Monday, November 30, 2015

Wilson Matters

“All lives matter” is a generalized truism.   “Black Lives Matter” is a specific truth.  Those who invoke the first as a corrective of the second just don’t get it.  By imposing the general “all”, they dismiss the stark fact of unfinished business.  The whole point of the Black Lives Matter movement is that the specific counts and to ignore or deny it can no longer be excused — even if it hurts or upends some of our myths.  I’m reminded that parents often hug a fallen and injured young child with the “comforting” words, “all better”.  Of course it isn’t always all better, sometimes far from it.  Despite undeniable progress, when it comes to race there remains an immense gap between “all better” and reality.

The Black Lives Matter protests gained real momentum after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner focusing specifically on police killings of unarmed young African Americans — twice as many as unarmed whites.  It is emerging as a leading force in a larger 21st Century civil rights movement.  The newest student initiated battleground of protest is universities, perhaps most notably the ivy covered campus of Princeton, First Lady Michelle Obama’s Alma Mater.   Here the focus is on the legacy of Woodrow Wilson its president (1902-10) who went on to serve as Governor of New Jersey and President of the United States.  

We think of Wilson as a two term progressive, a reformer usually ranked in the top ten of our presidents.  Among others, he supported and signed into law the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Anti-trust Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act and reinstated federal income taxes.  Wilson led the nation during World War I and then lobbied so intensively for the League of Nations that it permanently impared this health.  After a stroke, his wife Edith is said to have effectively taken over his executive duties.  While leaving office an enfeebled physical shadow of his former self, he is remembered as a vigorous pioneering champion of world peace.  But Wilson also had a far darker side — a Southern racist who intentionally turned back the progress that African Americans had made especially, writes Gordon Davis in a Times OP Ed, within the Civil Service.

The whole point of Black Lives Matter, and of the current movement as a whole, is that it's time we stop giving people or institutions a pass just because they also do or did good things.  The police who protect us are suffering such scrutiny.  Wilson’s case may be less obvious than that of William Sanders, the Confederate Army officer and alleged KKK member for whom a building was named on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.  After student protests, it has been replaced.  But as president of the university and then of the United States, Wilson had far more power, not to mention a biography that often glosses over his consequential racism.  The objective of the student led protest is to remove Wilson’s name from the campus including its distinguished Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.   A November 24 NY Times editorial supports their efforts.

Wilson presents a complex case, one marked by great inconsistencies.  His politics were generally progressive but his racist views reflected those held by many Southerners of his time and after.  The worst of Jim Crow was yet to come.  I would argue they continue in, for example, the region’s Republican controlled legislatures’ determination to undermine minority voting in the guise of protecting us from fraud.  The Twenty-fourth Amendment, ratified in 1964, may have outlawed poll taxes, but their progeny are alive and well in the form of ID laws in force or pending in mostly Southern states.  Wilson, according to Gordon Davis, ruined his grandfather’s life by upending a promising rising career in public service, downgrading him to messenger status at half his original salary just because he was Black.  “Wilson”, says Davis (a distinguished lawyer, public servant and civic leader), “was not just a racist. He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress.  But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families.”  The grandson still grieves. 

Enter another grandson, the late Francis Bowes Sayre, Jr., longtime Dean of Washington’s National Cathedral.  To those of us who grew up in the 1960s civil rights movement, Francis Sayre was among its heroes.  These decades after, you may not even know his name or that he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.   But as dean of the Capital’s emblematic establishment church where funerals of presidents and notables are held, what Sayre said counted.  While clergy played a significant role in civil rights some among the leaders of more establishment institutions chose to remain quiet if not silent.  They opted for quiet, not wanting to stir things up or to offend.  Sayre would have none of that.  He was a social and liberal activist, vocally opposing segregation but also McCarthyism and the Viet Nam War; all of this from the seat of power in the nation’s capital.  Francis Sayre, Jr. was Woodrow Wilson’s first grandchild, born in his White House.

While meeting him once in his later years, I don’t know if Sayre’s civil rights activism was driven by his grandfather’s racism — an overt rejection of it or an effort of family redemption.  Surely he isn’t the only child of segregationist families to move in that direction; the South is replete with them.  What is significant here, and what makes it all so complex, is that the story of America’s “Original Sin” remains one of many contradictions.  Senator Sam Ervin a pivotal figure in bringing down Richard Nixon, was a dedicated Segregationist.  It’s our great enigma.  In 2008 we elected the first African American president and people were talking — in retrospect fanatisizing — of post-racialism.   The gap between the promise of that hope and reality proved enormous.  In the election’s euphoric wake we all averted our eyes.  Gerald Ford’s pronouncement that “our long national nightmare is over” may have pertained with Richard Nixon, but it surely can't be applied to race relations in this country.

Perhaps this realization is what’s driving the protests over the Wilson named school and building at Princeton.  It’s not so much his dark side per se, but that perhaps in giving him a pass, overlooking his bigotry, the nation as a whole is being kept from moving forward in private as well as in public.  Not one of our presidents has been without fault.  Some of those we admire and mythologize most were slaveholders.  That Obama was elected, has served nearly seven years, and that little if anything has changed on the race front, especially for young Black males, serves as a stark reminder. Were it not for this obvious contradiction, this disconnect, perhaps the current activism would not have taken root.

We can’t change history.  What’s happening at Princeton and other campuses seems aimed at correcting our perceptions of it, refusing to overlook sins, especially blatant ones.  I’m inclined to support this myth correcting.  At the same time, as with any broad brush, can’t help but be troubled by its one-dimensional simplicity.  Where do we draw the line?  Joseph P. Kennedy was an anti-Semite and Hitler sympathizer.  He played a significant role in getting his son Jack elected president.  Do we rename The Kennedy Center because of family sins?  Hypothetically transferring blame to the son may present a very different situation, to say the least a stretch, but hopefully makes the point.  Many significant contributors to society have come out of the Wilson school at Princeton.  They add its name on their resume with pride.  What about them?

Joseph Campbell, himself a man of many prejudices, spent a lifetime teaching us about the importance of myth.  Myths about our leaders continue to resonate; indeed we rely upon them.  The debate about Wilson at Princeton has if nothing else challenged, even shattered, one of our myths.  The contrast within his life presents a confusing contradiction.  Grandson Sayre’s contrary, yes redemptive, behavior only complicates the story.  Myths are and will remain of import, but so too is symbolism.  The names we attach to buildings and institutions embody symbolism, and as such can become targets of truth telling.  Where to start and where to stop is a valid question, one that acknowledges the complexities that mark us as humans.  Some do unquestioned good, some clearly bad.  Most of us are a mix, hopefully heavily weighted in the right direction. 

The question before us now is what symbol is more important: Woodrow Wilson the admired progressive or Wilson the willful bigot.  Is the cost too high in erasing the symbol of accomplishment or is it more important — and actually a relatively low cost — to recognize and admit that our eyes have too long been averted from an ugly truth.  Erasing Wilson’s name from the Princeton campus will be painful, but let’s not underestimate its positive shock value.  Perhaps that’s exactly what we need to help wake us up from the national fantasy that all is better, a necessary reminder that Black Lives Matter.

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