So, Woodrow Wilson was a racist. This is indisputable. It’s also why many black students at the school for Wilson was once president, Princeton, are calling for a renewed assessment of his legacy there and as president of the United States.
“We don’t want Woodrow Wilson’s legacy to be erased,” said Wilglory Tanjong, a member of the protesting Black Justice League, told the New York Times. “But we think that you can definitely understand your history without idolizing or turning Wilson into some kind of god, which is essentially what they’ve done.”
In my view, that’s a good balance. We need not unduly lionize prominent people, especially people like Wilson whose moral narcissism, disdain for constitutional government, and ineptitude in foreign policy resulted in tragedy and political chaos. Yet we can’t scrub our history of all unsavory aspects of its past. Stalinized portrayals of history, in which people who for whatever reason have fallen out of favor are airbrushed-out of photographs and deleted from written accounts, are dishonest and chilling. Such an approach not only invites fascism and statist control, it embodies such.
Across the street from my building, a bust of the late eugenicist and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger sits in honored glory in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Here is one choice giblet of insight from Mrs. Sanger for inclusion in the gravy of her secular adulation:
“We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” Woman, Morality, and Birth Control. New York: New York Publishing Company, 1922, page 12
As historian Paul Kengor notes, “Was Sanger plotting to eliminate all blacks? Of course not. But she was plotting to control the reproduction of blacks and of the human race generally.”
And as my distinguished colleague Ken Blackwell writes, “Sanger sought to recruit Black pastors because she did not want the word to get out in our churches that she wanted to eliminate America’s Black population. Sanger constantly denied any such intent, but she argued incessantly for creating ‘a race of thoroughbreds.’ Not since the days of Slavery had such language been used, comparing human lives to horse breeding.”
Later in life, Sanger seems to have changed her tune, at least a wee bit. “The Negro race has reached a place in its history when every possible effort should be made to have every Negro child count as a valuable contribution to the future of America. Negro parents, like all parents, must create the next generation from strength, not from weakness; from health, not from despair,” she wrote in 1946.
Yet one must ask, who did Sanger think she was to determine which baby was or wasn’t a “valuable contribution” to America’s future? Her concerns about the health and well-being of black mothers and their children, expressed elsewhere in the 1946 piece quoted above (“Love or Babies: Must Negro Mothers Choose?”) were in themselves admirable, yet her solutions -- widespread use of contraceptives to alleviate the suffering of black women and their babies and compulsory sterilization of “defectives” -- hardly constitute a compassionate approach.
In many other writings, Sanger wrote of “human weeds” and advocated widespread forced sterilization. In sum, her belief in coercive population control and her apparent desire to “exterminate” the “Negro race” (note: she wrote this at the age of 43, not as an immature young woman) should animate her bust’s removal from the Smithsonian every bit as much as Wilson’s racism in belief and practice should temper Princeton’s reverential recognition of him as one of its greatest sons.