In 1870 at the age of thirty-three, Cleveland was elected sheriff of Erie County. As sheriff, Cleveland was responsible for carrying out the executions of those convicted of capitol offences. He personally hanged two murderers, Patrick Morrissey in 1872 and John Gaffney in 1873. He served a term as Mayor of Buffalo and later as Governor of New York from 1883 to 1885 before being elected as President.
In his first term as President, Cleveland, saw Reconstruction as a failed experiment. He refused to use federal power to enforce the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed voting rights to African Americans. Cleveland did not appoint any Africaan Americans to patronage jobs, he but did allow Frederick Douglass to continue in his post as recorder of deeds in Washington, D.C. When Douglass later resigned, Cleveland appointed another African-American man to replace him.
Cleveland was critical of what he called "outrages" against Chinese immigrants, but he was also critical of the Chinese immigrants themselves, who he said were unwilling to assimilate into white society. Cleveland lobbied the Congress to pass the Scott Act, written by Congressman William Lawrence Scott, which would prevent Chinese immigrants who left the United States from returning. The Scott Act easily passed both houses of Congress, and Cleveland signed it into law on October 1, 1888.
Cleveland viewed Native Americans as wards of the state. He said in his first inaugural address that "[t]his guardianship involves, on our part, efforts for the improvement of their condition and enforcement of their rights." He encouraged the cultural assimilation of Native Americans and pushed for passage of the Dawes Act, which provided for distribution of Indian lands to individual members of tribes, rather than having them continued to be held in trust for the tribes by the federal government. Native leaders endorsed the act, but the majority of Native Americans didn't like the legislation. Cleveland believed the Dawes Act would lift Native Americans out of poverty and encourage their assimilation into white society, but ultimately it weakened the tribal governments and allow individual natives to sell land and keep the money.
Grover Cleveland failed to demonstrate any sympathy for African-Americans and did nothing to help those members of that community who were oppressed in Southern states. He apparently had some sympathy for Native Americans, but his efforts to help them were misguided and ineffective. No significant advances in the field of civil rights appear to have been made during either of his terms in office.