AN OPEN LETTER TO IMPEACHED PRESIDENT ANDREW JOHNSON (1865–1869)

150 years later we are still dealing with your mess — you really screwed up our country good.

The funny thing is most Americans today disagree with you; most think Abraham Lincoln was right and that the Civil War was worth fighting to end slavery. So how is it that your vision for America still exists and Lincoln’s plan for freeing the slaves hasn’t been adopted yet? Let me try and explain.

As you know, Lincoln faced extraordinary challenges to get the 13th Amendment ratified as the Civil War raged on. While the Emancipation Proclamation was made in 1863, Lincoln felt it necessary to pass the 13th Amendment to truly rid the nation of slavery. With 600,000 gruesome deaths tallied, pressure was immense to end the war. Lincoln was anxious to do so but would not until passage of the Amendment was secured; this demand cost months of delay for peace and tens of thousands additional deaths and ultimately culminated in Lincoln’s own death. Lincoln’s immense sacrifices might have been worth it if it ushered in Black equality and Lincoln had actually “freed the slaves.”

But as you know President Johnson, that is not what happened thanks to you. It is often depicted that way in a place called Hollywood where stories must have happy endings. Sadly, it is also taught that way in most history classes across America. But the truth is we are still fighting for Lincoln’s Reconstruction to this day. The South simply could not pry itself away from the spoils of slavery, so they had to figure out how to maintain as close a resemblance to its former self as possible.

Make no mistake slavery on paper was a lucrative business. Return on investment for “human chattel” was over 1500%, greater than any other asset. I’m sure that’s why you, President Johnson, owned 14 slaves of your own. Of course, today it is hard for us to imagine running a manufacturing or agricultural company without having to pay ANY wages; that made it incredibly easy to profit and create wealth. But then those troublesome British outlawed slavery in 1772. That must’ve scared our Founders real good, put pressure on if they truly believed “all men are created equal,” and swayed them when their most valuable “property” was now at stake along with the $5million in 1770 dollars owed those Brits. In 1776, 25% of the population in the 13 colonies was Black and almost all of them slaves. What would America have become without all that labor to create massive wealth for the colonists and their descendants? (In 1833, Britain ended slavery in its colonies).

By 1840 the US produced 66% of the world’s cotton and our cotton exports accounted for more than half of all the nation’s exports. The bulk of the cotton came from seven “slave states” in the South and slavery represented a third of ALL income produced in those states. Slavery was not a financial boon to just the South as many of the great cities in the North were created from the slave economy. New York City itself was cemented as the financial capital of the world as it financed, insured, and imported slaves along with the products the institution produced. (Slavery was so valuable to the economy of New York that in 1861, New York City’s Mayor Fernando Wood proposed the city secede with the Confederates. After all, Cotton was the most profitable crop in the US, drove America’s explosive growth, and helped New York become the financial and commercial center of the world. His proposal was shot down).

By 1860, the 4 million slaves were the single most valuable asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all other industries combined. All your friends in the South refused to abandon its horrific institution of slavery and so went the Civil War. The Confederates even equated slavery not just with profit and wealth but with freedom itself. The Richmond Enquirer editorialized that “In this country alone does perfect equality of civil and social privileges exist among the white population, and it exists solely because we have slaves…Freedom is not possible without slavery.”

But alas, Lincoln would win the Civil War defeating the Confederacy. To unite the country in the election of 1864, Lincoln would run on the “National Union Party” ticket, he a Republican and bringing you along as a new Vice President from the Democrat party. Lincoln wasn’t too worried about your anti-Black sentiments, your appointment was simply an olive branch and with Senate support, Lincoln wasn’t concerned about achieving his post-war goals for Black Americans.

As the war approached its end, Lincoln and the Republicans knew that for 4 million former slaves to be able to survive in the post-Civil War U.S., they needed education, land, and protection. After all, lots of free land was being given out in those days as part of Homestead Acts to help the country expand westward.

On January 16, 1865, after meeting with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and 20 leaders of the Savannah Black community, General William Sherman issued his famous order №15 that immediately granted 400,000 acres along the coastline between Charleston, South Carolina and the St Johns River in Florida including Georgia’s sea islands to newly freed Black families who settled on 40-acre parcels each. The Republicans and Lincoln formed the Freedman’s Bureau to help implement the plan, and the region would be run entirely by former slaves. Another 5 million acres would soon follow.

