As a matter of intellectual integrity, and for the benefit of current and future generations, the proposed Woodrow Wilson marker (On the Campus, Oct. 26) should highlight the important insights offered by Hubert H. Harrison (1883-1927), the “father of Harlem radicalism” and founder of the militant “New Negro Movement.” When Wilson led the United States into World War I with a call to “make the world safe for democracy,” Harrison responded by organizing a massive Harlem protest rally. The rally demanded enforcement of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and that the Wilson administration “Make the South Safe for Democracy.” Harrison was well aware that Wilson “never had the slightest intention of extending democracy to millions.” He emphasized: “Wilson's protestations of democracy were lying protestations, consciously, and deliberately designed to deceive.”
Woodrow Wilson’s record was deplorable on the “race question.” He cut back federal appointments of African Americans; supported showings of the white-supremacist film The Birth of a Nation for himself, his Cabinet, Congress, and the Supreme Court; stood by silently as segregation was formalized in the Post Office, Treasury, Interior, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Navy; did nothing as almost two dozen segregation-supporting legislative attempts including exclusion of black immigrants, segregation of streetcars, and a ban on inter-racial marriages in the District of Columbia were introduced in the House and Senate; and declined to use any significant power of office to address lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement and the vicious white-supremacist attacks on 26 African American communities including Washington, D.C., Chicago, and East St. Louis that occurred during his administration.
Under Wilson the U.S. not only implemented the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918, and the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920, it also occupied Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Nicaragua and intervened in Panama, Honduras, and Mexico. Nevertheless, Wilson ran for president in 1916 on a campaign slogan “he kept us out of war,” posed before the world as a champion of democracy, and prated of “the rights of small nationalities,” of “self-determination,” and of “the right of all who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government.” In addition to the awful horrors let loose on small countries pre-war, in the postwar period he also helped to pave the way for partition, occupation, and conquest in the Middle East and Africa and for future wars.
There were contemporaries of Wilson – people like the St. Croix, Danish West Indies-born, Harlem-based Harrison – who saw through the lying statements of Wilson and the misleading portraits of him so often found in the media and history books. Harrison understood that while lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement marred this land, and while the U.S. brazenly occupied smaller countries, Wilson’s calls to war in order to expand democracy were deceptions. At the founding meeting of the Liberty League (the first organization of the militant “New Negro Movement”) in Harlem June 12, 1917, he posed a direct challenge to Wilson, who had claimed the U.S. was entering World War I in order to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” Harrison’s mass meeting was called, as its organizational flier headlined, to “Stop Lynching and Disfranchisement in the Land Which We Love and Make the South ‘Safe For Democracy.’ ” A month later, Harrison led a second major Harlem rally to protest the white supremacist “pogrom” (his word) in East St. Louis, Ill. (15 miles from Ferguson, Mo.) and to urge federal anti-lynching legislation. Harrison stressed that Wilson “never at any single moment meant to include in his democracy 12 millions of his fellow Americans” and he “allowed 350 of them to be lynched during his Presidency.”
It is important for current and future generations that we challenge lies made by a president in order to make war – whether the lie is about making the world safe for democracy, about a Gulf of Tonkin incident that didn’t occur, or about weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. We should recognize and act on our responsibility to current and future generations to expose the lie and tell the truth.
Editor’s note: A condensed version of this letter was published in the March 1, 2017, issue of PAW.