Scene4 Magazine - Patrick Walsh

Patrick Walsh

“And these children that you spit on . . .”

I live in Princeton, New Jersey, home to one of the world’s most elite universities. Recently, students calling themselves the Black Justice League staged a protest to coerce the university to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs and a residential complex.

After a 32-hour sit-in at university president Christopher Eisgruber’s office and a long meeting with the blindsided administrator, the protesters obtained a signed document which promises to consider removing Wilson’s name, as well as the implementation of several other related demands.

As the protest garnered national attention, many of the reactions were puzzling, even shameful. Reading some of the illogical, often hateful screeds against these gutsy young students, I was reminded of those lines in David Bowie’s song “Changes” in which he sings: “And these children that you spit on//As they try to change their worlds// Are immune to your consultations,//They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through.”

But first the facts:

Born in Virginia in 1856, Woodrow Wilson grew up in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. As has been amply documented (most recently in Eric Yellin’s 2013 book, Racism in the Nation’s Service), Wilson’s love of the South went far beyond sentimental regard for its customs; he strongly felt the wrong side had won the Civil War and was an adherent to the lie of The Lost Cause.

Wilson, the first Southerner to gain the White House since Zachary Taylor in 1848, packed his administration with fellow segregationists. Like so many of the white Southerners who voted for him, Wilson felt it was time for payback.

When Wilson took office in 1913, Washington, D.C. was rigidly segregated except within the walls of federal agencies, where, since Reconstruction began, African-Americans worked alongside white employees. Wilson immediately rescinded the integration policy throughout the federal Civil Service.

Starting in 1914, Civil Service applications required photographs, an extra measure to ensure that no blacks landed federal jobs.

In short order, Wilson and his likeminded bureaucrats purged from employment or demoted thousands of African-Americans who had passed Civil Service exams and earned white-collar, middle class-wage government jobs.

On March 21, 1915, Wilson attended a special White House screening of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film based on the novel The Clansman written by Wilson’s close friend Thomas Dixon. Infamously racist in its depiction of the post-Civil War South, the film flips reality on its head, portraying the Ku Klux Klan as heroic saviors and African-Americans as tyrants and bullies. (The film holds the dubious distinction of being the first movie viewed in the White House.)

Alas, after viewing the film, Wilson is quoted as saying: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

It’s also especially salient to mention that while president of Princeton University, Wilson prevented the admission of black students, saying that such a policy would be “altogether inadvisable.”

While there’s no stronger indictment against Wilson than the facts of his discriminatory record as President of the United States, I did find it instructive to analyze the arguments made by some in his defense.

1. The students are trying to “re-write” history and “airbrush” Wilson out of it.

This argument cleverly undermines the students in two ways. First, it makes them appear quite foolish for attempting something so obviously and utterly impossible.

It also slyly introduces a Communist flavor to their motivations. We’re all familiar with how the Soviets and Chinese expunged party leaders who had fallen out of favor, literally airbrushing their faces out of official photographs.

But the “re-write” argument is false for the simple reason that it imputes an objective to the protest which the students never intended, let alone pursued. They aren’t trying to scratch Wilson’s name from the roster of former Princeton University presidents; they’re not out to delete his name from the list of past New Jersey Governors or American Presidents; and they sure as hell don’t want to pretend he never existed.

The students’ goal is to remove from a school of public policy the name of a man who did as much as he could in his official capacity as American President to thwart public policy when it concerned African-Americans.

2. It’s unfair to judge Wilson by our contemporary moral standards.

This argument provides further testimony to how poorly we educate our citizens, especially when it comes to our country’s history.  But here goes….

Woodrow Wilson became President in 1913, not 1813. The Civil War ended nearly 60 years before he took office. As mentioned, Wilson’s order to end integration throughout all federal government agencies, as well as his efforts to keep blacks from obtaining new Civil Service jobs reversed policies enacted from the Reconstruction era onwards, including those of his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt.

Forget about 2015. Wilson’s racist deeds were inexcusable in 1913. By any standard, including those of his own era, his actions were retrograde and utterly reprehensible.

3. Wilson’s name should remain on the school as a teaching point.

Here’s one of the most slippery defenses of Wilson’s poisonous legacy. You picture a docent standing near a granite inscription reminding people as they read Wilson’s name that he caused terrible hardship for thousands of African-Americans by booting them from their jobs or denying them employment.

