Segregation Roils 1916 Election
In 1912, Woodrow Wilson had won a three-way race for the White House with 42 percent of the votes. His promise of fair treatment for African-Americans had won over many of them to support a Democratic candidate for the first time.
However, shortly after his inauguration, a new policy of racial segregation was introduced into the federal government. In November 1913, a delegation led by William Trotter, the editor of the Boston Guardian, delivered petitions to Wilson protesting the policy.
An editorial from the Tacoma Washington News explains, “The protest to President Woodrow Wilson against the segregation of Negro clerks in the Federal offices in Washington, with iron bars, screens and closed doors, is justified by the laws of the land and the dictates of freedom and fairness. It is but a part of the ‘Jim Crow’ movement which, while the South may understand, the North cannot, nor can the North sympathize with it.”
The Public, a Chicago newspaper, added, “Of course there are better reasons for objecting to this segregation order than violation of civil-service reform principles. The order is undemocratic. Individuals have a perfect right, for any reason or for no reason, to refuse to associate with other individuals. But they have no right to force third parties to conform to their likes or dislikes. This order places the government of the United States in the position of endorsing a prejudice which some individuals feel toward a certain class of citizens. The government has no right to recognize social distinctions among citizens. Least of all has the government of the United States a right to recognize an aristocracy of birth. The order should be rescinded and the official or officials responsible therefor given a much needed lesson in sound democracy and true Americanism.”
Wilson told the representatives he would investigate the charges. One year later, Trotter and his delegation again visited the White House, and the Asbury Park Press of Nov. 13, 1914, gave a general outline of the meeting.
“Washington, Nov. 13 – A sensational interview occurred at the White House between the President and a delegation of negroes representing the Equal Rights association.
“The delegation was headed by the Rev. W.M. Trotter of Boston, who as spokesman became so emphatic and threatening to the president that Mr. Wilson rebuked him and told the visitors that if they ever came to the White House again to present their views they should select a different spokesman, insinuating that Trotter would not again be received in that capacity.
“The visitors called to protest against the segregation order in vogue in the executive departments in Washington by which the whites and colored employees use different dining, rest and recreation rooms and have separate toilet and lavatory accommodations.
“President Wilson talked kindly to his visitors, but told them he approved the order as the best for both whites and colored employees. The president said he had been careful to impose upon the heads of departments the injunction that they not discriminate against colored employees in the matter of accommodations.”
The Cincinnati Enquirer gave more in-depth coverage to the meeting.
“Offended at sharp criticisms hurled at him by William Munroe Trotter, heading a delegation of Negroes who protested against alleged discriminations against Negroes in the departments, President Wilson today abruptly rebuked his critics, telling him not to come to the White House again.
“When Trotter referred to the ‘segregation’ as a political problem President Wilson said, with emotion: ‘I am not seeking office. Any man who seeks the presidency is a fool for his pains.’”
“When Trotter came to the point in his talk in which he reflected upon the President’s integrity in carrying out campaign assurances to treat the Negroes on a plane with whites, Mr. Wilson became aggravated.
“Sharply turning to Trotter the President showed that he resented the language used by him. Trotter bowed, but kept on with his assault.
“The President listened until Trotter was through and then firmly told him that he knew nothing of the discrimination alleged – that he had looked into a former complaint of the kind by Trotter and the accused officials had stoutly denied the truth of Trotter’s assertions.”
Things only got worse.
“Trotter said in his address that his committee did not come ‘as wards looking for charity, but as full-fledged American citizens.’
‘“Two years ago,’ said Trotter, ‘you were thought to be a second Abraham Lincoln’ – here the President tried to interrupt, asking that personalities be left out of the discussion. Trotter continued to speak and the President finally told him that if the organization he represented wished to approach him again it must choose another spokesman, adding that he enjoyed listening to the other members of the committee, but that Trotter’s tone was offensive.”
It was here, according to the Enquirer, that Wilson began to react.
“The President told Trotter that he was an American citizen as fully as anybody else, but that he (Trotter) was the only American citizen who had ever come into the White House and addressed the President in such a tone and with such a background of passion.
“Here Trotter denied that he had any passion, but the President told him he had spoiled the cause for which he had come, and said he expected those who professed to be Christians to come to him in a Christian spirit.”
The exchange had taken on a life of its own.
“The negro spokesman continued to argue that he was merely trying to show how the negroes felt, and asserted that he and others were now being branded as traitors to their race because they (had) advised the negroes ‘to support the ticket.’
“This mention of votes caused Mr. Wilson to say that politics must be left out, because it was a form of blackmail. He said he would resent it as quickly from one set of men as from another, and that his auditors could vote as they pleased.
“It mattered little to him, he said, so long as he was sure he was doing the right thing at the right time.”
Finally Wilson concluded with a comment that could have an effect on the election of 1916.
“The President spoke frankly, saying that if the negroes had made a mistake in voting for him they ought to correct it, but that he would insist that politics should not be brought into the question because it was not a political problem. With some emotion he declared he was not seeking office, and that a man who sought the office of President was a fool for his pains.”
The next day the Trenton Times carried a story supporting Wilson, saying, “President Wilson received several letters yesterday from colored men apologizing for the manner in which W.M. Trotter, the Boston negro, acted at the White House the day before, and congratulating him upon having rebuked the delegation headed by Trotter.
“The episode caused a great deal of comment in political circles. Fear was expressed that as a result of the publicity the entire race question might be reopened.”
In the January 1915 issue of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, Trotter told his side of the story: that Wilson stated the cabinet had suggested the policy and “He had taken their view that the segregation was the best way to meet this situation and that the best thought of the administration has so decided.”
Wilson then began to lecture the committee.
‘“The white people of the country,’ the President continued, ‘as well as I, wish to see the colored people progress, and admire the progress they have already made, and want to see them continue along independent lines. There is, however, a great prejudice against colored people. … It will take one hundred years to eradicate this prejudice, and we must deal with it as practical men. Segregation is not humiliating but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen. If your organization goes out and tells the colored people of the country that it is a humiliation, they will so regard it, but if you do not tell them so, and regard it rather as a benefit, they will regard it the same. The only harm that will come will be if you cause them to think it is a humiliation.”
Finally, according to Trotter, “I then continued my rebuttal and was interrupted by the President, especially when I told him that we could not control the minds of the colored people, and would not if we could on the segregation question. I continued saying: ‘Two years ago you were regarded as a second Abraham Lincoln,’ when he stopped me and said he wanted no personal reference. I told him if he would allow me to continue he would see my intent. He said he ‘was the one to do the interrupting and not me.’
“I then concluded by saying, ‘Now we colored leaders are denounced in the colored churches as traitors to our race.’ ‘What do you mean by traitors?’ inquired the President, and I replied, ‘Because we supported the Democratic ticket in 1912.’”
In October 1916, shortly before America would go to the polls, W.E.B. Du Bois, the editor of The Crisis, took his stand.
“The Negro voter enters the present campaign with no enthusiasm. Four years ago the intelligent Negro voter tried a great and important experiment … he saw called to its leadership a man of high type and one who promised specifically to American Negroes, justice – ‘Not mere grudging justice, but justice executed with liberality and cordial good feeling.’ They have lived to learn that this statement was a lie, a peculiarly miserable campaign deception. They are forced, therefore, to vote for the Republican candidate.”
One hundred years later, I wonder if any of the current candidates are lying to get votes.
Next Week: Wilson at Shadow Lawn.