Letters on the deeper ugliness of Woodrow Wilson’s caste oppression

      These letters and my response are further comments on my post on Princeton, Woodrow Wilson and a debate over campus activism here.  Historical or what I sometimes call Founding Amnesias – instigated and often coercively maintained by racism – is a remarkable phenomenon in the United States, in China (toward Tibetans for example), and in Israel, toward Palestinians, and takes time and effort to dispel.  Actions by the Black Justice League and others are already leading to deeper and even more revealing evidence and arguments.
***
    Kevin Archer, a colleague at the Josef Korbel School, writes, with feeling:
“Thanks Alan,
    I always enjoy your stuff but the case against Wilson is especially damning and known for quite some time.  He certainly had some early views on collective security that warrant some praise but the damage caused to free people by his racism is truly spectacular.
All whites in the US are beneficiaries of a racist past that has powerful economic connotations today.  While sorting through that is exceedingly complex, at this point we’re not even trying. 
Best,
Kevin”
***
      Rachel Harding, author of the beautiful Remnants, about the experiences of her mother, Rosemary Freeney Harding, in the civil rights movement, here and abroad, spoke to my class which has just left for Dharamsala, this past week.  She challenged a student who raised the idea of white “privilege” by suggesting that even black and latin people, who most obviously are oppressed by American capitalism, have an ambivalent status, too, because they sometimes support imperialism.  That they act for imperialism, sleepily as Kevin suggests, does not mean, however, that they benefit from imperialism.  Now the word “privilege” – conveying a certain resentment and deserved, to some extent, as an imprecation for those who actually practice racism or participate actively, for instance, in racist crimes or imperial wars – does not take in the possibilities of solidarity with most people, and that even those who have done horrors can sometimes turn around…
***
    Rachel’s point echoes Marx’s insights into`divide and rule – those English workers who lorded it over the Irish, allegedly have such “privilege, “in fact, also lose out and  distort their personalites, seeking advantage in rapacious isolation and criminality instead of decency/democratic solidarity. 
***
       Michael Reich’s 1984 study Racial Inequalities: a Political Economic Analysis, Princeton Press, does a stunning, statistical analysis to test this theory against neoclassical economic hypotheses.  He discovered that where black workers are paid the worst and receive the worst social services, there white workers are also paid relatively the worst and have comparatively the worst social services.  This study is still unchallenged and may be the best single work in social science so far written.  
***
       Sharpening my account of Wilson and the Klan, Michael Novick wrote:
      “Wilson did more than ‘admire’ the Ku Klux Klan. His college roommate was author of the book “The Clansman” which served as the basis for DW Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” virtually the first feature length film out of Hollywood, and one that  glorified the Reconstruction era Klan as defenders of white womanhood, and vilified Black office holders and “carpetbaggers.” [the film pioneered the technique of montage, juxtaposing scenes, which was also fundamental to Sergei Eisenstein’s Potemkin].  The film was extremely controversial, and was attacked by the early NAACP for its racism and support for Southern sedition. Wilson arranged for a screening at the White House, and gave it his blessing. The movie was also lauded by his Secretary of the Navy, I believe, and at least one member of the Supreme Court of the US [Chief Justice White attended.  When invited, he wrote to Wilson: “Does it tell the truth about that noble organization?”  The President responded: “Yes.”  “Then I’ll come.”] When the movie was premiered in Atlanta, a cross was burned atop Stone Mountain, GA for the first time in decades, and a new KKK was launched, using all the new techniques of mass marketing. Klan members were deputized against draft dodgers and pacifists during World War I, and against ‘rum runners’ during Prohibition.”
***
     Thomas Dixon, author of the Clansman, was at least a classmate and friend of Wilson at Johns Hopkins.  As Professor William Keylor of Boston University puts it,
        The novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon – a longtime political supporter, friend and former classmate of Wilson’s at Johns Hopkins University – was published in 1905.  A decade later, with Wilson in the White House, cinematographer D.W. Griffith produced a motion picture version of the book, titled “Birth of a Nation.”
      With quotations from Wilson’s scholarly writings in its subtitles, the silent film denounced the Reconstruction period in the South when blacks [and poor whites – AG] briefly held elective office in several states.  It hailed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a sign of southern white society’s recovery from the humiliation and suffering to which the federal government and the northern “carpetbaggers” had subjected it after its defeat in the Civil War.  The film depicted African-Americans (most played by white actors in blackface) as uncouth, uncivilized rabble.

      While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People publicly denounced the movie’s blatant appeals to racial prejudice, the president organized a private screening of his friend’s film in the White House for the members of his cabinet and their families.  “’It is like writing history with lightning,’ Wilson observed, ‘and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.’”

***

      The Clansman, retitled Birth of a Nation, invokes Wilson’s words, and Wilson calls it “history written in lightning.”  In it, the Northern Senator’s – “Carpetbagger’s – daughter is about to have an act of racial disgrace performed on her by two wild-eyed men, but fortunately – montage, cut back and forth – the Christian Ku Klux Klan, their sheets flowing, rides to the rescue.

