Introduction to Shaping 20th Century America

Against the Current, No. 174, January/February 2015

The Editors

THIS ESSAY CONTINUES ATC’s ongoing feature on the centennial of World War I, for which Allen Ruff is serving as our special guest editor. Contributions by Ruff, William Smaldone and Yassamine Mather have appeared in previous issues.

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, rhetorically framing the mission as a struggle for “the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life…”

Few African Americans aware of Wilson’s message were likely to have missed its absolute hypocrisy and cynicism. Black observers by 1917 clearly understood who Wilson was and what to expect from him — none of it positive. His “New Freedom” progressive reforms were primarily for-whites-only. He embodied the glaring contradiction between American claims of freedom and democracy and the harsh realities of Black disenfranchisement, segregation and relentless racist violence.

Upon taking office in March 1913, the Virginia-born, Georgia-raised president appointed Southerners to several Cabinet posts, among them William Gibbs McAdoo at the Treasury and the Texas planter heir Albert Burleson as postmaster general. Both quickly moved to segregate their departments and purge Black federal employees nationwide. Following their lead, Wilson’s choice as secretary of the navy, the North Carolina white supremacist newspaperman Josephus Daniels, segregated the military branch.

In November 1914, Wilson received a delegation of Black civil-rights notables including the irrepressible William Monroe Trotter, who had come to to voice concern over Jim Crow’s federal advances. In response to Trotter’s objections, Wilson told them that “segregation is not humiliating but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”

While he all along refused to support a federal anti-lynching bill, in March 1915 Wilson held an exclusive White House screening of “Birth of a Nation,” the horrid depiction of Reconstruction that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as the saviors of a prostrate South gripped in the clutches of corrupt and bestial freedmen.

Wilson’s endorsement then appeared at the beginning of the film’s nationally distributed version: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Despite NAACP protests and calls for a boycott, the film — with its depiction of a murderous Black rapist, celebration of lynching and mutilation — incited racist violence and became a national recruitment vehicle for a resurgent Klan.

Out of the war would come new racial crises and a transformed African-American reality.

January/February 2015, ATC 174