FOUR GREATEST PRESIDENTS
FROM A BLACK PERSPECTIVE
By Uriah J. Fields
During the 237 years the United States has been a nation there have been forty-four presidents. Some of them have been mediocre, some ordinary who at best were status quo-keepers, and others who made a positive difference and moved America toward becoming "a more perfect union."
In this discourse the primary focus is on the greatest presidents who contributed significantly to black Americans acquiring more freedom and justice during their presidency. Or, simply stated, toward enjoying all the rights and privileges enjoyed by white Americans.
Names for Black Americans
Before discussing these presidents a discussion will focus on names Blacks have been called and indicate which ones are appropriate to be used when referring to the ethnicity or race of that group of people who are descendants of Africans who were enslaved in America. At present there are 39 million black Americans, constituting 12.5 percent of the total population of Americans.
Two generations ago James Baldwin a black American, published a highly praised and provocative book titled Nobody Knows My Name that addressed the names and namelessness experience of Blacks. Now, as then, Americans of African descent have often been nameless or misnamed. An applicable truth is expressed by Shakespeare in Othello:
Good name in man and woman, dear my Lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals, trash, 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
Howard Thurman, a black theologian, captures the essence of a name and namelessness in the statement below from his book, The Inward Journey:
It is a strange freedom to go nameless... .
The name marks the claim a man stakes against
the world; it is the private banner under which he
moves which is his right whatever else betides.
The name is a man's watermark above which the
tide can never rise... .It is his announcement to
life that he is present and accounted for in all
During the nearly 400 years Africans and their descendants have been in North America that included 244 years when they were slaves and 100 years when they were segregated, discriminated against and disfranchised, they have been called many names by white people, included were derogatory and degrading names, not the names of their African progenitors.
Before presenting the name or names, including those I will use in this discourse, I want to reflect on an encounter I had about names for black Americans. In 1994 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., published the book, Colored People. Reading this book I was impelled to write a letter of protest that was published in the "Los Angeles Times," under the caption "Of Names and Times" on June 12, 1994. This was my letter:
The book Colored People by Henry Louis Gates,
Jr., reviewed in the book review May 8 is a
disappointment to black Americans. It is
unthinkable that a descendant of African slaves
and chairman of the department of the
Afro-American studies at Harvard University
would, in the '90s, write a book in which he says
to his two daughters: 'in your lifetime, I suspect,
you will go from being African Americans 'people
of colored' to being, once again 'colored
people"... I don't mind any of the names myself
but I have to confess that I like "colored" best.
Included in my letter to Professor Gates was this message intended for his daughters Maggie and Lisa whose names appeared in the "Preface" of his
book: While there may not be much hope for
changing the mind of Papa Gates I would like
for your daughters to know that (1) Papa does
not know best in this matter of your true name
and (2) your true name is American of African
After Gates received a letter from me in which I expressed my objection to"Us" using the name 'colored' and a copy of my letter to the Los Angeles Times, he sent me this letter of reply:
July 11, 1994
Dear Mr. Fields:
Thank you for your your letter. We Americans of
African descent have expended much energy
over the years determining what we should be
called. There is, as we both well know a valid
reason: the ability to determine is to exercise
a measure of control and we always stand in
need of greater control over our own lives and
destines. Various names have waxed and
waned through history and will, I'm sure
continue to do so. I appreciate the fact
that you are contributing to this debate.
Henry Louis Gates
It is gratifying for me to know that Gates have since used the terms "African American" and "Black" as can be found in the book The Future of the Race, (1997) that he co-authored with Cornel West.
Blacks were calling themselves various names by the time the name "Afro-American" gained limited acceptance. I don't think the popularity of the Afro-hair-do helped to make the name Afro-American acceptable. The name "African American" surfaced. It first appeared in the poem I Can by Johnny Duncan that appeared on "The 1987 Black History Calendar" where it remained through 1993. However, I had used the name earlier. It was Jesse Jackson who in 1989 led a heightening race-consciousness advocacy pushing the term African American as the appropriate name for Blacks and non-Blacks to use to identify the ethnicity or race of black Americans. Some other black leaders joined Jackson in his advocacy. But there were some black leaders who were highly critical of Blacks using this new name to identify themselves. I recall apopular black preacher in Los Angeles who was the favorite black preacher for white Southern Baptist congregations and Billy Graham crusade gatherings denouncing Blacks for wantig to cease calling themselves Negroes. While preaching on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TV) he said "My Mama was a Negro. If that name was good enough for her it's good enough for me!" He added "I am a Negro." To make it somewhat palpable, I suppose, to Blacks, he added, "and I am a child of God." But before his demise a decade or so later I heard him use the terms "African American" and "Black."
