Culture

The Forgotten President Who Was a Hero to Black Americans

Library of Congress print of Chester Arthur.

Today is the renowned bluesman Howlin’ Wolf’s birthday, offering us a reminder that even through times of segregation and genuine “systemic racism,” race relations in America were not always as overheated and tense as they are today. When Wolf was born on this day in 1910, he was named Chester Arthur Burnett, after the twenty-first president of the United States, Chester Arthur. This was because Arthur, who was president from September 1881 to March 1885, was a champion of civil rights in an age when very few were. Although Arthur is forgotten today, a quarter-century after his death, Wolf’s parents demonstrated that they remembered his efforts for black Americans.

As explained in Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster, when Arthur was twenty-five in 1854, he joined the law firm of Erastus D. Culver, at which he formed part of a legal team that argued successfully for the freedom of any slaves that their owners brought to New York.

Arthur also led the defense team for a black woman, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, who was not allowed to ride a New York City streetcar. The future president won the case, and New York City streetcars were desegregated, one hundred years before Rosa Parks, courtesy of Chester Arthur.

When the Republican Arthur became president after the assassination of James A. Garfield, the Democratic Party was in firm control of the “solid South,” and systematically denied black Americans their rights. But Arthur continued to stand for the equality of rights of all people before the law. He deplored the Democratic takeover of the South and worked with third parties in the South to try to build a coalition that would dislodge the Democrats from power and end the denial of civil rights to black Americans.

This initiative failed, as did Arthur’s request to Congress for new legislation to replace the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 1883. Had it not been for the furious resistance of congressional Democrats, Arthur would have been able to improve significantly the situation of blacks in the South. Like those of other Republican presidents of his era, his civil rights initiatives are completely unknown today, as is the indefatigable opposition of the Democratic Party in those days to any attempt to provide equal rights and equal justice for all.

President Arthur had greater success on a smaller scale, when he intervened to order the freeing from prison of the black West Point Cadet Johnson Chesnut Whittaker, who had been railroaded, dishonorably discharged, and court-martialed in a case marred by racial bias.

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In 1884, Arthur sought the Republican nomination in his own right, but he was quite ill from Bright’s disease, and many Republicans opposed his candidacy out of a belief that he had betrayed them on the issue of civil service reform. However, one of the speakers seconding Arthur’s nomination for president at the Republican National Convention that year was Pinckney B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana, who during Reconstruction had been the first black man to serve as the governor of a state and had been elected to the U.S. Senate, although Senate Democrats prevented him from taking his seat. Pinchback called Arthur “a prudent, a safe and a reliable ruler,” and demonstrated that Arthur’s lifelong stand for the equality of rights of black Americans had not gone unnoticed.

The leftist myth about American history is that it is an unrelenting record of racism and oppression from 1619 to today and that only now is Black Lives Matter making the final push for equality of rights under the law for black Americans and all people. Not a single element of this scenario is true. Howlin’ Wolf’s parents knew better, back in 1910, when the plight of black Americans was significantly worse than it is today. The life and work of Chester Arthur, twenty-first president of the United States, is a small element of the history that leftists are working assiduously to erase today, so as to replace it with their myth of oppression that will justify the tyranny they’re trying to impose upon us. That is why it is all the more important for free Americans to recover, and cherish, these historical memories.

Oh, and if you don’t know Howlin’ Wolf, check him out; he’s a uniquely compelling American voice.

Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of 19 books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.

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