Woodrow Wilson Birthing No New Freedom
Although Woodrow Wilson was a New Jersey governor when he became president in 1913, he was
Virginian by birth and raised in Georgia and South
Carolina. This marked him the first Southerner
president since Zachary Taylor in 1848.
As President, Wilson was overtly racist, placing
segregationists in his cabinet.
• The Wilson War Department drafted thousands
of blacks into the army, giving them equal pay
with whites, but maintained them in all-black
units with white officers and kept the great
majority out of combat.
• Wilson’s cabinet heads re-segregated restrooms and cafeterias in government buildings.
• Wilson ordered segregation in the Washington offices of the Navy, the Treasury,
and the Postmaster General.
• Wilson required all new federal job applicants to provide a photograph; he explain-
ed to black leaders this was to “reduce friction,” which he “sincerely believe[d] it
to be in their interest.”
• The Wilson Post Office Department downgraded or fired African American employ-
ees or placed them where they did not interact with the public.
Wilson professed “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit,” telling African
American delegations it “ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
Wilson identified with the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause” myth that Reconstruction
was the North demoralizing the South and an overreach by Radical Republicans.
For Wilson, this justified the extreme measures to reassert Democratic national and
Wilson’s book A HIS TORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE sympathized with the Ku Klux Klan
as “men half outlawed, denied the
suffrage, without hope of justice
in the courts, who meant to take
this means to make their will felt.”
WOODROW WILSON, A HISTORY OF THE
AMERICAN PEOPLE, Chapter IX
(1918) . The “means,” of
course, was terrorism against black
W.D. Griffith’s cinematic invective, The Birth of A Nation, began with a quote from Wilson’s HISTORY:
“The white men were roused by the mere instinct of self-preservation …
until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable
empire of the South, to protect the Southern Country.”
Woodrow Wilson, the great progressive and driving force behind the League of
Nations, was not progressive enough for a new birth of freedom.
Columbia University, c. 1900.
Racist Scholars Perpetuate the Myths
The academy often floats along producing work for itself. But at
the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it did real damage to
Columbia University political scientist John W. Burgess and
historian William A. Dunning presented an image of Reconstruction
as a national disaster. This position became known as “the Dunning
School.” Reconstruction’s fundamental problem, the Dunnings
argued, was granting black men the vote because they were
congenitally incapable of exercising it. Burgess:
“agreed with the scholarly consensus that blacks were inferior,”
and that “black skin means membership in a race of men which
has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason,
has never, therefore, created any civilization of any kind.”
This justified the white South implementing black disenfran-
chisement. Ignoring the role of blacks in bringing about political
change, the Dunnings argued any effort to restore African Americans’
political rights inevitably caused misgovernment. The Radical Republi-
cans in Congress were not really concerned for the former slaves but
bent on revenge against former Southern colleagues. The Dunnings
celebrated Reconstruction-era terrorists such as the Ku Klux Klan as
defenders of democratic self-government.
But other good history works abounded, including W.E. B. DU BOIS,
BLACK RECONSTRUCTION IN AMERICA, 1860-1880, at 711-29 (Free Press
1998) (1935). Du Bois, a black man, debunked the Dunnings both
in his scholarship and person. So also did the black senators and
congressmen of the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States.
These men came to Congress when they had a fair chance to gain
their seats because of Reconstruction.
But despite this good scholarship, the Dunning myths of Recon-
struction affected Supreme Court deliberations well into the 20th
century. As late as 1945 in Screws v. United States, 325 U. S. 91, 138, 140, 149 (1945), a case involving
a Georgia sheriff murdering a black man, dissenting Justices Owen Roberts, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert
H. Jackson insisted this “local crime” could not be prosecuted under
the Civil Rights Act of 1866 because,
“It is familiar history that much of this legislation was born
of that vengeful spirit which to no small degree envenomed
the Reconstruction era,” which led Congress to enact “clearly
Screws at 140. Justice Frankfurter later wrote for a plurality in United
States v. Williams, 341 U.S. 70, 74 (1951), that conditions during
Reconstruction “were not conducive to the enactment of carefully
considered and coherent legislation.”
Not until the Warren Court in the 1960s did the Dunnings lose
favor. For example, in United States v. Price, 383 U. S. 787, 801 & n.
9 (1966), a case arising from the murder of three civil rights workers
in Mississippi, the Supreme Court finally cited historians to support
the obvious principle that the 14th Amendment’s main purpose was
to protect the rights of the freedmen. See Foner at 1589-97 and O’Connor at 705-06.
John William Burgess
William A. Dunning
W. E.B. Du Bois
The mythmaking continued
into the early 20th Century,
as D.W. Griffith’s silent film
The Birth of a Nation (aka The
Clansman) (Epoch Film Co.
1915) showed, which ends with
the disenfranchisement and disarming of blacks.
The cry “The South will
raise again!” reverberates even