There was an assertion in the paper the other day that Ronald Reagan presides over "the most anticivil rights administration in this century." We find, at least on a Washington scene still remembered by many community elders, that badge of dishonor also has been affixed by some to another president: Woodrow Wilson.
Now, mind you, Metro Scene has no mandate to judge the broader issues of whether the Reagan administration is benign or bigoted in the ways it deals with civil rights. But it is interesting to examine the roles of other presidents.
Acknowledging that the line between civil rights and civil liberties is fuzzy, a look back tells us that Wilson -- widely honored for domestic gains and international idealism -- not only blocked the slow progress blacks had made over many decades after the Civil War, but actually turned the clock back.
Our source here is "Washington: Capital City, 1879-1950," by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Constance McLaughlin Green.
On the arrival of Wilson's "New Freedom" in 1913, she wrote, "Negroes in the capital waited eagerly for word of new appointments and measures that would wipe out the Jim Crow segregationist sections in government offices. March then the inaugural month and April 1913 came and went . . . .
"Then piece by piece the world of colored Washington fell apart. Within the next few months the president dismissed all but two of the Negroes whom Republican predecessor William Howard Taft had appointed 'to offices of dignity at Washington' and replaced them with white men . . . .
"The District recordership of deeds, a colored preserve since 1881, went to a white man in 1916. By then the only Negro to hold appointive office in Washington was municipal court judge Robert Terrell . . . . "
There followed "the shocked disapproval of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson," the Virginia-born president's Georgia-born first wife, "at seeing colored men and white women working in the same room in the Post Office Department.
"There the change to segregation , by whomever inspired, had gone into effect before the end of July 1913, and by autumn the Treasury, after cautiously watching public reaction, had consigned the colored employes of most divisions to separate rooms and forbidden all Negro employes to use the lunch tables and the toilet facilities that for years past they had shared with their white fellows.
"Similar rules applied in the Navy Department . . . and other federal offices . . . . "