Americans celebrate both Black History Month and presidential leadership in February. This is no coincidence. In 1926, the historian Carter G. Woodson urged his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to set aside February for its special focus on black history in part because it was the month that Abraham Lincoln was born.
But despite this historical linkage in the mind of the founder of Black History Month, the two celebrations have rarely coincided.
Shortly before he passed away in 2013, my colleague Hanes Walton of the University of Michigan and I began a project with an eye toward restoring this connection: the first systematic rankings of the modern presidents (Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama) based on the evaluations of African American experts.
Here’s how we did our research
Rankings of the presidents based on the retrospective opinions of scholars have been staples of the literature on presidential leadership since Arthur Schlesinger Sr. published his study of “presidential greatness” in 1948. Until very recently, the panels that have produced these rankings have lacked meaningful ethnic and racial diversity. Our study examines the evaluations of presidential leadership that African American editorialists published in 43 black-controlled newspapers between 1900 and 2016.
This approach, which we call the Editorial Opinion Score (EOS) method, rates each president by calculating the percentage of editorials about his leadership with positive tones over the total number of editorials that appeared in print during his term. In total, we coded the tone of 9,406 editorials that are publicly available in the ProQuest Historical Newspapers digital archive.
So how does this change the presidents’ rankings?
As the graph below illustrates, ranking presidents based on an EOS derived from African American newspapers produces a very different result from averages of the extant rankings, as we discuss below.
On average, Wilson is ranked fourth in the survey-based polls conducted between 1996 and 2015. By contrast, he ranks 17th out of the 19 modern presidents in our ranking. His 13-spot downward shift is the single largest move in our ranking.
But it shouldn’t be a surprise. These real-time evaluations were made by members of the African American press corps — and several studies have documented Wilson’s embrace of white-supremacist positions and implementation of Jim Crow policies.
2. Warren Harding and Barack Obama move up
Harding has been rated last in every poll of expert opinion since the original Schlesinger poll was published in 1948 — and he had the largest positive move in our study. Another noteworthy finding is that Obama, who just completed his term, is already ranked in the top five by African American editorialists.
3. On civil rights and race relations, LBJ takes the top spot — and others move down
We also found that if we focus on that subset of editorials about presidential leadership in the fields of civil rights and race relations, rankings shift in important ways. Here are ratings on civil rights in particular:
Lyndon B. Johnson moves from fourth in the overall ranking to the top spot in an EOS ranking based on civil rights and race relations. Moreover, Johnson’s editorial opinion score of 90 for his leadership on these issues is the highest score that we find in the entire study.
Others, of course, move down. Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge share the largest decline — four positions — in the civil rights ranking. Roosevelt fell from second in both the average of the survey-based rankings and the overall EOS ranking to sixth position.
Finally, Obama fell two spaces — from fifth to seventh — when ranked on presidential leadership on race relations and civil rights. Clearly, black-owned media did not give him extra points for symbolic representation during his two terms in office.
This isn’t the complete African American perspective on presidents, but it’s an important start.
Although we do not maintain that our study presents a complete African American perspective on presidential leadership, we do believe that it is an important one. Indeed, our EOS method provides a systematic way to examine the real-time evaluations of presidential leadership from the vantage point of an influential group of African American experts.
The rapid digitization of newspaper content will allow presidential scholars to use the EOS method to gain multiple windows on how the media have evaluated presidential leadership throughout U.S. history.
Alvin B. Tillery Jr. is associate professor and associate chair of the Political Science Department at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter @AlvinBTilleryJr.