It was Inauguration Day, and in the judgment of one later historian, "the atmosphere in the nation's capital bore ominous signs for Negroes." Washington rang with happy Rebel Yells, while bands all over town played "Dixie." The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whose role it was to swear in the newly elected Southern president, was himself a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, "an unidentified associate of the new Chief Executive warned that since the South ran the nation, Negroes should expect to be treated as a servile race." Somebody had even sent the new president a possum, an act supposedly "consonant with Southern tradition."
This is not an alternate-world scenario imagining the results of a Strom Thurmond victory in 1948. It really happened on March 4, 1913, the day Woodrow Wilson of Virginia and Georgia moved into the White House. The portrait of his Inauguration Day is drawn from historian Lawrence J. Friedman's The White Savage: Racial Fantasies in the Postbellum South (1970).
The year-end scandal involving Sen. Trent Lott's dismal remarks in honor of Thurmond's 100th birthday, especially Lott's stated regret that Thurmond's segregationist Dixiecrats failed to win the 1948 presidential campaign, led a number of writers to examine the Dixiecrats' old platform so as to put Lott's statement in perspective. But the whole Dixiecrat enterprise had a historical context of its own.
Breakaway segregationist Democrats didn't need to pluck the racist dystopia implicit in their 1948 platform from thin air, nor did they have to base their political hopes on hazy Lost Cause nostalgia and distant antebellum dreams. An openly racist Southern presidency had existed fewer than 30 years earlier: Wilson's. His White House had not only approved of the South's discriminatory practices (many of which were also widespread in the North), but implemented them in the federal government. Had Dixiecrat dreams come true, a Thurmond administration would have done no more than revive Woodrow Wilson's racial policies.
Wilson's historical reputation is that of a far-sighted progressive. That role has been assigned to him by historians based on his battle for the League of Nations, and the opposition he faced from isolationist Republicans. Indeed, the adjective "Wilsonian," still in use, implies a positive if hopelessly idealistic vision for the extension of justice and democratic values throughout the world. Domestically, however, Wilson was a retrograde racist, one who attempted to engineer the diminution of both justice and democracy for American blacks—who were enjoying little of either to begin with. (In fact, Wilson reportedly struck a racial-equality clause from the League of Nations charter as well.)
Wilson's racist views were hardly a secret. He was born in 1856 in little Staunton, Virginia. Though his family had recently relocated from famously abolitionist Ohio, his father, a Presbyterian minister, was pro-slavery and a supporter of the Confederacy. Wilson was still a boy when the family moved to Augusta, Georgia, where he grew up amid the Civil War and Reconstruction.
His public career reflected his upbringing: Wilson's five-volume study of American history was peppered with Lost Cause visions of a happy antebellum South. As president of Princeton, he had turned away black applicants. He was elected U.S. president only because the 1912 campaign featured a powerful third party, Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive, or "Bull Moose," Party, which drew Republican votes from incumbent William Howard Taft. Wilson emerged with a plurality victory, winning a clear majority of votes in only one state outside the South (Arizona).
What Wilson's election meant to the South was "home rule"—that is, license to pursue its racial practices without concern about federal interference. That is exactly what the 1948 Dixiecrats wanted. But Southern "home rule" was only the beginning of the administration's racial politics. Upon taking power in Washington, Wilson and the many other Southerners he brought into his cabinet set about changing the way the federal government handled its own race matters.
For example, one legacy of the post?Civil War Republican ascendancy was that Washington's large black populace had access to federal jobs and worked with whites in largely integrated circumstances. In some departments, white clerks worked under black supervision. Wilson's cabinet put an end to that, bringing Jim Crow to Washington.
Wilson allowed various officials to segregate the toilets, cafeterias, and work areas of their departments. One justification involved health: White government workers had to be protected from contagious diseases, especially venereal diseases, that racists imagined were being spread by blacks. Black federal supervisors, along with most black diplomats, were replaced by whites; numerous black federal officials in the South were removed from their posts; the local Washington police force and fire department stopped hiring blacks.
Wilson's own view was that federal segregation was an act of kindness. In historian Friedman's paraphrase, "Off by themselves with only a white supervisor, blacks would not be forced out of their jobs by energetic white employees."
Indeed, Wilson said as much to those appalled blacks who protested his actions. He told one unhappy black delegation that "segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." When the startled journalist William Monroe Trotter objected, Wilson essentially threw him out of the White House. "Your manner offends me," Wilson told him.
Blacks all over the country complained angrily about the administration—Wilson had actually courted the black vote in the 1912 campaign, and they felt betrayed. The president was unmoved. "If the colored people made a mistake in voting for me," he told The New York Times in 1914, "they ought to correct it."
Wilson appears to have perceived his presidency as an opportunity to correct history, and to restore whites like himself to unambiguous supremacy. (He thought uneducated whites should be disenfranchised.) That is apparently the reason he embraced the poisonous message of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation; it offered a congenially racist narrative.
Griffith's notorious film portrays the overthrow of debasing black rule in the Reconstructionist South through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The film's black characters (many of them white actors in blackface) are either servile or savages; Klan members are represented as both heroic and romantic. The movie was based primarily on Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel, The Clansman; not only was Dixon a personal friend of Wilson's, but he had been pushing for a Wilson presidency for years, and Wilson regarded himself as being in Dixon's debt.
Wilson discharged that debt by helping Dixon and Griffith overcome the protests building against their movie. He arranged for publicized screenings for his cabinet and for Congress (the Supreme Court also had a screening), and most important, he gave Dixon and Griffith an endorsement they could exploit. "It is like writing history with lightning," Wilson said of this KKK celebration, "and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."
Wilson's support was an important factor in defusing the movement against the film; indeed, Birth of a Nation went on to help spark a major Klan revival. The first half of Wilson's endorsement is still affixed to prints of the film that are screened for film students studying Griffith's advances in editing.
Obviously, Southern hopes that Wilson could force blacks into servility were delusional. Nevertheless, Wilson's Jim Crow presidency remained an available model for segregationists and supremacists who came later. Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats didn't necessarily require a model of triumphalist racism, but in Wilson they had one.
The Lott affair was widely treated as if its origins lay in 1948. They didn't. The past isn't dead, said Mississippian William Faulkner. "It's not even the past." He might have added that the past with which we grapple is often not even the real past.