Although the name I prefer Blacks calling themselves is "Americans of African Descent," I accept the name "African American" as being legitimate and an appropriate name for Blacks to call themselves. In my book, Free at Last: Prescriptions for Black Equity, by Uriah J. Fields, published in 1986, a year before "The 1987 Black History Calendar" was published and three years before Jesse Jackson's advocacy for Blacks to call themselves African Americans, I stated:
... a brief word on the term "Black" is in order.
African American is the correct term to be
used when referring to the nationality of a
black American citizen. However, the term
"Black" when capitalized and used as a noun
rather than an adjective, is an appropriate
name, even preferred especially when the
intent of the user of the term is to
acknowledge an African American's
encounter or relationship with "white
racism." The term "Black," the opposite of
"White," accurately describes the condition
of a black person living in white America,
systemically speaking, and the nature of his
correct response to his condition and to white
racism. In this discussion "White" will also be
used as the appropriate term to be applied when
referring to a white American (p. 6).
Over the last quarter of a century my terminology regarding the appropriate name or names for Americans of African Descent to use have not changed. In this discourse I will use the terms "Black" when referring to a black American of African ancestry and "White when referring to a white American or Anglo-Saxon.
Europeans Establish Colonies in North America
Before the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, that inaccurately refers to the time "Columbus discovered America," which he never discovered, there were an estimated 10 million Indians, indigenous people, living in what is not called America. Columbus also named the indigenous people of the Americas Indians. Eurasian diseases such as smallpox, influenza, bubonic plague, and pneumonic plague devastated indigenous people who did not have immunity as did Whites who brought them these diseases. Many others were killed with the gun that was superior to the Indian's bow and arrow. According to the US Census Bureau in 2010 the Indian population in the United States were 5.2 million, included 2.9 million in all states other than Alaska which has an Indian population of 2.3 million.
While the decimation of Indians were taking place and Africans being captured by Europeans and enslaved in America Portugal and Spain were engaged in exploration of the Atlantic Ocean and the new world. Portugal explored South America and claimed Brazil as a colony. Portugal was also engaged in the slave trade as was Spain. In 1513 the Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon set foot on what is now St. Augustine and claimed the territory for Spain which he names "La Florida,." But Spain had not established a permanent settlement in the new world when the first of English settlement called Virginia was established in 1607. The first representative Assembly in Virginia was held in 1619. Other colonies followed: Massachusetts in 1620, New Hampshire in 1623, Maryland in 1634, Connecticut in 1635, Rhode Island in 1636, Delaware in1638, New Jersey in 1664, New York in 1664, North Carolina in 1653, South Carolina in 1663, Pennsylvania in 1682 and Georgia in 1732. These became known as the thirteen colonies that existed that existed prior to the existence of the United States. Although Vermont is located in the New England region of the northeastern North America it was never claimed a colonial power. It was considered part of French North America. At the beginning of the French and Indian War (1754) the total population of the colonies was 1,165.000 white and 260,000 colored. The United States was formed during the Revolutionary War on July 4, 1776.
Great Presidents, but not for Black People
Now the focus is on Presidents who were great as evidenced by their accomplishments. Below are three great presidents, but who were not great presidents insofar as having contributed to the advancement of black people. They were slave owners. However, to reiterate, because of their achievements they are presented here as great presidents. No, they were not friends of black people. To the contrary, they were enemies of black people who considered them to be chattel. They are:
George Washington (1789-1797). the first President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army. He had been a leading commander during the American Revolutionary War. He is called the "father of his country." He owned slaves.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), the third President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He oversaw the vast Louisiana purchase of territory from France (1803) and sent the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806) to explore the new west. He owned slaves and, according to the most reliable sources and DNA, fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello.
James K. Polk (1845-1849), the eleventh President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. His expansion led the nation to a sweeping victory in the American-Mexican War which gave the United States most of the present Southwest. He oversaw the opening of the Navy Academy and the Smithsonian Institution, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument, Mexico cede New Mexico and California for $15 million, Texas "re-annexed" and Oregon "re-occupied."
It is important to indicate that slave labor enriched America far beyond the age of a new nation, enabling her to accumulate wealth greater than many long established nations. As a result of the this America was able, between 1800 and 1867, to effect in 1803 the Louisiana purchase from France for $15 million, in 1819 the Florida (East and West) purchase from Spain for $5 million, 1848 purchase from Mexico the Mexican Cession, following the American-Mexican War for $15 million plus $3.25 million in assumed claims, and in1867 the Alaska purchase from Russia for $7.2 million. According to the U.S. Census Bureau of 1860 the U.S. population of 31,443.21 of which 27,489.561 were free people and 3,953.760 were slaves. Two years later, at the beginning of the Civil War the slave population was 4.2 million.