***

     As patriarchy and racism go, this is sheer evil…

***

    The second wave of the Klan, which President Wilson helped trigger, swept across the South and Rocky Mountain states in the 1920s (the Klan had some 5 million members). It ran Colorado, praising the Sand Creek “battle,” burning crosses, and murdering unioin organizers; it dominated the Pendergast machine in Missouri where Harry Truman had to be a Klansman to become a Democrat and future President.
***
      Many opposed Wilson at the time.  Anti-racists, led by the NAACP, for instance, stopped a screening of Birth of a Nation in Boston, inspiring Wilson, in reaction, to show the film at the White House.
***
     When attacked fiercely for using the phrase “history written in lightning,” Wilson announced that he hadn’t said it and hadn’t known what “Birth of a Nation” was about when he showed it. Contrary to the uncritical following for Wilson at Princeton today, Wilson was denounced for this racism at the time, just as Governor  John Evans was forced to resign in 1865 for the Sand Creek Massacre.  This contemporary opposition only highlights the special loathsomeness of Wilson’s racism; that some other whites at the time agreed with lynching is no extenuation of Wilson.
***
      Wilson was the first Southern President since 1848 and then the Civil War, a vehement supporter of the Confederacy.  Keylor provides another despicable detail of  his physical loathing of blacks:
      Cabinet heads — such as his son-in-law, Secretary of the Treasury William Mcadoo of Tennessee – re-segregated facilities such as restrooms and cafeterias in their buildings.  In some federal offices, screens were set up to separate white and black workers.  African-Americans found it difficult to secure high-level civil service positions, which some had held under previous Republican administrations.”

    This involves, as WEB Dubois named it, a notion of caste impurity which is, drawn from India, the fiercest aspect of racist oppression.  See my “Dubois, Marx and Weber on class, status and caste” here.

***
    Wilson sneeringly defending separate and unequal:
     “A delegation of black professionals led by Monroe Trotter, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard and Boston newspaper editor, appeared at the White House to protest the new policies.  But Wilson treated them rudely and declared that ‘segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.'”
***
      That Wilson was a depraved racist is no small thing, no “aspect” of his performance to be overridden supposedly by abstract confidence in “collective security.”

***
The long-forgotten racial attitudes and policies of Woodrow Wilson
March 4th, 2013
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of our 28th president, Woodrow WilsonWilliam Keylor, professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of The Twentieth-Century World and Beyond: An International History. He offers the following opinion piece on the anniversary and how racial relations have changed over that century.[Keylor’s piece is, of course, marred by invoking too great a praise of Wilson’s alleged extension of democratic rights abroad – he did so only for white people – and even his drive to participate in World War I, his role in the punitive Versailles Treaty that helped to breed Nazism, and crusade to deport Wobblies and other radicals – the Palmer Acts – also deserve condemnation]
A hundred years ago today (March 4th, then the date of presidential inaugurations), Democrat Thomas Woodrow Wilson became the first Southerner elected president since Zachary Taylor in 1848.  Washington was flooded with revelers from the Old Confederacy, whose people had long dreamed of a return to the glory days of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, when southern gentlemen ran the country.  Rebel yells and the strains of “Dixie” reverberated throughout the city.  The new administration brought to power a generation of political leaders from the old South who would play influential roles in Washington for generations to come.
Wilson is widely and correctly remembered — and represented in our history books — as a progressive Democrat who introduced many liberal reforms at home and fought for the extension of democratic liberties and human rights abroad.  But on the issue of race his legacy was, in fact, regressive and has been largely forgotten.
Born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson was a loyal son of the old South who regretted the outcome of the Civil War.  He used his high office to reverse some of its consequences.  When he entered the White House a hundred years ago today, Washington was a rigidly segregated town — except for federal government agencies.  They had been integrated during the post-war Reconstruction period, enabling African-Americans to obtain federal jobs and work side by side with whites in government agencies.  Wilson promptly authorized members of his cabinet to reverse this long-standing policy of racial integration in the federal civil service.
Cabinet heads — such as his son-in-law, Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo of Tennessee – re-segregated facilities such as restrooms and cafeterias in their buildings.  In some federal offices, screens were set up to separate white and black workers.  African-Americans found it difficult to secure high-level civil service positions, which some had held under previous Republican administrations.
A delegation of black professionals led by Monroe Trotter, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard and Boston newspaper editor, appeared at the White House to protest the new policies.  But Wilson treated them rudely and declared that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
The novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon – a longtime political supporter, friend and former classmate of Wilson’s at Johns Hopkins University – was published in 1905.  A decade later, with Wilson in the White House, cinematographer D.W. Griffith produced a motion picture version of the book, titled “Birth of a Nation.”
With quotations from Wilson’s scholarly writings in its subtitles, the silent film denounced the Reconstruction period in the South when blacks briefly held elective office in several states.  It hailed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a sign of southern white society’s recovery from the humiliation and suffering to which the federal government and the northern “carpetbaggers” had subjected it after its defeat in the Civil War.  The film depicted African-Americans (most played by white actors in blackface) as uncouth, uncivilized rabble.
While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People publicly denounced the movie’s blatant appeals to racial prejudice, the president organized a private screening of his friend’s film in the White House for the members of his cabinet and their families.  “It is like writing history with lightning,” Wilson observed, “and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
A hundred years after white Southerners hailed what they hoped would be the beginning of a “post-Reconstruction” society in 1913, African-Americans today nurture hopes for the coming of a “post-racial society” as America’s first black president serves his second term with African Americans occupying prominent positions in the federal government.  The juxtaposition of these two Democratic administrations reminds us of the extraordinary distance that the American people — and the Democratic Party — have traveled on the subject of race relations in the course of a century.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *