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Same Script, Different Cast? (Pt. 1 of 3)

Note: I’ve done a previous diary comparing Obama on gay rights to Wilson in the area of women’s suffrage. I was looking deeper into that comparison than I did the first time when I ran across this fascinating bit of black civil rights history.

I’m still going to do the suffrage thing. But far too often the comparison to black civil rights victories are cited and none of the stumbling blocks (if the story of the 1912 presidential election counts as such) are discussed. And I think that this diary (and the next two to come) touches on a topic that is pertinent to the GLBT civil rights today.

Finally, I also think that the 1910’s is an even better period to study as it realates to intersectionality (which the GLBT civil rights movement does have a problem with.) Remember, I began reading about this as I was reading about the women’s suffrage movement…and I got derailed…lol

As the presidential election of 1912 approached, the black community faced a dilemma.

Many blacks were dissatisfied with the lip service but non-action that had been given their issues by President Taft. And while former President Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party seemed an acceptable alternative for some blacks, many blacks remained deeply suspicious of Roosevelt due to the Brownsville incident. Their suspicions were later justified when Teddy Roosevelt permitted Southern white delegates to the Bull Moose convention while barring some Southern black delegates.

The black leadership, anxious to flex their growing political muscle in the Northern states, did the unthinkable; they courted the Democratic candidate for president, former President of Princeton University (which did not admit black students under his tenure) and New Jersey Governor, Woodrow Wilson.Wilson did meet with delegations from a couple of black organizations, spokespersons for the black community like William Monroe Trotter, and white liberals like Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the New York Evening Post (and grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison).

At no time did Woodrow Wilson make any firm commitments or specific promises pertaining to “the Negro question.” However, after a good deal of bargaining following the Democratic convention, Woodrow Wilson declined to speak before  the National Colored Democratic League of New York City, then headed by Bishop Alexander Walters but Wilson did forward a letter which stated:

“The colored people of the U.S. have made extraordinary progress towards self-support and usefulness, and ought to be encouraged in every possible and proper way. My sympathy with them is of long standing and I want to assure you that should I become President of the United States they may count on me for absolute fair dealing of everything by which I could assist in advancing the interest of their race in the U.S.”

Woodrow Wilson to Bishop Alexander Walters October, 1912

While many black leaders remained suspicious of Wilson, given his Southern heritage, the fact that Princeton did not accept blacks, and the vagueness of his letter to Bishop Walters, many decided to support Wilson because they distrusted Taft and Roosevelt even more. In his endorsement of Wilson, published in the Crisis, W.E.B. Dubois wrote:

“We sincerely believe that even in the face of promises disconcertingly vague…it is better to elect Woodrow Wilson President of the United States and prove once and for all if the Democratic Party dares to be democratic when it comes to black men…”

W.E.B. Dubois’ endorsement of Woodrow Wilson published in the Crisis

Woodrow Wilson handily won the 1912 election with 435 electoral votes to Theodore Roosevelt’s 88 (the best showing by a third party presidential candidate in American history). And while it is conceded that the black (male) vote in 1912 was not decisive, Dubois’ stated that:

“…in the North a hundred thousand black voters had supported Woodrow Wilson in 1912, and had been so distributed in strategic places as to do much to help his election.”

Overall, it appears that Wilson and Roosevelt split the black (male) vote between them in the 1912 presidential election. Dubois described the effort to “divide the Negro vote” as “unusually successful.” (Dusk of Dawn pp. 235)

[Frankly, it shocks me to even read that statistic (I believe that DuBois is fairly accurate about this for reasons that will become apparent later).]

And remember, the Democrats also controlled Congress for the first time since the 1890’s.

And it shocks me for the simple reason that the next portion of this history I have been pretty well aware of for much of my life (though never in excruciating detail); the shocking racism of the Wilson Administration:

More bills were introduced in Congress enforcing segregation than at any other time in history, including bills criminalizing interracial marriages in the District of Columbia, enforcing racial segregation of the Civil Service and public transportation in the District (none of the bills became law).