Republicans behind Thaddeus Stevens argued poverty would devastate Black Americans for 100 years if land and education were not given to former slaves. It had been illegal for soon to be Freemen to be educated or own land before the Emancipation. In 1865 Stevens said, “The whole fabric of southern society must be changed, and never can it be done if this opportunity is lost. Without this, this government can never be, as it has never been, a true republic.”

April 9, 1865 the Confederacy would lose its last battle, and thus the Civil War would end. Six days later Lincoln was assassinated, and you ascended to the Presidency.

When it came to those advocating Black equality, you agreed with former Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens that “…they were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.” Quickly after taking power you made your beliefs clearly known when you said, “This is a country for White men and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for White men.” And so, President Johnson, you embarked on a plan that prioritized appeasing the ex-Confederates and once again subjugating Blacks. In the Fall, to mollify the South, you overturned Sherman’s Order and gave the ex-slaves land back to their same traitorous former masters that had rebelled against the North.

The Republicans were aghast, so they passed a Second Freedmen’s Bureau Bill which authorized another 3 million acres of land for former Black slaves, but you vetoed that in February 1866. Instead of working with the moderate Republicans to maintain the Freedmen Bureau and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (along with the 14th Amendment), you vetoed them in favor of allowing States to decide for themselves. Eventually your vetoes would be overridden, but the Republicans knew there would be no guarantee of Black rights until they got rid of you.

So extreme was your reversal of Lincoln’s policies that you were impeached by the Republicans in the House. Unfortunately, the anti-slavery Republicans could not get enough votes to convict in the Senate and lost by a single vote. (Ironically, one reason some Senators resisted removing you was that your replacement would’ve been Ohio pro-tempore of the Senate Benjamin Franklin Wade who was so “radical” as to also support Women’s suffrage — even some pro-Slave rights Republicans couldn’t stomach that!).

Lost for Black Americans was the promised land grants (40 acres), education, protections for the vote, opportunity, and even freedom itself. Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction was thwarted as you allowed Southern Confederates to come back to power in their state governments. Southern states passed “Black Codes” that bound Black workers to farms on terms they could not negotiate and subjected them to arrest for vagrancy if they did not work. Once arrested, they were subjected to be “rented” for their labor. In other words, Black Codes put Blacks in a position just a hair above actual slavery. Frederick Douglass said, “He who can say to his fellow man ‘You shall serve me or starve’ is a master and his subject is a slave.” White supremacist organizations like the KKK, Red Shirts, and the White Leagues arose to terrorize and kill thousands of Blacks as well as White abolitionists who dared defend them. Often in the post-civil war South, Blacks were now even treated worse, killed, and basically slaves under the guise of law.

Rejected in the next election, you still managed to give a blanket pardon to all Confederates (including Confederate President Jefferson Davis) on your way out the door as well as gave them back all their land. While history would deem Lincoln one of the best Presidents of all time, it would not be as kind to you. You President Andrew Johnson are widely recognized as one of our worst and as a saboteur of Reconstruction. You are especially reviled by historians for attacking the Radical Republicans and their pursuit of achieving rights for the just freed slaves. Most would say your legacy is the maintenance of white supremacy, and helping the Southern Confederate Democrats regain control of their region to the detriment of many generations to come in this country. You were certainly effective.

After you, your rival, war hero General turned President Ulysses Grant, tried using Federal troops to put down KKK and White Supremacist groups violence against Blacks and to enforce the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. The southerners would not relent and unleashed terror on both Blacks and those Whites who advocated for them. Massacres were commonplace and white northerners turned to focus on their own financial affairs amidst an economic downturn, tired of fighting the South’s resistance. Coupled with this lack of enthusiasm to keep fighting the South and scandals that broke out in his administration, Grant basically gave up.

The next Presidential election would be the final nail in the coffin for Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans. Because of widespread charges of fraud, the election was contested. To secure victory, Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to give back complete control of the former Confederate states to the Democrats and to withdraw federal troops from the South protecting Blacks. As bad as it was the previous 4 years, now Blacks were left to defend themselves against the most brutal of white supremacist revenge. Tens of thousands had already been murdered for trying to vote or other attempts acting as equals, but the worst still was to come.

