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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, rev. ed.

Loewen, James W. | Touchstone, 2007


pp. 16-22

President Woodrow Wilson was an unrepentant racist and white supremacist. He submitted to Congress a detailed plan to restrict the civil rights of blacks (Congress refused to pass it). He re-segregated federal office buildings. He segregated the Navy. When African-American leaders met with him in the Oval Office to protest his policies, he told them he didn’t like their tone and showed them the door. He keenly admired D. W. Griffith’s celebration of the KKK in his epic film Birth of a Nation. Together, the President’s racism and the film undoubtedly contributed to a burst of white racial violence during and just after Wilson’s presidency. Wilson’s segregationist legacy within the federal government was extensive. (The FBI had its start in Wilson’s administration and soon began a long history of antagonism toward African-Americans and their leaders—most notably Martin Luther King). And Wilson was a nativist, who mistrusted those he called “hyphenated Americans,” suggesting that they were likely to attack “the vitals of this republic.” He was a serial interventionist in Latin America, trying to impose the will of the U. S. in other sovereign nations. He intervened in Russia’s Civil War, fueling Soviet mistrust of the U.S. for decades. All the while he also gave stirring speeches in favor of national self-determination! But very little of all this unpleasantness appears in American history textbooks. It’s typically absent, or it’s marginalized, or it’s benignly contextualized. As late as 1986, a standard textbook could say “As President, Wilson seemed to agree with most white Americans that segregation was in the best interests of black as well as white Americans.” 1986! The textbooks instead turn Wilson into a national and international hero who reluctantly took the U. S. into battle against the aggressor Germany in WW I, and then established the League of Nations, a triumph of international relations. And he sponsored progressive domestic legislation. Of course he should get credit for his great achievements, but he’s no hero to the African-American high school students who know about his racism and who must wonder why their textbook doesn’t.