Rot in the Marble

When Honored Leaders Held and Even Promoted Some of the Least Honorable Attitudes of Their Times

 

The Atlantic has published a series of articles and facilitated several forums addressing the controversy, centered at Princeton University, over President Woodrow Wilson’s attitudes toward race.

In “The Racist Legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” Dick Lehr provides an account of the historical incident that has become a focal point in discussing Wilson’s attitudes toward race:

“The Black Justice League, in protests on Princeton University’s campus, has drawn wider attention to an inconvenient truth about the university’s ultimate star: Woodrow Wilson. The Virginia native was racist, a trait largely overshadowed by his works as Princeton’s president, as New Jersey’s governor, and, most notably, as the 28th president of the United States.

“As president, Wilson oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices. It’s a shameful side to his legacy that came to a head one fall afternoon in 1914 when he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office. . . .”

Lehr’s complete article is available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/wilson-legacy-racism/417549/

 

A lively but generally thoughtful—and moderated–discussion of the article has followed in The Atlantic’s Notes forum:

“Over the weekend we published a piece from Dick Lehr centered on a contentious meeting Wilson had with civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter and which punctuated the president’s shameful legacy on race relations.

“The most up-voted view in the comments section: ’In 1914, most people were racist or bigoted against something. Why expend effort digging up racist behaviour from over a century ago, when there is plenty of modern day racism affecting living people every single day in the here and now? Sounds like yet another cynical manufactured outrage geared toward sparking a social media backlash.’

“Another reader asks rhetorically, ‘When can we start smashing busts of Obama because he didn’t approve of gay marriage in 2008 [and didn’t endorse it until May 2012]?’

“This reader, on the other hand, gives an accounting of Wilson’s bigoted actions in the White House even in the context of the early 20th century: ‘Actually, Wilson is regarded as more racist than the norm for the time because of the actions he took to deepen segregation in the government.’. . .”

The forum is available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2015/11/the-racist-legacy-of-woodrow-wilson-contd/417990/.

 

In “The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble,” Mason B. Williams attempts to provide a broader context for the controversy surrounding Wilson’s legacy:

“For the past two weeks, the opinion pages have been consumed with the demands of students at Princeton University that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from the university’s school of public and international affairs and one of its residential colleges. The Princeton protests follow several other high-profile revolts against historical icons whose legacies are entangled with the history of white supremacy. Students at Yale are working to have John C. Calhoun’s name stripped from a residential college there; students at the University of Missouri have called for a statue of Thomas Jefferson to be removed from campus. These campus protests follow a well-publicized movement to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. This has been a season of iconoclasm.

“Both the protesters and their critics have tended to move from one individual case to the next. Protesters have called attention to the sins in thought, word, and deed of one historical figure after another. Skeptics have responded by pointing to those figures’ positive achievements and placing their shortcomings within their historical contexts. Editorial boards have weighed in on whether the individuals in question were or were not racist. And university officials have designed processes to weigh whether these figures’ actions are sufficiently loathsome to merit the removal of their names and images.

“But, while both the protesters and their detractors focus on the question of what to do with the legacies of historically prominent figures today, there is a larger reckoning that America needs to have with the style of commemoration embodied in these individual monuments—and the meanings of the American nation bound up in them. These protests may be dealing a final blow to a style of commemoration that thrived for much of the 20th century. Something new will take its place. But what? Discussing individuals and (where warranted) removing names is good—but it is just a start. The crucial next step is to rethink and reinvent the ways the nation commemorates. To do that, it is important to first understand the ideological underpinnings of these enduring monuments, the touchstones of an age when America churned out everything from statues to buildings to new currency at a furious pace. . . .”

Williams’ complete article is available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/warnings-from-the-age-of-marble/419004/.

 

And, of course, the baseline for historical reconsideration of our political leaders’ positions on race has been the examination of Abraham Lincoln’s far from straightforward attitudes. These are discussed in another forum of Notes, which begins with this contribution from reader, linking the more recent controversy about Wilson to the more longstanding arguments about Lincoln:

“Yes, the world was very different place 200, 100, 50 or even 25 years ago. Why do people continue to measure people, not in the time they lived, but in a different world? This does not excuse anyone from hateful, hurtful speech or actions, but we need to evaluate people in their time.

“Yes, Woodrow Wilson was a racist. Yes, he did things that are beyond the pale for the time. These were, and are, horrendous. But if we want to use that standard, let’s tear down every monument or reverence to Abraham Lincoln. America’s greatest citizen did not believe in the equalities of the races. [Lincoln said, for example: ‘I am not, nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.’] He believed in white rule. [Here and here are historians who emphasize that.]

“But perhaps the words of Fredrick Douglass best sum it up, ‘Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.’”

This forum is available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2015/12/how-much-should-we-judge-lincoln-on-race/418686/.

 

P.S. In the interest of heading of comments that will likely be both well-meaning and condescending, I am aware that marble does not rot. That’s kind of the point.

 

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