The Outsized Role of the President in Race RelationsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, presidential history, podcasts
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.
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