When people hear the name Woodrow Wilson, the first thing that usually pops into their mind is World War I and the League of Nations. Foreign affairs and America’s rise as a global power provide the frame of reference for much thinking about Wilson.
But there was also a “domestic policy” Wilson, and, like much else in American history, race is a central theme in that area. Race gave Wilson his path to the presidency. President Taft had begun making token gestures to black voters in the north. The symbolism proved to be too much for southern conservatives, and they turned on him. At the same time, Taft’s feud with Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican Party going into the 1912 election. Enter Woodrow Wilson, a man of the South, but also the popular and “progressive” governor of New Jersey.
The only question was, had Wilson become too “northern” to appeal to southern voters. As the historian Joel Williamson put it, “Wilson had to be spruced up for the South.” The sprucing up worked, and Wilson was elected president.
To grasp what happened next and the impact of what the Wilson Administration did, it is essential to understand a basic reality of those times. In the period after Reconstruction, the age of Jim Crow, the federal government was an island of opportunity for black people living in a sea of racism and discrimination. Wilson would change that, and like many other things, the consequences of these changes would stay in place long after he was gone.
In fundamental ways, Wilson was a man of his times, to be precise, a southern white man of his times. The story of the film “The Birth of a Nation” is instructive, and the best-known example of his bigotry. Because of “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith is widely known as a cinematic genius, as well as a racist.
There is more to the story. Thomas Dixon, the author of the book, “The Clansman,” from which “The Birth of a Nation” was derived, never became famous. But when Dixon saw “The Birth of a Nation” for the first time, he knew that the goal of his life’s work had been achieved. As Joel Williamson puts it, watching the film, “Up in the balcony he (Dixon) had again just saved a larger than life white woman from the monstrous black beast.” The link between race and sex was now front and center. And on the big screen for millions to see.
Dixon was a friend of Woodrow Wilson. He had the president screen “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House for the Cabinet members and their families. At the conclusion, Wilson said that the film “was like writing history with lightning,” and, more revealing of his world-view, “It is all so terribly true.”
Pretty soon, everyone in a high position in government was watching “The Birth of a Nation.”
So what? So they watched a movie. What harm was done, even if it was racist and glorified the Ku Klux Klan? The answer is that the positive response to “The Birth of a Nation” was as potent a sign of the otherization of black Americans, especially black men, as you could find.
It was also an indication of the designation of black people as scapegoats in American society. And, as one of the main characters in Arthur Koestler’s novel, “Darkness at Noon,” said, “Experience teaches that the masses must be given for all difficult and complicated processes a simple easily grasped explanation. According to what I know of history … mankind could never do without scapegoats.” And, in many cities, north and south, whites were happy to jump on the “Birth of a Nation” bandwagon, rioting and beating black people in the streets.
But Wilson went beyond positive film reviews. Even though he was more of a day-to-day bigot than a rabid racist, he acted on his prejudices. To “avoid friction,” the Wilson administration ordered federal agencies to be racially segregated. One form of “friction” that was at the heart of Wilson’s program – and right in line with “The Birth of a Nation” – was to make sure that no white women ever had a black male boss.
In Wilson’s view, using today’s language, it was a “win-win.” Everyone would be more comfortable, and no one should think that “segregation” meant discrimination.
But, in addition to agencies being reorganized along racial lines and office staffs being separated by race, sometimes by rows of file cabinets, there was far worse to come. First, Wilson took a hands-off approach to the treatment of black people in the South. After all, in his view, “white southerners understood the Negro.”
Then we come back to the federal government, that oasis in the desert of racial discrimination. What Wilson also took a hands-off approach to was the purge of the federal government. The goal of the now-empowered racist radicals was not to segregate black people in government. It was to get rid of them. As the senator from Mississippi said, “I don’t care what is done up in Yankeeland. If they want negroes, let them have them, we … do not want them.”
And so, many thousands of black federal workers were sent packing.
Within five years, Wilson was dead and gone, but the damage had been done. The patterns of segregation and bigotry that he had institutionalized persisted well into the future.
The story of Wilson’s League of Nations campaign, his stroke, decline and death are well known. But, as is always the case, we know little or nothing about what happened to those many thousands whose lives he and his administration upended and ruined. To paraphrase the famous quote, one life lost is a tragedy, especially if it is a famous life, many thousands lost and ruined is statistics, especially if those statistics are about the lives of “the others.”