One accusation that constantly surfaced during this years fractious US election campaign concerned the endorsement Donald Trump received from the Ku Klux Klan. During election 2016, Trump generally tried to give the impression that he was distancing himself from the Klan. Nevertheless, the mere hint of an endorsement from the Klan tended to hurt and threatened to de-legitimize Trump’s campaign.
Open approval of the KKK might have been the kiss of death for Trump. Yet 100 years ago, Woodrow Wilson was elected to office despite having provided a scholarly justification for the doings of the Klan before he took office. Pre-Presidency, Wilson was a noted academic. In his book History of the American People, Wilson painted the following picture of the Reconstruction period in American history:
Adventurers swarmed out of the North, as much the enemies of one race as the other, to cozen, beguile, and use the negroes …. In the villages, the negroes were the officeholders, men who knew no uses of authority except insolences. … The policy of congressional leaders wrought .. . a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South … in their determination to “put the white South under the heel of the black South.” The white men were roused by a 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.
Wilson was the first Southerner elected to office in over 60 years and his defense of the Klan was informed by both his upbrmging and sense of injustice at the Confederacy’s defeat. He also adopted a paternalist attitude towards the ‘negroes.’ They were to be listened to, but their concerns were to play second fiddle to those of the whites. This approach was evidenced from Wilsons Presidency of Princeton, whereby Wilson discouraged African-Americans from attending this most prestigious of American universities.
When in public office, Wilson tacitly encouraged his son-in-law William McAdoo to segregate facilities in Treasury buildings. Many other federal government offices followed suit, although it was never made into an official policy. Many African-Americans worked in public offices at the time and Wilson’s acceptance of the measures met with the disapproval of Monroe Trotter, a prominent newspaper editor and black intellectual. Wilson met with Trotter and did not advance any racially based rationale as such for the unofficial policy, but merely considered segregation to be a form of polite neighbourliness. In other words, blacks should be sensitive to white feelings instead of both communities following objective norms of justice and political equality (such ‘neighbourly’ arguments were regularly used in Apartheid South Africa).
A more notorious instance of Wilson’s undoubtedly racist attitudes concerned his relationship with the film Birth of a Nation. Wilson was good friends with Thomas Dixon. Dixon wrote the book The Clansman, on which perhaps the most racist film in American history was based. Dixon and Wilson had socialized together at John Hopkins University. By means of his friendship, Dixon played a pivotal role in getting the first film at the White House screened and Wilson viewed Birth of a Nation in 1915. Moreover, DW Griffith’s ground-breaking opus magnus contained part of the quote I have cited above.
However, we should be fair to Wilson. He did seem to revolt at the extent of the racism on display in the movie and he also banned the movie during WWI. Nevertheless, his closeness to Dixon indicates that it was more the degree to which the movie exploited racial attitudes, rather than any sharp divergence in philosophy with Dixon, which primarily motivated Wilson’s distaste. It is also likely the case that Wilson understood the inflammatory power of moving images and so was fearful of race riots. Wilson was no anarchist; he wanted African-Americans to know their place, and wanted them to know their place in a peaceful manner. Despite this rider, I don’t doubt that Wilson saw African-Americans as inferior, though.
[Note: there is a false quote attributed to Wilson circulating widely whereby Wilson expresses his admiration for the movie, saying that Birth of a Nation “is like writing history with lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”]
It may then seem strange for Wilson to have a reputation as a great internationalist, someone who hoped for an end to war, who attempted to build a truly co-operative global community, and who supported the self-determination of nations. How do we square this with his racism?
I believe it is relatively easy to understand Wilson’s racism within the context of his internationalism. Wilson sought the supremacy of whites. As with his segregation policies while in office, he believed that those he considered inferior should have their independence, provided they did not mix with the white races too much. A system where the non-white races had their sovereignty could be effectively managed, and in fact any attempts by the non-white races to upset the balance of power could be legally opposed. As well, there were echoes of the US Civil War and the idea of ‘states’ rights’ (a doctrine by which the Confederate states claimed their right to hold slaves). All in all, it was a Pax White-Mana!
In a lesson that is relevant to today’s current affairs, Wilson lost control of the racist attitudes he had helped to foster. The KKK were resurrected during his presidency. They went on to become the most dynamic force in American politics in the 1920s. What marked the KKK out were their vicious treatment of non-whites in America proper and their staunch opposition to immigration, especially that of Catholics or Jews. Only the excesses of the KKK held back their progress and they were major players in keeping institutionalized segregation alive and well in the US until the 1960s.
So while Trump has distanced himself from some of his more extreme supporters, there is a historical precedent which tells us that ultra-nationalist parties can quickly rise to the top in an atmosphere where racist attitudes appear on the surface to be extinct. Time will tell if this genie of American racism has been left out of the bottle 100 years after Wilsons presidency.