Frederick Douglass first visited Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1863 on behalf of “colored” soldiers, as they were then known, to demand equal pay, equal protection and retaliation upon enemy capture as well as equal distinction and promotion for honorable service. From that visit, Lincoln and Douglass became fast friends and had consistent contact until Lincoln’s assassination.
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Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington (pictured here to the right of President Theodore Roosevelt) gained national attention for his 1895 address known as the Atlanta Compromise, where he insisted that, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” In 1898, President William McKinley visited Tuskegee. In 1901, Washington’s White House invite from President Theodore Roosevelt generated much criticism from white racists but Washington remained an important presidential aide in race relations, as President William H. Taft also sought Washington’s counsel.
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A. Philip Randolph
At their September 1940 White House meeting, A. Philip Randolph, head of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to desegregate the armed forces and promote equal employment opportunities. Roosevelt’s slow response prompted Randolph to begin organizing the March on Washington. Two weeks before the March, Randolph was invited back to the White House and, on June 2, 1941, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry and creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to monitor hiring practices in exchange for calling off the March.
(AP Photo/Henry Burroughs)
Mary McLeod Bethune
A close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, legendary educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune (pictured here with President Harry Truman) had considerable influence in the White House during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, serving as the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration from 1936 to 1943. As a member of Roosevelt’s so-called “black cabinet,” FDR frequently sought Bethune’s counsel regarding race relations.
(AP Photo/Harvey Georges)
E. Frederic Morrow
The first African-American to hold a key executive position at the White House, E. Frederic Morrow (pictured to left of Eisenhower), who served during President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration as Administrative Officer for Special Projects from 1955 to 1961, did not have an easy time. Serving during key society-altering events such as the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Little Rock School Integration crisis, Morrow wrote of his frustrations within the Eisenhower Administration in his autobiography, Black Man in the White House, published in 1963. In 1960, Morrow campaigned for Richard Nixon’s unsuccessful run for president.
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Whitney Young, Jr.
Legendary president of the National Urban League, Whitney M. Young, Jr., served as a key resource to several presidents. Credited as the co-author of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, Young was also a key advisor on race relations to Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, lending his services to seven presidential commissions, particularly in the areas concerning youth employment and equal opportunity. Young, who died untimely at the young age of 49, was such an important leader that President Nixon delivered his gravesite eulogy in 1971.
(AP Photo/Bill Alllen)
Louis E. Martin
Louis E. Martin, the Michigan Chronicle’s first editor and publisher, first became prominent in national politics as assistant publicity director of the Democratic National Committee in 1944 during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s re-election campaign. A key advisor during John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, Martin advised Kennedy to call Coretta Scott King when her husband was jailed. As a result, Kennedy won critical African-American votes, including that of Dr. King’s father, a fervent Republican. Martin played a key role in Lyndon B. Johnson’s historic appointment of Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court Justice and also served as senior advisor to President Jimmy Carter.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Few people knew it but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. played more than a public role in making the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in particular a reality. During the summer of 1965, especially weeks before Johnson signed the critical legislation into law, he and Dr. King, as documented by recorded phone conversations between the two, were in consistent dialogue. King was not afraid to ask Johnson where the legislation stood and, more importantly, was willing to do his part publicly and privately to ensure the passage of the legislation, which happened on August 6, 1965.
An influential leader in the civil rights movement, Andrew Young, who became Georgia’s first black elected congressman since Reconstruction, was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, where he helped protect human rights and promote economic advancement in underdeveloped nations, by Georgia’s own President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Young’s ambassadorship ended in 1979 over a secret meeting with the PLO to broker peace in the Middle East but he remained influential in presidential politics and was even appointed by President Bill Clinton to oversee a $100 million Southern Africa Development Fund in 1994.
A decorated and distinguished general, Colin Powell was not a clandestine presidential advisor. The first African-American to serve as National Security Advisor, Powell coordinated technical and policy staff during President Reagan’s summit meetings with Soviet President Gorbachev. Under President George W. Bush, Powell served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff leading Desert Shield and Desert Storm, prominent military operations that elevated him to national prominence. During the administration of George W. Bush, Powell became the first African American to serve as Secretary of State.
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Rev. Jesse Jackson
Although he will be most remembered for his own two unsuccessful presidential
runs in 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson also became a spiritual advisor to
President Clinton in 1998 in the midst of his impeachment proceedings and the
Monica Lewinsky scandal during Clinton’s second term. Later, however, Jackson
had his own scandal when it was discovered that he had an extramarital affair that produced a child.
(Photo by Cynthia Johnson/Liaison)
Former National Urban League president Vernon Jordan is most well known for his prominent role in his friend Bill Clinton’s presidency. In addition to serving as chairman of the Clinton presidential transitional team in 1992, Jordan also served on the Presidential Clemency Board and the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, among others, in the White House. Prior to his role in the Clinton administration, Jordan, a Georgia native, also advised President Jimmy Carter. In 2006, during George W. Bush’s administration, Jordan served as a key member of the Iraq Study Group which sought answers on how to manage the Iraq War.
(Photo By Cynthia Johnson/Getty Images)
Plucked from Stanford University where she was a political science professor and provost, Condoleezza Rice first government appointment was as the Soviet and Eastern European Affairs Advisor under President George H.W. Bush. Rice, who is from Birmingham and knew one of the four little girls killed in the 1963 bombing, was a trusted advisor to President George W. Bush where she became the first African-American woman to serve as both National Security Advisor (2001-2005) and Secretary of State (2005-2009).
(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Few presidential advisors have had the relationship that Valerie Jarrett has shared with President Obama. A key advisor to Obama long before he was a senator or president, Jarrett, whose official title is senior advisor and assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement, reportedly advises and aids the president on almost everything, from reassuring Jewish leaders about American strategy on Egypt to addressing Al Sharpton’s concerns about Obama’s education policy. Only one of the remaining four advisors that began with Obama, Jarrett, who was born in Iran, is credited as a key consensus builder.
(Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)
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Barack Obama is the nation’s first black president, but when it comes to having a voice in the White House, African-Americans haven’t necessarily been relegated to the sidelines.
Click here to view a MSNBC Beltway slideshow of up-and-coming black political leaders
Throughout history, African-American leaders have often provided critical insight, especially as it pertains to race relations, for presidents of both parties. Below is a list of some key advisors who were able to bend the ears of our commanders in chief through the decades.
Some are well-known, while others worked in relative obscurity. Regardless of their status, these men and women offered key counsel during some of this nation’s most turbulent and historic moments.