It is important to note that Spain, France, England and Russia selling these lands is somewhat like you or me selling someone the Brooklyn Bridge that does not belong to you or me. The Brooklyn Bridge standing on land and over water that does not belong to the owners of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Four Greatest Presidents to Benefit Black People
The four greatest presidents of the United States from the black perspective are the four greatest presidents not only from a black perspective but from a moral perspective and for their contributions to America. However, be that as it may, they are definitively the greatest presidents in the minds and hearts of black Americans.
Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), the 16th President and Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 abolishing slavery. However, it would not become effective until after the Civil War (1861-1865). The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution adopted on December 6, 1865 abolished slavery. Lincoln was assassinated. He paved the way for passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified July 9, 1868. It was first intended to secure rights for former slaves and it provides a broad definition of United States citizenship. The Fifteenth Amendment ratified February 3, 1870, provided that governments in the United States may not prevent a citizen from voting based on race, color or previous conditions of servitude (i.e., slavery).
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) was the 32nd President and Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. He issued Executive Order 8802, June 25 1941 to prohibit discrimination in the National Defense industry. The Order established the President's Commission on Fair Employment Practice with the Official of Production Management to investigate violations and take steps to redress grievances. Despite the order prohibiting any government agency, including the armed forces from discriminating against blacks, the Marine Corps and Navy remained all white until 1943. However, Blacks did advance as a result of his efforts and that of his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution after the group denied Marian Anderson the right to use the Washington's Constitution Hall in 1939. She helped arrange for Marian to give a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. E. D. Nixon who paid the bail for Rosa Parks to be released from jail and his talks with the First Lady led to establishing a USO in Montgomery for black military families in Montgomery, Alabama during World War II. Nixon showed me a photo of himself and the First Lady posing together. Nixon and this writer (Uriah J. Fields) were founders and officers along with Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Montgomery Improvement Association, (named by Ralph David Abernathy) that directed the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Harry S.Truman (1945-1953) was the 33rd President and Commander-in-Chief during World War II from April 12, 1945, the day of President Roosevelt's death when he became President and Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945 and after the bombing of Hiroshima on May 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945 to end the World War II. Truman formed a Civil Rights Commission in 1946 and issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948 that abolished segregation in the armed forces. It was not until the start of the Korean war in June of 1950 that I, who had enlisted in the Army in March 1948, was placed in an integrated company of soldiers. In October, 1948 when Truman was on his campaign train whistle-stop tour I and a few other soldiers stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, was privileged to shake hands with Truman when his train stopped at the train station in Baltimore.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) was the 36th President and Commander-in-Chief during the Vietnam War. Regardless to how people felt or feel about the Vietnam War, Johnson's contribution to the advancement of black Americans in particular and all Americans in general was remarkable in magnitude and unmatched by that of any other President, except Lincoln. Johnson's actions made these words "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" spewed out of the vile mouth of Governor George Wallace during his Inaugural Address as Governor of Alabama, a lie told by a liar, notwithstanding the fact that these words became the rallying cry for people in Alabama and throughout the South who opposed integration and Civil Rights.
Of course, Johnson had help in accomplishing he Civil Rights feat that is best illustrated by this statement: Harry Belafonte said that during the early months of World War II A Philip Randolph, Founder and President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, met with President Roosevelt in the White House and urged him to eliminate racial discrimination in the Defense industry. The President listened intently to him for twenty-three minutes. Then Roosevelt said, "Randolph, make me do it." He was not being defiant or opposing what Randolph asked of him. He was saying encourage your people to take action that will make it possible for me to do what you have asked me to do.
The point is: peoppe engaged in the Civil Rights Movement of which Martin Luther King, Jr., was the chief leader, created a climate through protests, marches, advocacy, violence, and the deaths of protesters, that made it possible for President Johnson to convince enough people in Congress, without the support of Southern congressmen, to enact Civil Rights laws that would trump State Rights laws that had deprived Blacks in the South of their Civil Rights since Reconstruction when the Ku Klux Klan ruled the South.
Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by Johnson on August 6, 1965, suspended poll taxes, literacy tests and other subjective voting tests. Within months of the passage of this Act 250,000 Blacks had registered to vote. I recall how difficult it was for me to vote in 1954 after being discharged from the Army during the Korean War. I did register to vote in Montgomery, Alabama 10 years before the Voting Rights Act because of my courage, determination and having the GI Bill that permitted me to attend college and not be fired from a job. I could add, and "luck," realizing that some people were killed for trying to register to vote. At that time Lowndes County that adjourned Montgomery County had a black population of 65 percent and not a single black voter. After I left Alabama in the early sixties Stokely Carmichael known for his famous "black power" declaration, and some other Civil Rights protesters spent a lot of time empowering people in Lowndes County. His "black power" proclamation became a rallying cry for years prior to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act.
Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed by Johnson on April 11, 1968, exactly one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and during the race riots across America in the aftermath of King's death. Colloquially and accurately, this Act is called the "Fair Housing Act." Before this Act became law there was widespread discrimination in housing throughout America: North, South, West and East. California was one of the few states that had a law banning discrimination in housing called the Unruh Civil Rights Act (1959), bearing the name of Jesse Unruh who was Speaker of the California State Assembly from September 1961 to January 1969. The Act covered arbitrary and intentional discrimination and mandated the payment of up to three times the cost for damage and amount of not less than $250.00. In an attempt to strengthen the Unruh Civil Rights law, Assemblyman, William Byron, a black legislator, sponsored The California Fair Housing Act of 1963. It as one of the most significant and sweeping laws protecting the rights of blacks and other people of color to purchase or rent housing and real property. It requires violators to pay $1,000.
My Housing Discrimination Lawsuit
This writer made use of the Unruh Civil Righs Act in 1963 after being unable to become a renter of a new apartment in Los Angeles that was owned by Mr. & Mrs. David Klein. After several attempts to rent an apartment that was being advertised in the "Herald Examiner," I asked Mr. H. Mann, a Caucasian and member of the local Congress of Racial Equality to see if he could rent an apartment in that apartment complex. I gave him the amount of money that was required to make a deposit of an apartment. He was able to rent an apartment, as he put it, with no questions asked."
I decided to file a lawsuit against the owner of that aparment complex. Being aware that the American Friends Service Committee (Quaker), located in Pasadena, California had an interest in fair housing, I contacted a repesentative of the group who suggested that I contact Attorney George Baltaxe, a partner in the Willard and Baltaxe Law Firm, located in Beverly Hills. In March of 1963, I met with Attorney Baltaxe and paid him a retainer fee in the amont of $75.00 and agreed that he would receive one-half Per Centum of any money that I received as a settlement in this matter.
I met with Attorney Baltaxe and received communcations from him several times prior to receiving this letter dated January 12, 1964:
Rev. U. J. Fields
Re: Fields vs. Klein
Dear Reverend Fields:
I am pleased to inform you that I have receive a check for the sum of $250.00
in payment for your claim against the owners of the apartment dwelling located
at 1917 Montrose Street, Los Angeles, California, under the Unruh Civil Rights
The payment represents the statutory penalty for an act of discrimination in
housing. I consider the payment a tacit admission of discrimination against you
and a full vindication of your rights.
Please endorse the check and return it to me. I will then hold the check for
approximately one week to make sure that it is good. I shall then send you a
check for $125.00 pursuant to our retainer agreement and dismiss the lawsuit
against the various defendants. Thank you very much for referring this case to me.
I hope you are pleased with the result.
Very truly yours,
Willard and Baltaxe
On January 24, 1964, I received this final letter from Attorney Baltaxe regarding this housing discrimination case:
Re: Fields vs. Klein
Dear Reverend Fields:
I am pleased to enclose herewith a check for $125.00 representing
your share in the settlement of $250.00 in the above matter.
As you well recall this case involved a refusal to rent an apartment
to you at 1917 Montrose Street in Los Angeles, California because
of the fact that you were a Negro. You will recall that you answered
and Ad in the Herald Examiner and that despite the availability of the
apartment you were refused as a tenant and not withstanding the fact
that you offered to make the proper deposit.
Subsequent negotiations and discussions with the owners of the
premises, Mr. and Mrs. David Klein, and discussions with their
attorney revealed that you were not to be permitted to rent there and
that they would pay you no damages pursuant to law.
After consultation with me, at your request I filed a lawsuit in
the Municipal Court of the Los Angeles Judicial District under the
Unruh Civil Rights Act. Said action was vigorously contested. A
number of court hearings had on legal issues involved availed the
defendants nothing. It was ultimately set down for trial on January
On the day before trial, when face with the prospect of appearing
in court and defending their illegal activities, the defendants decided
to pay the full amount of the penalty under the Unruh Civil Rights
Act in the sum of $250.00, thus tacitly admitting their guilt in this
I believe in this case your position has been completely
vindicated. I hope that it will serve as some sort of an impetus on
the Negroes of the community to utilize their rights under the law.