But what lesson are we teaching here? That a man whose racist actions as President caused tremendous suffering and reversed nearly sixty years of post-Civil War progress still gets to keep his name on a school at a prestigious university?

The kindergartner would be first to ask: “If Wilson was such a bad man, why is the school still named for him?”

4. This protest is a witch hunt. Everyone has flaws. Many of the Founders, including George Washington, owned slaves, so where does this kind of thing end?

Ah yes, the old Slippery Slope Fallacy, a favorite tool of fear mongers everywhere.

To begin, this argument–a tiresome logical fallacy–once again imputes goals to the students which they have no intention of pursuing; it attacks them for hypothetical results of which there is absolutely no proof of causation.

As to the notion of a witch hunt, the students aren’t petitioning the university because Wilson wrote racist comments in his personal letters or made disparaging remarks about blacks to his cronies at the club. They’re asking for his name’s removal because he acted upon his racism as President.

To bring the Founders into this argument is spurious. George Washington died in 1799, 114 years before Wilson took office. But the peanut gallery conveniently forgets: Washington freed his slaves. Over time, he grew morally opposed to slavery. In a 1786 letter to his friend Robert Morris, for example, he wrote: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.”

As retirement approached, Washington arranged his will so that on his death his slaves could receive their freedom. In a 2004 review in The New Republic, historian Gordon Wood justly wrote: “He did this in the teeth of opposition from his relatives, his neighbors, and perhaps even Martha. It was a courageous act, and one of his greatest legacies.”

5. It’s always been named for Wilson, why change it now?

I’d be willing to bet that most Americans had never heard of Princeton University’s public policy school until this protest gave it national attention. For the record, Princeton created a program of Public and International Affairs as an interdisciplinary course of undergraduate studies in 1930. In 1948–24 years after Wilson died–Princeton added a graduate degree program and renamed the school in Wilson’s honor.

Woodrow Wilson didn’t name the school for himself; others chose to name it for him, others can choose to name it for someone truly worthy. Are we shackled to the past? I sure hope not. Does 67 years constitute a hallowed, immutable tradition? Hardly.

Besides, there’s no statute of limitations on righting a wrong.

It’s hard to fathom why so many people had such visceral reactions to the students. Well, it’s not hard to understand some of the reactions. Sadly, what some opponents really think is that it’s just another bunch of uppity niggers who aren’t content with what they’ve got.

But even some reasonable people argued that the students ought to be happy to attend a school as prestigious as Princeton, that it’s justice enough for African-Americans to be there. Really? Why should any student contend with a daily affront to his or her dignity?

How would Jewish students feel about walking through the gates of the Henry Ford School of Journalism? Or a gay man framing a diploma from the Roy M. Cohn Law School? Imagine as a Cheyenne or Lakota Sioux you’ve earned a spot at the George Armstrong Custer Academy of Military Science. Or perhaps you’re a woman–straight, gay, Hindu, Muslim, it makes no difference–and you’re assigned a room in Pat Robertson Dormitory.

Then again, think of all the “teaching opportunities” if, say, the University of Alabama opened a George Wallace Institute for Racial Integration or Ole Miss endowed a professorship called the Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price Chair in Criminal Justice….

Historian David Levering Lewis, who won Pulitzer Prizes for both the first and second volumes of his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, said: “In every man’s life, there’s the possibility of making a considerable difference. By attitude, by word spoken, by something done or not done. You’d have to say that in the area of race relations, Woodrow Wilson was deficient on all those points.”

Despite his keen intellect and academic demeanor, Woodrow Wilson couldn’t rise above his Virginia upbringing and its attendant inculcation into the ignorance of racism.

The Princeton students who formed the Black Justice League aren’t trying to re-write history, they’re making history; they’re not trying to do the impossible of changing the past but the extremely arduous of making the present and future better.


William Keylor, “The long-forgotten racial attitudes and policies of Woodrow Wilson,” Boston University Website (Professor Voices: Commentary, Insight & Analysis) March 4, 2013.

Gordon Wood, “The Man Who Would Not Be King,” The New Republic, December 16, 2004.

Eric S. Yellin, Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America), The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

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Patrick Walsh’s articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
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He is a columnist and Senior Writer for Scene4.
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©2016 Patrick Walsh
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January 2016

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