Culture

Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Bogeyman

Wilson at Princeston, 1902 (Library of Congress)

The racially charged protests that have roiled 23 universities from Yale to the University of Missouri in recent weeks reached Princeton on Wednesday.

Members of the Black Justice League left their classes and occupied historic Nassau Hall, which houses the Princeton administration’s offices. They demanded that officials acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson — who was president of Princeton before becoming president of the United States — and expunge his name from anything named after him. They further demanded “cultural competency training” for anyone teaching at Princeton, courses on the “history of marginalized people,” and a designated public space for the exclusive use of black students.

President Christopher Eisgruber met with the students and was faced with jeers. One student said: Woodrow Wilson “is a murderer. We owe him nothing. This university owes us everything. I walk around this campus understanding that this was built on the backs of my people and I owe none of you guys anything. We owe white people nothing. If not for the evilness and of white hatred in this country . . . we would not have to be fighting for our rights.”

Eisgruber tried to mollify the students by saying he thought that courses on marginalized people should be added to the curriculum but couldn’t act unilaterally. He agreed that Wilson “was a racist” but added that “in some people, you have good in great measure and evil in great measure.” He said he won’t change the name of the 85-year-old Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs or other campus landmarks.

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A group of 40 angry students rejected his overture, continued to occupy Eisgruber’s office, and slept overnight in it. The standoff continued through Thursday.

It was perhaps inevitable that the progressive protesters would eventually start demanding that progressive icons be airbrushed out of history. It is particularly difficult for Democrats and liberals to give up Wilson, who has long been honored for promoting progressive causes such as the Federal Reserve Act and the progressive income tax. Wilson was the first major progressive hero to advocate scrapping the “checks and balances” view of the Constitution. “All that progressives ask or desire is permission — in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution’ is the scientific word — to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.”

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But Wilson’s “survival of the fittest” led him to want to “improve” people as well. As governor of New Jersey in 1911, he signed a law providing for the sterilization of the “feeble-minded . . . and other defectives”  a law extreme enough that it was declared invalid by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

But Wilson’s discriminatory racial views weren’t blocked while he was president of Princeton. He actively discouraged blacks from applying to Princeton, and when he became president of the United States in 1913, he quickly moved to segregate federal-government workplaces. Astonishingly, a 1916 document has surfaced showing that Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Wilson’s deputy secretary of the navy, personally signed an order segregating bathrooms in the Navy Department.

#share#According to Wilson biographer Arthur Link, key Wilson cabinet officers “made a clean sweep of Negro political appointees in the South and allowed local postmasters and collectors of internal revenue either to downgrade or dismiss Negro workers with civil service status.”

Bruce Bartlett, author of Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past (2007), notes that “in 1914 the Civil Service began demanding photographs for the first time. It was widely understood that the only purpose of this requirement was to weed out black applicants.”

#related#Whereas Theodore Roosevelt, who preceded Wilson as president by a few years, had famously invited black leader Booker T. Washington to the White House, Wilson made Birth of a Nation (1915), effectively a Ku Klux Klan recruiting film, the first movie ever shown in the White House. He also cracked down on the civil liberties of Americans of all races. As Bartlett notes: “Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, who was just as rabid an anti-Communist as [Joseph] McCarthy, did far more to repress free speech and political freedom than McCarthy ever attempted.”

Progressive activists began their historical purge last year by getting several state Democratic parties to end their traditional “Jefferson-Jackson Day” dinners on the grounds that Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were racists. Not satisfied, they are now turning on Wilson, and who knows whether FDR, who didn’t allow his black and white White House servants to eat together, is next.

Of course, scoring historical points for one side or another shouldn’t be the priority of today’s civil-rights efforts. As I wrote last year:

Conservative efforts to reach out to African Americans must begin with appreciation and recognition of African Americans’ history of subordination and oppression. In terms of issues, conservatives must continue to point out the real-life consequences to minorities of today’s failed liberal policies. . . . Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recounted how “deeply troubled” he is over the refusal of many teachers’ unions to embrace educational reform. “At a time when only one in 10 low-income children is earning a four-year college degree and two out of three jobs of the future will require one, change is needed,” he wrote. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that some Democrats want to distract attention from their lock-step support of the status quo by waving the racial bloody flag.

The issue of whether or not to sandblast Woodrow Wilson’s name into oblivion is a diversion from a more productive racial public-policy imperative. On the one hand, we must reorient government policies so people can climb the ladder of opportunity, regardless of race. On the other, we need leaders who will refuse to coddle, patronize, or let their guilt placate those who wish to use racism as their excuse for every grievance.

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