William McKinley from the free state of Ohio was the last Civil War veteran to be elected President. McKinley served as a Major in the 23rd Ohio Regiment. He was raised as a Methodist and an abolitionist by his mother in Poland, Ohio and was sympathetic to African Americans who struggled under the "Jim Crow" laws throughout the nation while he was President. In breaking precedent, he named numerous African Americans to appointed offices. For example, Walter L. Cohen of New Orleans, who was a leader of the "Black and Tan Republican" faction, was appointed as a customs inspector. (Later Republican Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge gave Cohen even greater authority in the important customhouse in New Orleans.) McKinley also appointed George B. Jackson, a former Virginia slave and a businessman in San Angelo, Texas, to the post of customs collector in Presidio, Texas, on the Mexican border.
But many of McKinley's critics charge that his support for African-Americans didn't go far enough. For example he was unwilling to use federal power to enforce the 15th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. During his Presidency there were many murders, torturings, and civil rights violations throughout the country against African Americans. McKinley was unwilling to return to the Reconstruction methods of the Ulysses S. Grant Administrations and he did not take steps to soften the blow of the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson. (In that decision the Supreme Court held that public facilities that were "separate but equal" could be used to segregate African Americans from white society.)
One place where McKinley was a fervent supporter of African American equality and justice was in his rhetoric. Following are a collection of quotes from McKinley's speeches on the subject:
1. It must not be equality and justice in the written law only. It must be equality and justice in the law's administration everywhere, and alike administered in every part of the Republic to every citizen thereof. It must not be the cold formality of constitutional enactment. It must be a living birthright.
2. Our black allies must neither be forsaken nor deserted. I weigh my words. This is the great question not only of the present, but is the great question of the future; and this question will never be settled until it is settled upon principles of justice, recognizing the sanctity of the Constitution of the United States.
3. Nothing can be permanently settled until the right of every citizen to participate equally in our State and National affairs is unalterably fixed. Tariff, finance, civil service, and all other political and party questions should remain open and unsettled until every citizen who has a constitutional right to share in the determination is free to enjoy it
Despite McKinley's rhetoric, his administration achieved little to alleviate the backwards situation of black Americans because, according to historian Gerald Bahles, McKinley was "unwilling to alienate the white South." However, McKinley did appoint thirty African-Americans to diplomatic and record office positions. During the Spanish-American War, McKinley even countermanded army orders preventing recruitment of African-American soldiers. In summary, McKinley's heart appears to have been in the right place, but the political realities of his times prevented him from making significant inroads into the powerful racism of his times and from becoming someone ahead of his times in breaking these barriers.