Political Science Now

Transforming Silence into an Active, Present Awareness

Transforming Silence into an Active, Present Awareness: What to do about Wilson’s Legacy

by Todd Shaw, University of South Carolina

Probably William Faulkner’s most frequently cited quote is, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” This is especially true when the unexamined pain of history is not transformed but is instead transferred to a present era. Such is the problem and the prospective pain we confront if we leave the racial legacy of President Woodrow Wilson unexamined. Among many things, Wilson was a pioneering political scientist, a progressive reformer, a wartime president, and a moralist in international affairs. But he also was a tacit white supremacist in an era when record numbers of African Americans were being lynched, disenfranchised, and economically oppressed in parallel to the racialization of many other Anglo-American groups.

Few people know that Wilson spent part of his teenage years in Columbia—South Carolina’s state capitol. It is also a city in which I have lived, taught, and observed for more than a decade. It is not an historical coincidence that Wilson and his family, who were steeped in the racial beliefs and mores of the “Old” white south, spent a formative moment of his adolescence in this city that helped birth the Confederacy. Its state’s legislature was the first to ratify an “Ordinance of Secession” from the Union based in part on the right of white South Carolina aristocrats to own African Americans as enslaved property. Of course its sister city of Charleston sparked the Civil War. Columbia was also a ground-zero for the rise and fall of Reconstruction; especially when arch-segregationist Gov. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman and his allies, among other ills, enforced the legal disenfranchisement of blacks through intimidation and murder if deemed necessary. 2 In 1915b then-President Wilson was so awestruck by D.W. Griffith’s white supremacist epic—The Birth of Nation—and its tortured history of Reconstruction, that he infamously asserted, “It was like writing history with lighting, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” It played to sold out white movie houses in Columbia as throughout the south. The actual, terrible truth is that the racist lies that Griffith and Wilson endorsed had horrible implications even one hundred years later.

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Perspectives on Politics / Volume 14, Issue 3 / September 2016, pp. 768-769