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.