Prior to Trump, has a US President ever explicitly denied being a racist?

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    The Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, famously declared that he was not a racist during the 1964 primaries. He was campaigning against LBJ and lost. Since he never became President he probably doesn't count.. Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 13:14
  • 43
    There is a precedent in "I'm not a crook".
    – liftarn
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 15:32
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    This president claims to be the "least racist person you will ever know". I suppose that's unprecedented. Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 22:30
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    @liftarn - for benefit of readers not steeped in U.S. history, you should have added that "I am not a crook" was notoriously said by Richard Nixon, a notorious crook of Watergate fame. Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 15:57
  • 2
    I wonder if any early president ever said that he was what amounted to a racist in other words in order to deny accusations that he was a "bleeding heart liberal" favoring blacks or American Indians.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 17:49

2 Answers 2


Yes, Ronald Reagan frequently denied being racist.

In 1983, Reagan wrote a letter to Benjamin Hooks, then head of the NAACP, stating (in response to accusations that he wanted to rollback civil rights) that:

Ben, if only it were possible to look into each other's hearts and minds, you would find no trace of prejudice or bigotry in mine.

Skinner, Kiron; Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson. Reagan: A Life in Letters. Simon and Schuster, 2004.

For a private example, in 1987 Reagan invited Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who had called him a racist on TV, to the White House. After the event, Reagan wrote in his diaries that:

I'd asked for a meeting because of his public statement to Carl Rowan that I was a racist. I literally told him my life story & how there was not prejudice in me. I have examples of my relations with Minorities in school, as a sports announcer & as Gov. I think I made a friend.

Reagan, Ronald. The Reagan Diaries. Harper Collins, 2009.

We also have several eyewitness accounts from his presidency involving Reagan denying being racist in private conversations. For instance, Carl Rowan reports of a lunch with Reagan in 1988 during which the president said:

"Carl, I suggested this [meeting] when we were together [at the Gridiron dinner] because I had a feeling often that you didn't have the straight thing on me and racism and so forth . . . Carl, I was on the side of civil rights years before anyone ever used the term 'civil rights.'" I said I knew it couldn't be pleasing to have black leaders describe his administration as "eight years of disaster for the civil rights movement."

Rowan, Carl Thomas. Breaking barriers. Old Dominion University Academic Television Services, 1991.

As noted previously, Reagan made such denials frequently, both before and after his presidency. His autobiography provides a post-White House example:

As I've mentioned before, the myth about myself that has always bothered me the most is that i am a bigot who somehow surreptitiously condemns racial prejudice . . . Neither claim was true, and I think the record shows that.

Reagan, Ronald. An American Life: The Autobiography. Simon and Schuster, 1990.


Didn't search very far, but it looks like Bill Clinton did. He wasn't president anymore at the time though.

According to the ABC news article, Bill said:

There are things that I wished I urged her to do. Things I wished I had said, things I wished I hadn't said. But I am not a racist. I never made a racist comment and I did not attack him personally.

This happened after Hillary's unsuccessful campaign in 2008, during which he was accused of making some racially insensitive comments about Barack Obama. Below is the relevant part of the ABC article:

Clinton was referring to an uproar surrounding some of his comments in the South Carolina Democratic primary that prompted anger among some in the African-American community. After Obama, D-Ill., defeated his wife there, Clinton seemed to downplay the significance of the victory by noting Jesse Jackson had won South Carolina in 1984 and 1988, which some observers found offensive.

The controversy later brought an apology from Hillary Clinton, who told reporters, "You know, I am sorry if anyone was offended. It was certainly not meant in any way to be offensive."

EDIT: changed the source from the Sidney Morning Herald to ABC news, since the context is an interview to ABC news. The video is in the article, however it doesn't seem to be working, at least for me.

  • Interesting, thanks. I would be especially interested to see if a sitting president has said something similar so I'll leave the question open a bit longer.
    – lemon
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 13:20
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    Hi, welcome to History.SE. I have edited it into this answer for now, but in the future please put the relevant parts of a link into your answer, so that the information does not risk becoming lost in the case of link rot.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 14:19
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    @Semaphore oh yes, my bad, thanks for the edit. Honestly I wasn't really sure that it deserved an answer on its own but answers in comments irritate me somewhat. Your answer is more researched and overall better than mine :-)
    – Nico
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 14:24
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    Could you edit in the context for that quote? It not be immediately obvious to all readers who he's talking about or why he felt the need to dispel the idea that he was a racist. Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 19:28
  • @JustinLardinois sure thing
    – Nico
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 7:38

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