The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Woodrow Wilson and Cecil Rhodes must fall

Woodrow Wilson in 1924. (Associated Press)
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A fascinating, uncomfortable and purifying wave is sweeping through America’s college campuses.

In the past several weeks, the campuses of the University of Missouri, Amherst College, Yale University and Ithaca College are just a few of the institutions that have been rocked by protests and sit-ins agitating for racial justice. Princeton University is the latest battle theater in this fight. Black students at Princeton staged a walkout demanding that the Ivy league university acknowledge the racist legacy of President Woodrow Wilson, for whom a residential college and the School of Public and International Affairs is named, and to remove his name from campus. In their petition, the students have also demanded courses about marginalized groups and cultural competency training for staff and faculty.

Predictably, many in the media, including several of my colleagues, have seized on the students’ focus on demanding Wilson’s name scrubbed from the halls as yet another example of activists going too far in their social justice fervor. The students at Princeton are just another crop of coddled college students, they say, incapable of navigating a world that doesn’t give a hoot about their feelings. In the case of Princeton, traditionalists plead for “understanding” of Wilson’s complicated persona, that he was a product of his time. Others, in their “Yes, he was racist, but” defenses of the 28th president, contend that his policies of segregation, wish to repeal blacks’ right to vote and embrace of the Ku Klux Klan are mere personal failures, and if black students want to be taken seriously as adults, they ought to learn to stomach his anti-black bigotry and segregationist policies.

But much like the out-sized focus on free-speech vs. safe spaces in the aftermath of the Yale and Mizzou protests, the furor over the audacity of students to demand the removal of Wilson’s name glosses over the fundamental root of the protests at schools around the country — and that is that students are fundamentally challenging symbols of anti-blackness on their campuses. The protests and demands are forcing universities to reckon with their roles in perpetuating racism, in no small part through the whitewashed reverence of historical leaders whose racist political legacies still haunt our societies today. This is a good thing.

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Let’s be clear. Wilson was not just a personal racist, as in someone who had mean feelings against black people. As president, his white supremacist policies of segregation destroyed the lives of black professionals in the federal government. A powerful essay by Gordon J. Davis in the New York Times illustrates how Wilson’s directives purged blacks from federal government jobs, including Davis’s grandfather, who never recovered from the loss of income and became “a broken man” by the end of Wilson’s first term. As Corey Robin notes in Salon, “if there’s any erasing going on here, it’s in the daily practices of Princeton. In those campus tours, those campus addresses, the general celebration of the man. Why haven’t we heard criticism of how the past is being erased by Princeton’s celebration of Wilson?”

Wilson is credited for helping found the League of Nations, the precursor to today’s United Nations. But that Wilson’s name is on Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs is a cruel irony, given that his legacy in the League of Nations has also been whitewashed. Wilson took his bigotry and pandering to Southern Democrats to the global stage when he opposed the Racial Equality Proposal put forth by Japan in 1919, that stated that a basic tenet of the League of Nations should be to accord “equal and just treatment . . . making no distinction, in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.”

The fight against vestiges of white supremacy and racism on college campuses stretches far beyond America’s borders. This year, students in Cape Town, South Africa, began protesting to demand the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the unapologetic British colonizer who championed separation of whites from African natives from the University of Cape Town’s campus. The protests, which were organized under the hashtag #RhodesMustFall managed to succeed in getting the statue removed in April. The success of that protest has inspired students at Oxford University in the United Kingdom to demand the removal of a statue of Rhodes from campus. Rhodes, for whom the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford was founded (with money made from exploiting resources from South Africa) believed openly in white supremacy. He once said, “Africa is still lying ready for us, it is our duty to take it. It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory . . . more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best, the most human, most honorable race the world possesses.” As prime minister of the Cape Colony, one of the colonies that later joined to become South Africa, Rhodes pushed through the Glen Grey Act in 1894, forcing Africans into native reserves and into the migrant wage labor market; the act is seen as the foundation to South African apartheid. Like Wilson, Rhodes believed in keeping blacks and whites separate, saying, “At any rate, if the whites maintain their position as the supreme race, the day may come when we shall all be thankful that we have the natives in their proper place.”

Simply put, black students across the globe are forcing universities to go beyond simplistic notions of diversity as a panacea to address racial injustices, past and present. The protests against Woodrow Wilson and Cecil Rhodes are not about diversity. These protests are about dismantling white supremacy. These protests are about decolonization.

In a letter about Rhodes, the author Olive Schreiner wrote in 1897, “We fight Rhodes because he means so much of oppression, injustice, & moral degradation to South Africa; — but if he passed away tomorrow there still remains the terrible fact that something in our society has formed the matrix which has fed, nourished, built up such a man!” By revering and whitewashing the histories of Wilson and Rhodes, universities such as Princeton and Oxford are part of the societal matrix that feed, nourish and build up men such as these two, men whose policies have caused incalculable damage to generations of American blacks and Africans. Blacks in America and South Africa are still working to undo the damage leaders like Wilson and Rhodes inflicted. Racism is the “something” in our current society in the United States that is feeding, nourishing and building up men such as presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who riles up his base using anti-Muslim rhetoric, sanctions violence against black protesters and thinks nothing of tweeting false statistics about black-on-white crime. As Janelle Ross notes, the violence that broke out at Trump’s Alabama rally has shown America “the danger inherent in normalizing the utterly objectionable.”

Of course Wilson and Rhodes will never be erased from history, nor do they need to be. But in forcing their sins into the international limelight, universities, and society by extension, must reevaluate the lionizing of such men. Woodrow Wilson and Cecil Rhodes must fall. It’s been a long time coming.