Wilson appointed five Southern Democrats to Cabinet posts, including Postmaster General Albert Burleson, who later fired Southern black postal workers .And while Wilson signed no executive order formally segregating the federal workforce, it became widely practiced.

Wilson appointed a white man as ambassador to Haiti (a position that had been previously held by Frederick Douglass and was usually reserved for black Americans). The Wilson Administration invaded Haiti in 1915 and occupied Haiti for nearly 20 years.

Wilson’s own words were quoted and seen in D.W. Griffith’s racist classic film The Birth of a Nation  (Thomas Dixon, author of the source of Griffith’s film, The Clansman, was a former classmate of Wilson’s at Johns Hopkins). Additionally, Wilson received a private screening of the film at the White House.

(Hmmm…that reminds me of something… but I digress…couldn’t resist it though…)

And on and on…

In September 1913, W.E.B. Dubois issued a not so veiled threat:

“We black men still vote. In spite of the fact that the triumph of your party last fall was possible only because Southern white men have…from twice to seven times the political power of Northern white men-notwithstanding this, we black men of the North have a growing nest egg of 500,000 ballots, and ballots that are counted, which no sane party can ignore. Does your Mr. Burleson expect the Democratic Party to carry New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, by 200,000 votes? If he does will it not be well for him to remember that there are 237, 942 black voters in these States?”

W.E.B. Dubois Another Open Letter to Woodrow Wilson from “The Crisis” September 1913

And Dubois may have been right about this assessment.

But the real fireworks between Wilson and black leaders occurred with William Monroe Trotter in particular.

Trotter (whose previous claim to fame, outside of The Guardian, was his famous “heckling” of Booker T. Washington, an event that was the catalyst of the famous Washington/DuBois rivalry) met with other black leaders at the White House on November 12, 1914. And the conversation was heated…to say the least…

TROTTER: Now, Mr. President, this is a very serious thing with us. We are sorely disap-pointed that you take the position that the separation itself is not wrong, is not injurious, is not rightly offensive to you. You hold us responsible for the feeling that the colored people of the country have-that it is an insult and an injustice; but that is not in accord with the facts, Mr. President. We, if anything, lag behind. Why, Mr. President, two years ago, among our people, and last year, you were thought to be perhaps the second Abraham Lincoln.

WILSON: Please leave me out. Let me say this, if you will, that if this organization wishes to approach me again, it must choose another spokesman. I have enjoyed listening to these other gentlemen. They have shown a spirit in the matter that I have appreciated, but your tone, sir, offends me. You are an American citizen, as fully an American citizen as I am, but you are the only American citizen that has ever come into this office who has talked to me in a tone with a background of passion that was evident. Now, I want to say that if this association comes again, it must have another spokesman. You wouldn’t do me, then, a possible injustice.

TROTTER: I am from a part of the people, Mr. President.

WILSON: You have spoiled the whole cause for which you came.

…and a little later…

TROTTER: I was simply trying to show how my people feel, Mr. President, because it is the truth that we who led in this movement are today, among our people, branded as traitors to our race on segregation.

WILSON: As traitors to your race?

TROTTER: As traitors to our race, because we advised the colored people to support the ticket. That is the reason we do it. I am sincere in this feeling. I want to show, Mr. President, their feeling in the matter, not my feeling. I am telling you the truth. We ought to be truthful, Mr. President. We ought to be frank and truthful. I hope you want to be frank and true and not be false to your faith. Now, Mr. President, you know it would be an unmanly thing to appear to be false.

Oh, and here’s a whopper by President Wilson

WILSON: Politics must be left out, because don’t you see, to put it plainly, that is a form of blackmail. I am only saying that

you are conscious of that, or that you would tell me contrary to that. But you must

reflect that, when you call upon an officer and say that you can’t get certain votes if you don’t do certain things, that is the kind of course which ought never to be attempted. I would resent it from one set of men as from another. You can vote as you please, provided I am perfectly sure that I am doing the right thing at the right


After this exchange, Trotter was thrown out of the White House. Then in a breach of the White House protocols of that time, Trotter denounced President Wilson to the press and the incident made the front page of the NY Times.


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