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Well, the most obvious answer to this question would involve mentioning Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and other personalities and events of the second half of the nineteenth century. Of course, all the specific references I have just made are subjects of great controversy and dispute (as is almost anything worth discussing).
I've often found that a good way to get a useful initial overview of any topic is to consult a good annotated bibliography. For example, you may want to consult
However, this was published in 1962 and is inevitably out of date.
A more recent study that seems relevant to your question is Steven Shull's American Civil Rights Policy from Truman to Clinton (2000).
Bill Clinton was active in affecting civil rights. Clinton took measures to protect gays in the military with a first step toward their peaceful engagement in military positions. He also directed the Departments of Justice and Equal Opportunity to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act in regards to sufferers of AIDS and HIV. Clinton also directed Justice and Treasury to collect data to end racial profiling.
Although it is clear that the Civil Rights Movement had a monumental impact on Civil Rights and we can identify various politicians who were involved in this, it would be interesting to consider if recent Presidents have negatively impacted Civil Rights, through, for example, George Bush's War on Terror and other policies that have impinged on civil liberties. Do we think that Civil Rights has actually been impacted negatively in recent years?
One must remember that Harry Truman integrated the armed forces of the United States at a time when it was politically unpopular to do so. I would not give FDR too much credit; he saw to it that domestics were excluded from Social Security as most domestics were minorities; and several of his New Deal Programs were segregated, as he did not want to offend Southern Democrats.
Much credit is also given to John F.Kennedy which frankly he did not deserve. By and large, Kennedy was NOT an effective President. His only real accomplishment was his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He made some half hearted attempts at equality for blacks, but there is general agreement among historians that he did so for political expediency rather than from conviction.
The true moving force in Civil Rights was Lyndon Baines Johnson. A southern Democrat who had grown up in the segregated South, he acted from conviction at considerable political risk to himself. As a former Senate Majority leader, Johnson was very adept at hardball politics and successfully engineered the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is highly doubtful that either act would have passed under the Kennedy Administration; he simply didn't have the political adeptness to push the acts through Congress.
Presidents have sometimes taken the lead on civil rights, ahead of the Supreme Court of society as a whole. FDR issues Executive Order 8802, which required that blacks be paid the same as whites if they worked in defense industries. Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the military in 1948 and spawned a third party challenge from the South in that year's Presidential race (Strom Thurmond). Dwight Eisenhower used federal troops in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 to enforce the Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education desegregating schools. And finally, John F. Kennedy promised his support for civil rights to Coretta Scott King, and made national addresses calling for equality for blacks.
So you are asking how presidents in general have affected civil rights? I have changed your question to reflect this.
The major impact on civil rights was made by the activists of the Civil Rights Movement. They were the ones who really made the sacrifices and did the hard work to put civil rights on the national agenda. As far as presidents go, the only one who made a huge impact on civil rights was Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was an expert at working Congress and getting it to do what he wanted. When he got behind civil rights legislation, he used his skills to help push laws through. He had a large part in passing the most important legislation (Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965) of the Civil Rights Movement.
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