The Outsized Role of the President in Race Relations

A new podcast series explores how the presidency has shaped the nation’s approach to pursuing racial justice

Lyndon Johnson shakes Martin Luther King's hand
President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King Jr. at the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s love of the Martin Luther King quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” went so deep that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. For Obama, writes author Mychal Denzsel Smith, the quote was used “to temper the hope his presidency inspired, to remind those who had placed their faith in his message of change that it would not be one singular moment… that would usher in a new and just society.”

Since the founding of the nation, the United States has had its share of moments that bent the arc in a more just direction, particularly on matters of race, such as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation or the passage of the civil rights acts of the mid-1960s. Those actions came about after decades of work by activists and legislators, the people who inhabit King’s moral universe. The inverse has been true as well, as white supremacists and those too comfortable with the status quo have bent that arc of progress in a direction away from racial justice.

For better and for worse, the presidency, and its stewards over more than 200 years of history, plays a unique role in the racial relations of the country. The president has a tremendous ability to defend the civil liberties of the most vulnerable citizens and help heal racial divisions. Most people probably think of the aforementioned examples of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, or Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson’s support for civil rights legislation. Alternatively, the president can exacerbate racial tensions and enflame violence. In those instances, they might think of the times the president has targeted minority communities, such as President Andrew Johnson’s attempts to undermine black citizenship after the Civil War or Japanese internment under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Countless other examples, however should play a more prominent role in our national story. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant harnessed the power of the newly created Department of Justice to prosecute crimes committed against recently emancipated African Americans in the South. He also sent federal troops to South Carolina to suppress Ku Klux Klan activity. Grant’s successor, Rutherford B. Hayes made a deal with southern Democrats in return for an electoral victory. Once in office, Hayes pulled federal troops out of South Carolina and Louisiana, effectively permitting the return of the Ku Klux Klan and the rise of the Jim Crow era.

While I had read about this history while studying for my graduate exams, I never expected Grant’s administration to feel so relevant to our contemporary moment. After conversations with Hilary Green, a professor at the University of Alabama, and Nick Sacco, a park ranger at the Ulysses S. Grant National Park Service site in St. Louis, I became even more convinced that Grant’s legacy should be a central part of the national conversation about how the government can combat racism. Grant’s use of federal force to support black citizenship takes on extra meaning when we consider that Congress had abolished the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1872, which had provided essential housing, education, and training for recently emancipated African Americans. This discussion about the Reconstruction Era came about for a new podcast I’m co-hosting produced by the Center for Presidential History called The Past, The Promise, The Presidency.

The first season explores the complicated relationship between the president and race, from Lincoln to Donald Trump. Each week, a new episode will drop with expert interviews offering insights on the complex racial story of this nation, what events should be better known, the moments of missed potential, and more.

Sometimes the episodes will push back on well-trod narratives. Historians Edna Medford and Eric Foner ruminated on the many Lincolns in American memory. Lincoln’s contested legacy, his evolution on slavery and abolition, and his imperfections are an essential part of understanding the Civil War. “Lincoln hated slavery. Why?” says Foner. “Because it was a violation of democratic principles, because it violated the Declaration of Independence, because it was injurious to white labor. Notice, I haven't mentioned race yet. When people ask me, ‘What did Lincoln think about race?’ My first answer is that he didn't think about race much.”

An American history that remembers Lincoln as someone who didn’t believe in racial equality, initially opposed emancipation, but then changed his mind when confronted with additional information is a richer and more honest version. “Lincoln was not a saint, he was a human being with all of the same foibles as the rest of us,” adds Medford. “Despite that, he did great things, and that's what we need to remember about him. He really did want a society where people could rise.”

The presidency and race is not just a black-white binary. For instance, Grant’s legacy as the vanquisher of the Confederacy and protector of black rights is marred when evaluating his role in displacing Native American nations from their sovereign lands during the 1860s and 1870s. These differing histories help us understand why protestors toppled a Grant monument in California, but left a similar statue untouched on the East Coast. Historian Alaina Roberts, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land, will be discussing on a future episode how the federal government both supported new citizenship rights for recently emancipated African Americans, while dismantling sovereign rights of Native nations. For example, at the end of the war, the federal government forced Native nations to free their enslaved laborers and divide up tribal land into parcels. Parcels were given to both black and Native members, but additional land was also sold to white settlers eager to move west.

But history isn’t inevitable and also offers so many “what if?” moments. What if John Wilkes Booth hadn’t assassinated Lincoln? What if Lincoln had selected a different vice president than Johnson, who worked to undermine Reconstruction from its inception? In another upcoming episode, I’ll discuss how President James A. Garfield won the election of 1880 on a platform that advocated racial equality. The opportunity to resurrect Reconstruction and protect African American citizenship was lost when Garfield was assassinated just a few months after taking office. Todd Arrington, the site manager of the James Garfield National Park Service site, will help consider the possibilities had Garfield survived.

Too often, the gatekeepers of American history have ironed out the wrinkly history of the presidency and racism, even as black, Latino and Indigenous scholars and their communities have centered this relationship in their understanding of the United States’ past. Similarly, these uncomfortable narratives don’t make it into history textbooks or break through the never-ending news cycle. For example, many textbooks present Woodrow Wilson as a peacekeeper or a staunch defender of democracy because of his role in World War I and the League of Nations. Yet, while promoting democracy and liberalism abroad, Wilson managed increasing segregation in the federal government, supported white supremacist propaganda, and threw a civil rights’ delegation out of the oval office. Recent Black Lives Matters protests have forced Princeton University, where Wilson served as president from 1902 to 1910, to grapple with this history. In June, the University announced it would remove Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson’s support of segregation should be a central part of the national story as well.

Since Americans are rightfully determined to talk about race and the presidency, especially in the next several weeks, we should get the history right. So The Past, The Promise, The Presidency is trying to share this critical information with a broader public in an accessible manner and through a popular medium. I hope you’ll join us.

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