What Woodrow Wilson Did For Black America

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tags: racism, Woodrow Wilson



Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, which was published in March by Princeton University Press.

So here’s a quick quiz: Who said, “I have to tell you: I hate Woodrow Wilson with everything in me.” Was it a Princeton student during last week’s sit-in demanding the removal of Wilson’s name from university buildings? Nope. It was conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck, who routinely rants against the former Princeton and U.S. president. 

As Beck correctly emphasizes, Wilson was a key architect of modern American government. But that fact was missing from last week’s protests, which focused only upon Wilson’s miserable record on race. Nor was there any acknowledgment of the federal government’s historic role in assisting America’s poor and dispossessed, including minorities. As Wilson’s own example reminds us, the government’s commitment to racial equality has been highly uneven. But federal protections and benefits have served as important bulwarks of human dignity and decency in the United States, for all of us. And Wilson deserves a good deal of the credit for that.

Wilson came of age during the great industrial boom of the late 19th century, which created enormous disparities of wealth and opportunity across America. While corporate titans amassed huge fortunes, workers toiled in dangerous factories, sweatshops and mines. In cities, they crammed into filthy tenements; on the countryside, they took refuge in tar-paper shacks. They died from untreated water, putrid meat and poisonous over-the-counter drugs. 

Into the breach stepped a new generation of self-described “Progressive” presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. The Progressives insisted America needed a much larger and more active form of government, to temper the worst aspects of industrial capitalism. As Wilson argued, Thomas Jefferson’s idea that “the government that governs best governs least” no longer fit “the practical politics of America.” 

So the Progressives designed a different one. They passed measures to regulate workplaces, food and drugs. They barred child labor and mandated school attendance. And they won antitrust laws to break up corporate monopolies. According to Roosevelt, corporations "should be so supervised and so regulated that they shall act for the interest of the community as a whole." ...







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