10. Bill Clinton (1993-2001): Though he was dubbed the first black president by writer Toni Morrison in 1998, Clinton had a complicated relationship with black America. Still, Clinton presided over record prosperity, the lowest level of black unemployment ever (7.2 percent), and historic reductions in poverty. But perhaps more than anything, it was Clinton’s unprecedented, comfortable approach to black people that earned him points.
9. John Quincy Adams (1825–1829): The sixth president of the united states (and son of the second,) made much of his impact on black America after he left office. Having run successfully for congress, the former president was a strong abolitionist voice, and even represented a group of Africans who had staged a revolt on the slave ship Amistad in their successful bid for freedom before the Supreme Court.
8. Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877): Elected president as the heroic commander of Northern troops who sealed the surrender of the confederacy, and following the disastrous presidency of Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, Grant is considered the strongest advocate for African-Americans of any 19th century president, Including fighting for the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black Americans the right to vote.
7. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945): FDR was no crusader for African-American civil rights, and tolerated segregationist policies in order to secure passage of the New Deal. But Roosevelt did sign a pair of 1941 executive orders that set the stage for generations of economic opportunity for black Americans by barring discrimination in hiring by federal agencies and contractors.
6. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963): Though he was elected with 70 percent of the black vote in 1960, JFK was initially cautious on civil rights. Still, he made historic black appointments to his administration and sent federal troops to protect the Freedom Riders, to aid James Meredith in integrating Ole Miss, and to confront Bull Connor in Alabama. It was Kennedy’s vision for civil rights legislation that was ultimately signed by Lyndon Johnson.
5. Harry Truman (1945–1953): Truman was the first president since Ulysses S. Grant to directly address civil rights. Although known to have expressed racist views, Truman nonetheless created a civil rights commission in 1946 that issued a report, “To Secure These Rights,” that finally examined violence against African-Americans within the U.S. He issued executive orders that ordered the integration of the armed forces, and banned discrimination in the civil service.
4. Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961): The Texas-born war hero signed the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which created the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Eisenhower sent federal troops to help the Little Rock Nine integrate Central High School, and though he came to civil rights reluctantly, Ike swiftly made the armed forces fully implement the racial integration ordered by Harry Truman 15 years earlier.
3. Barack Obama (2009-Present): If it’s possible to be transformational simply by “being,” President Obama has done so. The nation’s first black president made history by winning the presidency in 2008, giving African-Americans a true sense full inclusion in the fabric of the country. He is still building his legacy, but the stimulus, education reform, saving the Detroit auto industry and other programs have benefited black Americans, despite a tough economy.
2. Lyndon Johnson (1963–1969): Johnson broke a southern Democratic filibuster to push through the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and his War on Poverty produced such programs as Head Start, which gave millions of children a chance to escape poverty. Not to mention signing Medicaid and Medicare, which lifted millions of blacks out of poverty.
1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865): Though his personal views of blacks were no different than most other whites of his time, Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, and his decision to go to war against the states that seceded from the nation to protect their “peculiar institution,” made him the liberator of the country’s former slaves.
- of 12
America has had 44 presidents, each of whom has had varying degrees of influence, for better or worse, on the lives of black Americans.
Some presidents have been transformational for black Americans: Lincoln led the Union into war against the slaveholding Confederate states; Harry Truman integrated the military, and Lyndon Johnson signed historic civil and voting rights legislation. Others have been destructive: Andrew Johnson’s refusal to carry out Reconstruction after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination set the stage for the failure of equal protection for America’s black citizens for 100 years; and Woodrow Wilson not only failed to act in the face of record lynchings (including of World War I veterans) under his watch, he screened the pro-Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of a Nation in the White House.
Historian, professor and author Blair L.M. Kelley, says it’s hard to evaluate presidents, particularly recent ones, until the full impact of their policies can be absorbed. For that reason, she hesitates to place President Obama in a “best” context. “I think he’s not done,” Kelley says, but she adds, “he’s had a tremendous impact on the question of black possibility. He’s changed our minds about what we could believe could happen — about the possibilities of black citizenship. So I think he’s impactful.”
Kelley says that a “best” presidents list, to the extent one can create one, should include Franklin D.Roosevelt, because he had “such a tremendous impact on Americans, and African-Americans long term, in terms of changing what’s really possible for government to do.” And she’d include Lyndon Johnson, about whom she says, “if he didn’t have Vietnam, I think he would have been what he wanted to be — which was the fruition of FDR’s vision for antipoverty programs. He brings it full circle, to make [those programs] really inclusive of African-Americans. And he passes all of the substantive civil rights legislation of the modern era; he puts Thurgood Marshall on the court.”
As for the worst? Kelley says that list could include the presidents who failed to carry out Reconstruction, along with Richard Nixon, who brought the surveillance state to bear on black leaders.
With all of that as a backdrop, below are theGrio’s picks for the presidents whose policies made a difference for African-Americans, for the better.