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Canadian Review ofAmerican Studies/Revue canadienne d'etudes amerlcaines Volume 29,Number 3, 1999,pp.109-131 109 Race and the Southern Imagination: Woodrow Wilson Reconsidered Michael Dennis The author gratefully acknowledges Caitlin McCain's assistance in editing and reviewing this article. At a time when hundreds of southerners could charter a train to watch Herny Smith lynched, his feet seared with a red-hot iron, the word "Justice" emblazoned on the scaffold, his grisly demise captured in souvenir photographs , whites who promoted segregation seemed comparatively mild. Woodrow Wilson, future president and visionary of a world made safe by democracy, was one of these. Not surprisingly, historians in search of a "silent," liberal South have held up Wilson as an example of racial enlightenment. Historian Arthur Link once suggested that he belonged to that small group of southerners distinguished by their benevolence toward blacks. They were "progressionists" rather than virulent racists, and Wilson's hope that they would evolve into a "class of sturdy, independent negro landowners" was evidence of racial liberalism (Link 1970, 86:10).1 More recently, historian Kendrick Clements observed that Wilson harbored "prejudices," but in this, Clements argues, he 110 Canadian Review ofAmerican Studies Revue canadtenne d'etudes amertcatnes was no different than were most people at the time. Clements describes Wilson's racial views as "condescending and paternalistic." He also points out that his opinions never came close to the virulent racism of notorious demagogues such as James K. Vardaman and Benjamin Tillman (see Clements, 1992, 45). 2 While Wilson was no race-baiter, his racial thought amounted to more than unexamined, generic notions of white superiority. Instead, his ideas on race were central to the way in which he understood both history and the present. Similarly, while Wilson frequently invoked images of sturdy black proprietors , he cast these in a framework that consistently imagined blacks in a position of social submission. Instead of supporting black social mobility, Wilson anguished about preserving racial order. Instead of promoting the elimination of racial barriers as did some white liberals, Wilson fretted that successful blacks might demand "social equity." A closer examination of Wilson's racial thought in his "years of preparation" suggests a more complex picture, one in which racial stratification organized his world-view. Like most urban, middle-class southerners, Wilson did not publicly support extra-legal violence against African-Americans. Instead, he espoused a model of racial conservatism designed to maintain the nexus of class and race subordination. Moderates such as Wilson championed racial control rather than civil equality. Ideology, custom, and the law would substitute for mob violence, protecting both racial order and middle class sensibilities. The decisive breed of racism in the urban New South, then, was not the night-riding variety popularized by the Klan or, after its suppression, the sporadic lynch mobs that exacted swift punishment against alleged offenders of the racial code. Rather, it was the moderate view that posited a whitedominated racial hierarchy as the natural order of things. As a racial moderate, Wilson proposed black economic improvement and black subjugation as the binary solution to the "race question." Rather than some forgotten detail in the presidential biography, Wilson's racial views were emblematic of the new southern middle class that built the edifice of modern race relations, a structure than stood until the Civil Rights movement. His racial philosophy infused the southern progressive movement that supp01ted his rise to power. For many whites, his presidency seemed to vindicate racial conservatism. Even while Wilson reflected the growing mood of middle-class racial conservatism, his scholarship gave it shape and meaning. As a respected Bemara Lemelin I 111 historian, Wilson contributed to a mythological interpretation of Reconstruction that molded the American understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction for more than one generation. As much as Woodrow Wilson was a product of the New South, he was also a leading exponent of the view of Reconstruction as a debacle that only white supremacy could fix. Thinking about the past and acting in the present, Wilson helped sustain a cultural climate heavy with the clouds of race. A graduate of the University of Virginia and a promising lawyer in Atlanta in...


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