If this was done the amount of discrimination in existence in
housing would greatly diminish in my opinion.
Thank you very much for referring this case to me. I hope
you are satisfied with the outcome.
Very truly yours,
Willard and Baltaxe
I have presented this case to show the value of having laws that ban discrimination and to indicate that in 1964 four years before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1968 that bans discrimination in housing, how the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, in my opinion, contributed to the enactment of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1968. California has been an avant-garde for moving America forward in more than a few areas.
It was not until President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that Blacks had access to housing without being discriminated against except for a few places like California and as my housing case indicates it required going to court to get justice. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 Blacks have seldom had to go to court to gain access to housing. However, admittedly, the Act has not totally eliminated discrimination in housing.
Therefore, I encourage Blacks who are discriminated against in housing to do as I did in California when there were no federal law banning housing discrimination, go to court. Now, there is a federal law and Blacks should heed this statement Attorney Baltaxe gave me, as stated in the next to the last paragaph of his final letter regarding the settlement obtained in my housing discrimination case.
I believe in this case your position has been completely
vindicated. I hope that it will serve as some sort of an
impetus on the Negroes of the community to utilize
their rights under the law. If this were done the amount
of discrimination in existence in housing would greatly
diminish in my opinion.
I agree with Attorney Baltaxe and now, one year short of a half century after my housing discrimination case, I urge Blacks and hopefully white people who believe in justice to support Blacks in eliminating discrimination in housing by going to court when housing discrimination is experienced. Blacks have the law on their side. That is a phenomenon in America. This did not exist anywhere in America except for California and a few other places prior to the Civil Rights of 1968.
Presdent Johnson signed the aforementioned three Civil Rights Acts in the nineteen-sixties. It is my conviction that President Johnson has done more than any other president, except Lincoln, to advance freedom justice and equality for black people. On behalf of black Americans and all Americans who believe in justice, posthumously I salute President Lyndon B. Johnson. Latinos, Asians, other ethnic people and white women have benefited and continue to benefit, as do Blacks, from these Civil Rights Laws. The fact is, all Americans and peoples of the world benefit from these three Civil Rights Acts signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Let me add, I am under no illusion, today there are some Americans, more than a few, who would like to repeal these three Civil Rights Acts.
The future for Blacks in America
There remains much more to be done in order for Blacks to receive equity in the American Society, i.e, to achieve equality of opportunity, equality of participation, and equality of achievement. With the demographics changing in America it is predicted that within the next one of two decades the majority of the population will not be white. It will be black-brown-yellow-red, or what can be called multi-colored that will not be overpowered by white people. Since the beginning of America as a nation, even before 1776, white people were in the majority and white superiority was glorified. With the changing demographics race in America can never again mean what it has meant.
We need great presidents who are committed to jusice for all. President Barack Obama has yet to demonstrate that he can be a great president from the black perspective, notwithstanding that he is black and has almost the total support of black people. Obama recognizes that Blacks paid a heavy price that made it possible for him to be president. Obama sitll has time to defy the odds again, as he has done in being elected president not one time but twice and signficiantly advance the Black Agenda which has its own specificity apart or within the American Agenda. To say that Blacks were slaves in America for 244 years says it all. I trust and pray that Obama will join Lincoln, Roosevelt. Truman and Johnson as the greatest presidents of the United States from the black perspective.
History is replete with examples of what a president can do to promote positive change, to make what I call a "mutuality difference," that is a difference that has a social redeeming value, that advances justice and equality. Hopefully, the day will come and soon when America will be a post-racial society. But that day has not come and having a black president is not an indication that racism is a thing of the past. For some white people having a black president is having another high-profile target to fire upon. Having a black president does represent real progress. There can be no substitute for vigilance in the pursuit of justice and equality for all.
Despite he challenges ahead, the future looks bright for Blacks. Blacks can continue their journey singing triumphantly: "We have come this far by faith." And add, "God has not brought us this far to leave us to fend for and by ourselves." Dare Blacks listen to the doom-sayers. Instead, may they heed the voice they know so well which proclaims the future of black people in America thusly:
For I know the plans I have for you,
declares the Lord, plans to prosper
you and not to harm you, plans to
give you hope and a future.
Jeremiah 29:11 NIV
Copyright 2013 by Uriah J. Fields
March 7, 2013
To the Reader.
If you found this article to be of value to you,
do your friends and acquaintances a favor,
email them this website and suggest that
they read this article.
www.uriahfields.com. Thank you. -ujf