THE BLOG

100 Years of Racism, From Woodrow Wilson's White House to Ferguson

03/10/2015 04:44 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Wait! Is this the year 2015 or 1915? By the Department of Justice report on police abuses in Ferguson, Missouri and the protests over teenager Michael Brown's death by cop-killing, this we could still be living in the time of Woodrow Wilson. The 28th President, son of a Confederate Army chaplain, was known to denigrate and degraded African Americans, even in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

This Justice Department's review of 35,000 pages of police records in Ferguson leaves no doubt that police there targeted black citizens and used excessive fines, collected through excessive arrests and charges, to build up city revenues while some laughed at the plight of those they had sworn to protect and serve.

Our chief executive of 100 years ago was a white supremacist in the good old American way, as the New York Times reported on a biography of Wilson by Scott Berg on December 8, 2013, (SUNDAY REVIEW P. 11). He used his presidential powers to segregate government jobs and insulted black leaders when they protested.

Woodrow Wilson's racial bias was on display long before he was elected to the White House (and re-elected on his broken promise to "keep us out of the war" that became world War I). When Wilson was president of Princeton University, a student from a Baptist college in his home state of Virginia applied there. Wilson answered "that it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton."

Several Ferguson officials "expressed discriminatory views and intolerance with regard to race, religion, and national origin," the DOJ report concluded. It described the communications as "unequivocally derogatory, dehumanizing, and demonstrative of impermissible bias."

A Ferguson officer sent a March 2010 e-mail that mocked African Americans through speech and familial stereotypes, using a story involving child support. One line from the e-mail read: "I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment! Month after month, year after year, all dose payments!"

Officials sent the e-mails from their city accounts "almost without exception" and apparently during work hours. Investigators found no evidence that anyone was disciplined or that anyone asked the sender to stop sending such e-mails, which were forwarded to others. This kind of racist behavior is not fit for a prison, yet it stems from a police department.

Like some police in Ferguson (and elsewhere for sure) Woodrow Wilson enjoyed hateful racist humor. He made jokes in black dialect and felt that interracial marriage would "degrade the white nations."

Many believe the Mayor of Ferguson, James Knowles should resign. I too believe he has done too little to address prevalent discriminatory behavior by his police department. So far one police department employee was fired and two others are on administrative leave over racist emails uncovered in the Justice Department investigation.

"For me," biographer Scott Berg said, "the worst thing Woodrow Wilson did as president was what he didn't do. That was in 1919 when the soldiers came home from the war. Many of them were African-Americans. They came home thinking: 'This is our moment. We've lost brothers, we have shed blood, this is the time we have shown we are full-blooded Americans.' But he said nothing..."

Reading the DOJ findings reminded me of other GAO reports and other Federal Government studies on discrimination. But I must say this report is different. It is a hard-hitting document that vindicates the tenure of U.S. Attorney General Holder as he packs up to turn the office over to nominee Loretta Lynch. What a legacy he is leaving for her to build on! I can only applaud. It's about time--a hundred years overdue, at least.

I must also take note of another 100th anniversary that shows how Ferguson connects with racial history. On March 21, 1915, President Wilson enjoyed a White House screening of a new breakthrough movie, D.W. Griffith's silent film "The Birth of a Nation," which denigrated African Americans and glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

Based on a novel, "The Clansman" by Wilson's good friend Thomas Dixon, the book and movie rewrote Southern history with a false account of Reconstruction. It presented "noble" whites as dominated by barbaric freed black men tried to sexually force themselves on white women. Like Wilson, Dixon and Griffith were children of Confederate parents.

C-SPAN recently showed the whole three hours of "The Birth," which remains in circulation because Griffith pioneered nearly two dozen film making techniques, including some still used today and taught in film schools despite its racist message. Griffith invented the use of an original musical score written for an orchestra, night photography (using magnesium flares), the use of outdoor natural landscapes as backgrounds and introduced fancy title cards. He added a card one that quoted Wilson's praise after the White House viewing. Wilson was quoted as saying, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."

"The Birth of a Nation," boosted KKK recruitment, but it made black Americans cry, and in some Northern cities resort to rioting. The newly created NAACP tried and failed to get it banned. The black press went to war against it print. But Griffith, who later regretted his negative racial portrayals, prevailed in theaters and in the minds of bigots.

Now, even as we prepared to gather in Selma this weekend for a 50th anniversary observance of "Bloody Sunday" the 1965 Voting Rights breakthrough (at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named to Honor a KKK Grand Dragon), Ferguson had given us fresh material for weeping and anger.
Like a throwback to 1915, the DOJ report listed numerous degrading police emails, some even mentioning the President and First lady.

• An April 2011 e-mail depicted Obama as a chimpanzee.

• A May 2011 e-mail stated: "An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, 'Crimestoppers.'"

• A June 2011 e-mail described a man seeking to obtain "welfare" for his dogs because they are "mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can't speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are."

• An October 2011 e-mail included a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, "Michelle Obama's High School Reunion."

• A December 2011 e-mail included jokes that are based on offensive stereotypes about Muslims.

• A November 2008 e-mail stated that President Obama would not be president for very long because "what black man holds a steady job for four years."

Well, a black man has held THAT job for four years twice. And President Barack Obama will be on hand to represent that it was the suffering at Selma by white and black Americans that helped put him in it. Yet the message from Ferguson-- the tone and arrogance of the police emails--is a wake-up call to black America and to all white citizens who are genuinely American--that for all the change we have seen over 100 years, especially in the last fifty years, much remains to be done.

"Selma is not just about commemorating honoring the past," Obama said Friday, in a town hall meeting at historically black Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. On his way to Alabama, he was traveling with his "good friend" and "extraordinary Attorney General," Holder. "Selma is now," the President said. "Selma is about the courage of ordinary people doing extraordinary things because they believe they can change the country, shape our nation's destiny. Selma is about each of us asking ourselves what we can do to make America better.

The road is long, but we must stay on course in the name of Jimmie Lee Jackson, killed by police in 1965 Selma and Michael Brown, shot down by police in 2014 Ferguson--and countless others who sacrificed their lives for change. We must keep faith in an America of the future, a better America that can treat all its people fairly, white, black or brown.