Donald Trump and Woodrow Wilson: How to get your bigot on as president
Republican president-elect Donald Trump’s lack of black and minority support in Tuesday’s election comes as no surprise, considering the way that he actively appealed to extreme right-wing conservative voters since first announcing his candidacy last June.
But amid Trump’s upset defeat against Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States, a question that begs asking is: Would a President Trump rank as the most racist president in U.S. history?
Trump’s track record on race suggests so.
Beyond Trump’s bigoted rhetoric has been his well-documented history of racial discrimination in leasing properties to black tenants in New York City as far back as the 1970s. Then there’s the full-page ads he took out in the New York Times in 1989 calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of young black men who were falsely accused and later cleared of raping a white woman.
And, of course, his leadership of the “Birther Movement,” which accused America’s first black president of not being a U.S. citizen.
As bad as Trump’s rhetoric has been on the campaign trail, it will be difficult in this modern era for him to top the shameful legacy of arguably the most openly racist president in American history, none other than Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson, a native of Staunton, Virginia, was a historian by trade and a Civil War buff. Lest we forget that upon the conclusion of that war, formerly enslaved blacks flourished in many ways during the 12 or so years of Reconstruction, this period saw the establishment of citizenship and voting rights for blacks per the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the establishment of schools, banks and hospitals that served as the foundation of flourishing black communities.
But by the late 1880s, many former Confederate soldiers and slave owners had returned to power in Southern states. By the mid 1890s, every Southern state in the Union had enacted “Jim Crow” laws that eradicated most of the legal gains that blacks had earned during Reconstruction.
In 1896, when Homer Plessy challenged this new racial caste system that forbade blacks from sitting alongside whites on trains, the United States Supreme Court held that such laws were constitutional while establishing that “separate but equal” was the supreme law of the entire land, not just the South. By so doing, the Supreme Court ensured that within a decade, no blacks held high elected office anywhere in the South, black voting rights were mostly a nullity, and black businesses were eliminated from receiving lucrative government contracts.
It was amid this backdrop that Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912, where he beat Republican William Howard Taft and former Republican Teddy Roosevelt, who ran on the third party “Bull Moose” ticket.
It was Roosevelt, in fact, who nearly a decade earlier had drawn the ire of white Southern Democrats when he invited famed black educator Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House during his presidency.
By 1915, three years into Wilson’s first term as president, the Ku Klux Klan was revived in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and its membership skyrocketed. The following year, Wilson held a personal screening of DW Griffith’s virulently racist movie “Birth of a Nation,” one that glorified the old Klan as protectors of white society and white womanhood. Wilson, the historian, commented that the movie’s negative depiction of blacks was like “writing history with lightning.”
For the remainder of the decade, white mobs attacked and killed blacks with impunity. When 156 black soldiers stationed at Camp Logan near Houston, Texas, marched toward town to protest the beatings of two fellow black soldiers by white police officers, when violence erupted that left several whites dead, President Wilson personally reviewed the appeals following the court martial and approved the death sentences that were meted out to 17 black soldiers.
As president, Wilson also rolled back gains for blacks in federal civil service positions and as postal workers. When Monroe Trotter, a black Harvard University graduate and newspaper editor, protested Wilson’s policies, Wilson dismissively chided him as having an “offensive tone” and told Trotter that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
Today, yes, black people have shaken our heads at Trump’s penchant for saying “The Blacks” or “The African Americans,” appellations that are reminiscent of Wilson’s “you gentlemen” comment to Monroe Trotter. But unlike 100 years ago, systemic Jim Crow is a relic of the past, and there is no Supreme Court precedent equal to the Plessy decision that would allow a President Trump to usurp equal protection under the law for blacks or any other racial, religious or sexual minority group.
But therein lies the potential danger of a Trump presidency and the historical irony. Just like Woodrow Wilson was the manifestation of white backlash against black political, social and economic progress after Reconstruction, a Trump presidency, replete with up to three Supreme Court nominations, could be the manifestation of modern conservative white backlash to the Obama presidency, affirmative action, and the still elusive goal of a color-blind criminal justice system.
Chuck Hobbs is a trial lawyer and award-winning freelance writer based in Tallahassee, Florida. Follow him on Twitter @RealChuckHobbs.