We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.
—Donald Trump, August 12, 2017
Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
—Donald Trump, August 15, 2017
Trump’s Theorem holds that that if A equals B and B equals C, then D must equal a Salvador Dali painting. This is how the president decided that Heather Heyer deserved to be run over by a white supremacist: Some people who object to Nazism support removing Confederate statues from public spaces, which means they despise George Washington. On the day Trump blamed “many sides” for Heyer’s death, my friend Emily suggested I write about Woodrow Wilson. She even supplied a headline: “Woodrow Wilson: Really Quite Racist, But Not As Racist As Donald Trump.”
My distrust and dislike of the attitude of the Administration centered upon Woodrow Wilson, and came nearer to constituting keen hatred for an individual than anything I have ever felt. James Weldon Johnson
Wilson, born in Virginia a few years before the Civil War, was a more genteel and more lucid racist than Trump, but the results were similar. In the summer of 1919, known as Red Summer because of the blood, white mobs ran amok in dozens of cities across the United States, murdering not one but hundreds of innocent black people. Wilson barely mentioned the massacres. In public, he said a grand total of 48 words about the “race riots.” (That term, which we still use, is just a subtler version of “many sides,” because it blames black people’s blackness for the event, no matter what actually happened.) In private, Wilson told friends that black soldiers coming home from World War I were getting uppity because the experience of equal treatment in France had “gone to their heads.”
Wilson is best known for his grandiose obsession with the League of Nations. He believed he could engineer a future that would be free and tranquil forevermore. But this self-confidence disappeared when it came to elementary justice for black people. “Human nature doesn’t make big strides in a single generation,” said the man who merely wanted to end all wars. “I have a very modest estimate of my ability to hasten the process.”
Shortly after taking office in 1913, he segregated the federal government. De facto segregation was already standard. Under Wilson’s predecessor Taft, it’s not as if black and white civil servants ate together family style. Post-Wilson, though, they no longer ate in the same room, as if, in the words of a letter to Wilson from the NAACP, “mere contact with [colored people] were contamination.” At the office of Auditor of the Navy, screens went up to keep white employees from having to look at their black colleagues. In post offices, segregated customer windows guaranteed that no piece of correspondence would pass from black to white hands.
Wilson assured critics that his new policy was “as far as possible from being a movement against the negroes.” On the contrary, he said, “I sincerely believe it to be in their interest.” (If he were president now, he might say he was “the least racist person you’ve ever met.”) Wilson claimed he was giving black government employees the space and time they needed to overcome their inferiority, sort of like creating junior high so that pre-pubescent children don’t have to try to keep up with young adults. Segregation would help hold things at what Wilson called a “cool equipoise” until the “race problem…work[ed] itself out in the slowness of time.”
"De Lawd told Moses to come fo'th, and he came fif and lost de race." Woodrow Wilson (in minstrel-show dialect, as the joke in one of his speeches)
While he was waiting for the slowness of time to unfold, though, he entered a war that threw off the equipoise he’d built a bunch of colored bathrooms to create. A few hundred thousand black soldiers went to Europe to fight for freedom. A few hundred thousand black civilians moved north to work in factories—the beginning of what is known as the Great Migration. By the time the war ended, black Americans were in a different place, both demographically and psychologically speaking. As W.E.B. DuBois put it, “We are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight…the forces of hell in our own land.”
The forces of hell fought back. Lynchings increased. Mob violence spread from places like South Carolina and Mississippi to Chicago and Arizona, where many white people felt threatened by their new black neighbors.
On Friday, July 18, 1919, in Washington, DC, a white woman walking home from work claimed that two black men jostled her and stole her umbrella. Mobs of soldiers on leave went crazy, piling into what became known as “terror cars,” driving through black neighborhoods, and shooting randomly at passers-by. The dean of Howard University hid in a doorway while he watched one mob overtake its victim, lift him up “as one would a beef for slaughter,” and execute him.
On Monday, the Washington Post ran a story announcing that anyone who wanted to participate in “a ‘clean-up’ that will cause the events of the last two evenings to pale into insignificance” should meet at 9 pm near the White House. (This is apparently the kind of “Real News” we wish we could have back.) While a mob formed, Wilson was inside dealing with a nasty case of diarrhea. He never made a statement about the beatings being meted out underneath his window.
During Red Summer, white people initiated the violence, but black victims resisted—and in many cases retaliated. In Washington, a young girl hiding under her bed shot and killed a detective who broke down her door, supposedly looking for a sniper. (She was injured by officers who opened fire on the bed and convicted of manslaughter, though the conviction was later overturned.) Some black people took to their own terror cars, beating innocent white people they happened upon.
In the middle of Red Summer, the poet Claude McCay published “If We Must Die,” which expressed African Americans’ new assertiveness. “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,” he wrote. “Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”
While Woodrow Wilson was president, 433 black people were lynched (that’s a best guess; by their nature extra-legal killings are hard to count). These people were hanged. They were burned to death. Their balls were cut off. All while crowds cheered and politicians made speeches. And nobody was held responsible, ever. Anti-lynching legislation never even made it out of committee to be voted on by the full Congress. McKay could write a poem entitled “If We Must Die” because he knew, as a black man, that the United States was in many ways oriented toward his murder.
The thing that makes Trump so jarring is that he seems out of step with public opinion today—he freely expresses prejudices that apparently aren’t quite as fringe as we thought. Trump makes us feel like we’re lurching backward in time. Perhaps, like cell phone footage of police brutality, he’s a mirror that forces us to see that we’re not as advanced as we’ve been giving ourselves credit for.
But the thing that makes Woodrow Wilson jarring is that he wasn’t jarring at all. White supremacy wasn’t alt anything. It was the law. In spite of our hateful president, and because of the bravery and brilliance of many people who don’t have statues honoring them in town squares across the country, we’re a much better nation now than when that staid racist Wilson was in charge.
I don’t understand A. Scott Berg. He’s a gay Jew who’s chosen to write overly gentle biographies of Woodrow Wilson and Charles Lindbergh, two boring bigots. But his Wilson biography is the standard. The Wilson entry in the American Presidents series, by H.W. Brands, is good enough, but it barely touches on his racism or the pressures that World War I put on American society. In my opinion, there are more important and interesting things than a blow-by-blow of the League of Nations failure. Cameron McWhirter’s Red Summer is a readable summary; David F. Krugler’s 1919, Year of Racial Violence also gets good reviews, though I haven’t read it yet. There are plenty of narrative accounts of the violence in particular cities, like Chicago and Elaine, Arkansas. Finally, I don’t recommend getting it for your father’s birthday (I did and my stepmom didn’t approve), but the book Without Sanctuary, a collection of lynching photography, is extremely moving.