President Johnson, you would be happy to know the condition of Black Americans today economically is not much different then those first years after the Civil War. Blacks are now only 13.4% of the population, but they still are the underclass at the bottom on every economic measure. White families have eleven times the wealth of Black families and the gap is widening. After all, various Homestead Acts GAVE (i.e., for “free”) land to 1.6 million WHITE families and excluded the vast majority of Blacks; by the year 2000 approximately 46 million White people are descendants of those original land grants. Other Whites bought government land at an average price of $38 dollars per acre in TODAYS currency — Blacks need not apply. A third of our prisoners are Black, and more Black people are imprisoned now than at any time since the 60s. One in 3 Black boys born should expect to be sentenced in their lifetime versus one in every 17 White boys and Blacks are 5 times as likely to be incarcerated then Whites. Blacks experience greater mortality rates, have worse food and health care, inferior schooling, own less homes and routinely are turned down for loans they are qualified for. So, Lincoln might be revered, but your views of the Black race rule. White liberals pretend to care but 85% of Whites taking the Harvard Implicit Association test (IAC) displayed implicit bias against Blacks. Whites still agree with you, they just keep it to themselves and even to their own detriment. A recent Citigroup report (Sept. 2020) titled “Closing the Racial Inequality Gaps” posits that “If racial gaps for Blacks had been closed 20 years ago, U.S. GDP could have benefited by an estimated $16 trillion.” Remarkably the Citi report also blames the persistence of such gaps on the 400 years of Black enslavement followed by attitudes and policies that undermined equal access. You did it!

Of course, a LOT of people had to help along the way and make sure Blacks stayed in their place. For 100 years after the Civil War, from 1865–1965, the Black race was still subjected to Black Codes, Jim Crow, and a lack of redress for the work they did, promises not kept, and the hardships they endured at the hands of their White “rulers.” To make it easier to oppress Blacks, the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked to change books and history regarding the great “Lost Cause.” You would be shocked to know that even though they were traitors and lost the war, thousands of Confederate monuments were erected between 1900–1920 to alter perceptions about the horrific realities of the Confederacy. They even named schools, streets, and cities after the traitors!

There was a World War that we won that ended in 1918. Black soldiers fought hard, but when they came home and dared to wear their uniforms, they were assaulted. White veterans felt Blacks were competing for jobs once they returned, so the Red Summer of 1919 was launched to attack them. In over three dozen cities from Chicago to D.C. to down south, White supremacist terrorism led to race riots and the killing of hundreds of Blacks. There was a communist revolution in Russia in 1917, and Blacks were labelled suspect. In a private conversation in March 1919, President Woodrow Wilson said that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.” Successful Black communities like Tulsa, home of “Black Wall Street” and Rosewood, Florida were burnt to the ground by Whites who went unpunished. A couple decades later,

President Franklin Roosevelt came up with his plan called the “New Deal,” with Social Security and Unemployment Insurance as its centerpiece. To keep support of Southern Senators and Congressmen to get it passed, farm and domestic workers were intentionally excluded from those programs which meant more than 65% of Blacks did not qualify. You would’ve been pleased.

The best way to generate wealth is the ownership of a home, so preventing Blacks from buying homes would maintain the wealth gap. From the 1930s through the 1960s, during the biggest increase in home ownership in our country, Blacks were basically excluded from the home-mortgage market. The G.I. Bill was designed to help World War II vets get low interest home loans, only the VA and the banking system with rare exception refused such loans for Blacks. A Federal Housing Administration was created to insure bank loans but it wouldn’t extend loans for homes in “redlined” Black neighborhoods, and even required restrictive covenants in the loans that homes couldn’t be resold to anyone but White owners. Blacks who could not get loans were subjected to schemes like “Contract-Buying,” a predatory agreement that came with the disadvantages of ownership and renting and without the benefits of either. 85% of Black home buyers in Chicago bought “on contract.” Cities literally used policy and laws to create “legalized” segregation through racially restrictive covenants disguised as “city planning.” And if all else failed, there was always a return to violence. As one of thousands of examples, in 1951 in Cicero, a city 20 minutes out of Chicago, a Black family moved into an apartment building. Thousands firebombed the building. The Cook County grand jury did not indict any rioters but did charge the family’s NAACP lawyer, the White building owner and the rental agent with “conspiring to lower property values.” Lessons like these made things crystal clear to real estate brokers, bankers, and property owners what would happen to them if they developed a sudden bout of good conscience. President Johnson: you can’t make this stuff up! It all worked like a charm and allowed Whites to feel that since the discrimination wasn’t EXPLICIT, they weren’t COMPLICIT.

