Court.” (The other person referred to is Associate Justice William Brennan.)
The Little Rock Nine
His most famous intervention was in the Little Rock Nine case. In 1957, nine black students attempted to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High. They were racially abused by parents, students and civilians, with many classmates being pulled out by their parents. The Governor of Arkansas himself, Orval Faubus, stepped in to prevent them entering. Though the school board had approved of the plan after Brown v Board, there was massive anger at the decision. Faubus brought in the Arkansas National Guard to support the segregationists, but Eisenhower then brought in federal troops to escort the nine to school.
This was a controversial decision, as many saw it as both a government overreach and a violation of states’ rights. He went further by federalising the entirety of the Arkansas National Guard. Whether it was down to a genuine desire to protect the students or wanting to prove his authority is up to interpretation.
McCarthyism and LGBT Discrimination
One little discussed aspect was Eisenhower and the treatment of LGBT people at the time. Though Eisenhower was anti-Communist, he was disgusted by Senator McCarthy’s witch hunts and worked to televise them to discredit him. Unfortunately, LGBT folks were discriminated against hugely- the majority of the population was against them and openly homosexual activity was illegal. It was believed that LGBT people were more susceptible to communist blackmail due to their desire for secrecy. Executive Order 10450 allowed people to be fired from government jobs for numerous reasons, one of which was “sexual perversion.” Thousands were barred from applying for jobs, whilst more gays were fired for their sexuality than people were for being communist sympathisers.
Civil Rights Goes Mainstream: John F. Kennedy, Democrat, 1961-1963
Though the civil rights movement has lasted for centuries, it is under John F. Kennedy that it really reached the public domain.
Before his election, JFK did something that was either a pragmatic move or genuine show of anti-racism. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested at a sit-in whilst attempting to desegregate a department store. Whilst Nixon worked behind the scenes, JFK was more open. Nixon had stopped persisting when his request for a presidential pardon was denied by Eisenhower. Kennedy chose to personally telephone King Sr. and Coretta Scott King with his support. When this was disclosed, he gained support from the African-American community. Kennedy also called for local politicians to secure King’s release, a move better known than Nixon’s.
Kennedy took time before he became as strong on civil rights as he was known for. His brother and Attorney-General, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, had been a vocal supporter of the movement for longer and was the one who sent federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders. The brothers worked together in the case of James Meredith and the Ole Miss integration. Marshals accompanied him to register for classes, but after riots caused death and injuries, federal troops were mobilised.
Trouble in Alabama
The President used federal troops yet again after the horrific violence in Birmingham, Alabama. The fact that it was televised and that many saw for the first time how protesters were treated made a huge impact – Kennedy sent in troops to a nearby air base. On top of this, he sped up a civil rights bill his administration was cooking up. The Alabama National Guard was federalised during the infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” incident, which was followed up by a televised speech on the importance of civil rights.
Mid to late 1963 seemed to be a good year for civil rights. The famous March on Washington occurred in August and as the year dragged on, a large civil rights bill was jumping over several hurdles in Congress. Whilst Southern Democrats dug their heels in, support was going up – a far cry from when 1/5 of Congress fought against racial equality bills during Eisenhower’s time.
We know how things ended for JFK. His Dallas slaying put a quick end to any civil rights agenda.
Vietnam and The Civil Rights Act: Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat, 1963-1969
Ranked favourably by historians due to his proactive stance on civil rights, Lyndon B. Johnson nevertheless held strong racist views privately and also found his time taken away by a little war halfway across the world.
Johnson was a brilliant politician and operator, and used this in order to pass The Civil Rights Act of 1964. He twisted his way around the blocks that Southern Democrats put up as well as reaching across the aisle in order to bring skeptical Republicans around. Johnson called their bluff by threatening to overrule them, so the Rules Committee voted it through. Strom Thurmond spoke for over 24 hours in the longest filibuster in US political history, but this also failed. Eventually, on the 2nd July 1964, The Civil Rights Act was finally passed.
The Voting Rights Act
His victory against Barry Goldwater allowed Johnson to continue with his agenda, as it left him a clear mandate to continue with his course. Though the Civil Rights Act was in place, many African-Americans and other minorities had been intimidated against voting, refused or given a trick test to prevent them from casting a ballot. This led to The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a piece of legislation that saw the number of blacks in higher office skyrocket. The Voting Rights Act protected voters from racial discrimination and also forbid a number of actions used to prevent minorities from casting their ballots.
Johnson also appointed two men who were firsts in their respective field- Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court Justice (Marshall had won Brown) and Robert C. Weaver as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Both men were African-American and it was a monumental moment.
The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy: A Nation in Turmoil
On the 31st March 1968, Johnson shocked the nation in a televised broadcast when he informed them that he would not be seeking a second term. Eeven under the 22nd Amendment, he was permitted to as he had only served part of Kennedy’s first term. Only days later, MLK was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. The widespread riots that followed created a feeling of ill will by conservative whites, who saw this as a result of LBJ not doing enough. LBJ had continued the FBI wiretapping of MLK, calling the adulterous King “a hypocritical preacher.” Hypocritical indeed for a President who was horrible to his wife and also had affairs.
Robert Kennedy was expected to win the nomination, but his assassination occurred only two months after King’s death. Senator Eugene McCarthy (no relation to anti-communist McCarthy) was a strong contender as an anti-war Democrat who had challenged LBJ before Johnson bowed out, but after Kennedy’s death, his voters switched to George McGovern out of revenge. LBJ’s soft VP, Hubert Humphrey, became the nominee, but lost to Richard Nixon.
The South Goes Red: Richard Nixon, Republican, 1969-1974
The famous tapes released showed that Richard Nixon was notoriously racist and prejudiced in private, especially regarding African-Americans and Jews. His public actions did not reflect this, however.
Busing and White Flight
His most famous crusade was desegregating schools. Even after Brown, there was a clear difference between black and white schools. Nixon advocated for busing, which had children travel to schools in different areas. This angered many whites, who decided to flee to the suburbs or enroll their children in private schooling. He was backed up by a 1971 Supreme Court case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, in which the judges unanimously agreed that busing was necessary and useful in ensuring racial balance. The case had been brought by ten white families in South Carolina.
Nixon also pushed for affirmative action, which was controversial at the time. The Philadelphia Plan forced government contractors in the eponymous city to hire minority workers, mainly builders. Many in the civil rights movement, however, were upset with Nixon. Nixon had pushed for civil rights during his 1960 campaign, including asking the president to pardon MLK after his arrest, but they believed he’d ceded too much ground to conservative whites- The Southern Strategy to turn the south red.
An advocate for Native Americans
One area in which Nixon showed interest was Native American affairs. He had a high school football coach called Hightower, a Native man who showed incredible prowess. Nixon thought that Hightower could easily be a NFL coach, but he was not able to because he wasn’t white. In office, he returned land stolen from Native Americans and also increased funding of the Bureau of Indian Affairs by over 200%. He ensured this money went to tribal leaders themselves as opposed to bureaucrats.
Whilst his resignation meant he didn’t see it through, Nixon helped build the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, a landmark civil rights bill for Natives. It appropriated funds to tribes themselves, improved their education and supported their rights. Interestingly, Nixon supported the Equal Rights Amendment. This put him at odds with the anti-ERA group led by firebrand, arch-conservative Phyllis Schlafly, who were the ones who pushed for the more conservative Reagan in 1976 and 1980. Still, he was no friend of the ultra liberal pro-ERA women, made up of women like Gloria Steinem