Dixiecrats Triumphant: The Secret History of Woodrow Wilson. (Columns)

By Freund, Charles Paul | Reason, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Dixiecrats Triumphant: The Secret History of Woodrow Wilson. (Columns)


Freund, Charles Paul, Reason


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 farsighted 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.

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