The Supreme Sentinel: Presidential Power in Promoting and Protecting Civil Rights

“Grant Attacking Head of the KKK”, Circa 1870

In light of recent events, from the Skip Gates affair during the summer of 2010, to President Obama’s evolving viewpoint on same-sex marriage, I have become intrigued in further understanding the relationship between the Office of the President and the advancement of civil rights. In my opinion, the conventional narrative focuses too much on the modern Civil Rights Era and the efforts of only certain presidents. It is my hope to expand this connection between the White House and civil rights and to argue that it has been Presidential action – rather than Congressional or judicial action – that has been critical to the promotion of civil rights.

This paper will be predominately historical in focus, beginning with the Grant Administration and its war against the Ku Klux Klan. It will also hopefully explore examples of failures in presidential leadership – instances in which the Chief Executive ignored, or in some cases, worsened, the state of civil rights in the country.

Some of the main questions that I will address include: How have presidents utilized their executive power and influence to address civil rights? What similarities and differences exist amongst the various administrations? Organizationally, I will classify examples of presidential action into three overarching groups: (1) Rhetoric [how presidents have implemented the bully pulpit to influence the national dialogue on civil rights and race], (2) Administrative [how presidents have utilized their role as head of the Executive Branch to implement civil rights], and (3) Military [how presidents have asserted their powers as Commander-in-Chief to resolve civil rights disputes].

For methodology, I intend on utilizing a mixture of both primary and secondary sources. Some primary documents that I intend to use include presidential addresses and speeches, executive orders, and correspondences between presidents and certain civil rights organizations (such as the NAACP or the ACLU).

Thus far in my research, one trend that I have observed is that the time period seems to have some correlation as to which of the three different strategies is primarily used. For example, Rhetoric seemed to be the strategy of choice for most of the presidents from the Gilded Age to the beginning of the Great Depression. One fascinating piece of research that I uncovered was a series of statements issued by President Coolidge, which advocated for a national convention on race. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, one can see a transition away from Rhetoric towards Administrative with the flurry of executive orders issued by FDR and Truman. During the 1950s and 1960s, the third strategy – Military – seemed to be the tactic of choice as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all either threatened or used military force to ensure the enactment of civil rights legislation or Supreme Court rulings.  Finally, it appears that contemporary presidents, such as Obama, have resorted more to the Administrative Strategy to confront issues involving inequality and civil rights.

I would love to receive any comments or feedback! Thanks guys!

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One Response to The Supreme Sentinel: Presidential Power in Promoting and Protecting Civil Rights

  1. This sounds really interesting! I especially like the way you’ve broken Presidential strategies down into those three categories. Do you think any one of those was more obviously effective than the rest, or is that question and the application of each strategy so tied to immediate context that it’s impossible to generalize that far?

    Good luck with your research! I’ll look forward to meeting you in DC in November.

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