Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents

 Margaret Kimberley’s new book on US Presidents and Black people Shows Why the executive mansion is called the “White” House.

Margaret Kimberley examines U.S. presidents on the question of their treatment of African-Americans (plus a few tangents into their treatment of Native Americans) in her new book, Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents. Her focus is very rightly on the policies presidents imposed on the country, but also on what their personal actions and statements were throughout their lives. 

Writer David Swanson, in an article for Black Agenda Report, makes the following  points in his review of the book:

•Washington, D.C., is named for the wealthiest enslaver of his day, and located in the swamp it’s in because powerful slave-owners wanted it there and wanted to be able to bring slaves there. George Washington, or Conotocaurious (his Iroquois name meaning Town Destroyer), was the first of every president up through Lincoln who supported the continuation of slavery. Kimberley notes that “[a] great irony exists in the fact that Washington is now the ‘blackest’ surname in the United States. Ninety percent of the Washington’s in America are Black people.”

•John Adams favored the forced removal of Black people from the United States. At the time of the war of 1812, Adams denounced the British for not leaving the “stolen Negroes” (men who had escaped slavery to fight on the British side) to starve, or shipping them to Africa, but rather giving them a colony in Nova Scotia.

•John Quincy Adams was the most anti-slavery president and former president the United States has ever had, but was no abolitionist.   She denounces his support for compensated emancipation or for ending slavery by freeing all those born after a certain date.

•There are familiar hypocrites like Jefferson who expressed both fine and awful sentiments while pretty consistently engaging in awful behavior politically and personally. There are others like William Henry Harrison who owned people as slaves his whole life and is said to have fathered six children with an enslaved woman, and who expressed both fine and awful sentiments while pretty consistently engaging in awful behavior politically and personally, but whose story may be less familiar than Jefferson’s.

• Presidents numbers 13, 14, and 15 were Northerners who did not own anyone but fully supported the practice of doing so. Fillmore supported and signed the Fugitive Slave Act. He also supported forcibly sending all blacks to Africa or the West Indies. Pierce wrote to his friend Jefferson Davis in 1860 expressing his support for slavery. Buchanan, as president elect, urged Supreme Court Justices to rule in the Dred Scott case in the manner that they did, namely denying rights to African Americans, and attempting to block legal means of ending slavery.

• President #16, the Great Emancipator, Lincoln, was openly racist, supported forced colonization, blamed Black people’s presence for the war (and told them that directly), and fought a war for years before self-emancipating Blacks and slagging northern support for war led him to declare the cause to be freedom. 

 •With Andrew Johnson (#17) it was right back to a president who had owned slaves, as had #18 Ulysses S. Grant. Johnson did so much to deny freedom to Black people that Congress impeached him (though the ground for impeachment was the firing of the Secretary of War). Grant oversaw and tolerated a rise in racism, segregation, and terrorism. Rutherford B. Hayes (#19) was actually selected (not elected) as part of a deal to end Reconstruction.

•There followed numerous racist, pro-colonization, and pro-white presidents. One of the nastiest was that hero of popular culture, Teddy Roosevelt. Another was Woodrow Wilson, a horribly racist, oligarchic, warmonger, raised by parents who had owned slaves, who has gone down in history as a liberal spreader of democracy.

 •Then came three racist Republican opponents of Black rights, each chronicled by Kimberley. Franklin Roosevelt (#32) rejected a proposal to consider the case of a Black man accused of murder in Virginia, by telling the U.S. Attorney General, “I warned you not to call me again about any of Eleanor’s niggers. Call me one more time and you are fired.” FDR successfully advocated for legislation like the Social Security Act that excluded agriculture and domestic work and therefore most black people.

 •Harry Truman (#33) was openly racist and had been a member of the KKK, but was moved by public pressure to take steps such as desegregating the military. Former president Truman in 1960 remarked that if civil rights advocates staged a sit-in in a store he owned, he’d throw them out. Kimberley discusses a trend in her accounts of numerous presidents, of liberals and Black people giving enormous credit to presidents for occasional crumbs tossed their way. She quotes Truman’s special assistant on civil rights recounting a large crowd praying prior to a speech by Truman. “They thought it was a religious occasion.”

 •Eisenhower (#34) was no hero, generally dragging his feet on civil rights. 

A pattern of giving Democratic presidents dramatically too much credit is well documented through the remaining presidents in the list.  Nixon re-normalized racism and promoted numerous harmful policies, including one that Kimberley might have added to her account: the “war” on drugs. Ford opposed busing,  and backed segregated private schools.

•Jimmy Carter campaigned for president, saying, “I see nothing wrong with ethnic purity being maintained. I would not force racial integration of a neighborhood by government action.” 

 •Ronald Reagan pursued the re-legalization of segregation.     

  •Bill Clinton made sure more Black people went to prison and fewer received welfare benefits.

 •Barack Obama’s policies hurt black people, but his blackness gave him protection from any public activism, she writes.

(This article in its entirety appeared in Black Agenda Report.  David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is executive director ofWorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio.He is a 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.

This article first appeared on DavidSwanson.org