Faculty conversations: Eric Freedman
"We have stereotypes and all kinds of lessons that we learned while we were kids in school about the presidents," Eric Freedman said. "We always thought, for example, of John F. Kennedy as a big civil rights hero, and in reality, civil rights were not a priority of his."
Freedman, an associate professor of journalism at Michigan State University, recently co-authored a book titled "Presidents and Black America: A Documentary History" with Stephen A. Jones, an MSU alumnus and assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University.
Their book examines the complex relationships between U.S. presidents and black Americans — both the official interactions and some of the personal interactions.
Kennedy, for example, was much more focused on foreign affairs — his presidency was during the Cold War — and he was actually advised to distance himself from the civil rights movement.
"Kennedy was Catholic and therefore distrusted by many conservative white Protestants in the South," Freedman said. "There was fear among the political advisers that these precarious Democratic votes would be lost if he was associated in any way with the civil rights movement."
Nevertheless, Kennedy did reach out to Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., in a show of support, and arranged for his brother — Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy — to get King released on bail after he was jailed for his participation in the civil rights movement.
President Ronald Reagan was criticized for opposing a Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday — as well as opposing economic sanctions against the white apartheid government in South Africa and favoring economic policies that benefitted the wealthy while cutting services to the poor, many of them black — but a little-known story about Reagan’s relationships in the black community involved Reagan and his college football team.
While traveling to a game, Reagan and his team planned to stay at a hotel in his hometown in Illinois. The hotel manager refused to let the two black players stay, so instead of all sleeping in the bus as the coach suggested, Reagan suggested that everyone stay at the hotel while Reagan and the two African-American players spent the night at his parents' house. Reagan remained friends with one of those teammates for the rest of his life.
"A good way to look at the findings and what it might mean today is to look at the campaign that led to Barack Obama's election and to look at the current campaign and what’s happened during his administration," said Freedman, who is also an associate dean of International Studies and Programs.
Race is still a common factor in today's political discussions, particularly the policy debates about immigration and the rhetoric used by some members of the Tea Party movement, Freedman said.
"Race is still there as a factor and it probably will be into the indefinite future, whether President Obama wins or is defeated," he said.