A national interstate highway system was built and intentionally would route new highways straight through Black communities, such as those in Miami, Durham, and Los Angeles, destroying them. Redlining was not outlawed until 1968, but discrimination by banks, lenders and realtors continues to maintain the housing gap today. If there was any doubt that the Federal Government engineered the wealth gap through housing policies until this day, the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008 shows nothing has changed as Blacks were disproportionately harmed as they were targeted and preyed upon. As an example, in 2011 Wells Fargo settled a discrimination suit based on targeting Blacks for sub-prime mortgages including setting up a unit that targeted black churches and their leaders to target their congregants.

This month CNN made it clear nothing has changed. “Black Americans pay more than any other group to own a home, a disparity that contributes to roughly half of the 130K retirement savings gap between Blacks and Whites,” according to a new study from MIT. “Black homeowners pay more in mortgage interest, mortgage insurance and property taxes than other homeowners.” These inequities make it impossible for Black homeowners to build wealth at the same rate as Whites. Blacks still get paid only 60% of Whites, but even If the racial income gap were closed, the Federal Reserve says it would take 200 years of equal pay to close the wealth gap. I know that sounds too soon for you, but don’t worry the income gap won’t be closing any time soon.

Downturns, like the one we are facing now caused by Covid-19, disproportionately fall on Blacks whether because of unemployment disparities, health care and schooling — they all affect Blacks the most. And I’ve left out tons of stuff like subjecting Blacks unknowingly to medical experiments (Tuskegee Experiments, sterilization programs, radiation and pharmaceutical experiments), thousands of lynchings, judicial discrimination, living with environmental hazards and being targeted by a few versions of the “War on Drugs.”

President Johnson, you would be happy to know that many Blacks do not blame you, they blame themselves and Black dysfunction for their current predicament. (Pew Research in 2016 showed 43% of Blacks blame a lack of motivation to work hard, 57% blame family instability, and 51% blame a lack of good role models). Shows you what years of abuse can do to the psyche of a race. You’d also be surprised to learn that while Republicans fought slavery and many lost their lives as a result back in your day, now that Blacks have the vote, ironically most vote for Democrats and the Democrats don’t even have to deliver on Lincoln’s plan or the promises of Reconstruction!

You get the picture. We all want safe communities, families, opportunity — the American Dream. Violence in our cities, much like in the 1850s, is starting to make it clear that keeping Black people down is threatening everyone. As Citigroup concluded, “…the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s launched 20 years of major legislative achievements for Black persons in America that also spurred other movements for equality. However, 70 years later, improvements appear to be few and far between for many Black Americans.” A wealth gap of 11 to 1 is simply not sustainable on many grounds including morally, ethically as well as the practical instability it fosters for our country. The wealth gap in itself proves Blacks have consistently been treated as an underclass and sub-citizens, unless we want to go back to using dubious 18th century literature claiming Blacks as inferior beings. Eventually, without a solution it will lead to a revolution or civil war, just like in your time. History teaches us that empires, no matter how powerful, do not survive when 1% control the 99%. It is even more problematic when one race of people is kept at the bottom. It is simply a matter of time.

Reparations? A Black Marshall Plan? Call it what you want but all I ask for is to follow through on Lincoln’s agreements and vision. We all believe Lincoln was great right? Are we going to be the generation that finally fulfills Lincoln’s plans? Or maybe more people than we realize are fans of yours President Johnson. We have Blacks fighting for scraps in the richest country on earth. Perhaps keeping Blacks as an underclass allows our consciousness as a nation to justify the inhumanity of the past — the belief that White’s are superior which lets many sleep well in the present. Or maybe its just like you figured; subjugating Blacks is good for the economy and allows us Whites to be free.

A special thank you to a few sources who I leaned on due to their incredible insight. “From Here to Equality” by William Darity Jr and A. Kristen Mullen, Ta-Nehisi Coates “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic, June 2014 and the various works of Darrick Hamilton.

Co-founder of BIG3, Ice Cube's Partner, COO Cube Vision, Founder of The Firm