Originally, my research paper was going to focus on how presidents addressed and enforced civil rights policies prior to the modern civil rights era (i.e. pre-1963). I discovered however that this was far too ambitious of a project, and I needed to scale down my timeline. While researching, I came across an incident in 1881 wherein President Chester Arthur (1881-1885) intervened on behalf of West Point Cadet Johnson Whittaker. Whittaker, the only African American cadet, had been dismissed from West Point after being accused of fighting another student. When evidence suggested that the charges were spurious and that Whittaker had been dismissed because of racial prejudice, Arthur overturned the ruling of the tribunal and had Whittaker reinstated. The Whittaker affair piqued my interest in focusing on the Gilded Age presidents (1869-1901) and how they handled civil rights. I had operated under the assumption that the Gilded Age presidents were at best indifferent towards the plight of marginalized groups. The historical record, however, suggests otherwise.
Not only were Gilded Age presidents fairly involved in shaping civil rights policy but also they oversaw the development of ideas that were quite progressive for the late 19th century. For example, during Benjamin Harrison’s presidency (1889-1893), Senator James Blaine (R-ME) proposed legislation that provided federal funding to states’ education programs. However, in order to receive funding, state governors had to provide evidence showing that their states’ public schools were racially integrated. The fact that legislation such as this had been proposed more than 70 years prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is incredible. Additionally, my research found that Gilded Age presidents focused on other minority groups aside from African Americans. When Gilded Age presidents failed to make a substantial impact on the conditions of one group, they would tend to focus on another minority population. For instance, although Grover Cleveland (1885-1889) and Chester Arthur enjoyed little success in defending the rights of Southern blacks, they both enacted tremendously successful Native American programs.
Overall, what I found most compelling about my research was that it dismantled a lot of the misconceptions I had about both the Gilded Age and the relationship between presidents and civil rights. Surprisingly, I found that presidents were able to augment their executive powers by becoming strident supporters of civil rights. The creation of various commissions and federal agencies to defend the rights of minorities ultimately came under the purview of the president. My research led me to conclude that the executive branch took the lead in defending civil rights. The phenomenon of presidents leading the way in advocating for civil rights is easily seen in today’s modern political system. Recently, the Obama Administration has defended the Voting Rights Act, pushed for same sex marriage legislation, and called for greater action to prevent violence against women.
I’m looking forward to seeing all of you again next week!