It is indeed time to rethink a relic of the South’s legacy of racism – progressivism.
The news is about Confederate flags or statutes of rebel leaders. As a Yankee, I’ll stay out of that controversy, especially as there are plenty of people discussing it. But another issue is the intertwined history of progressivism and racism, and it still needs to be examined further.
Let’s start with Southerner Woodrow Wilson. He remains a hero to liberals. The nation is still dominated by progressive policies he championed, including the Federal Reserve, the income tax, the Federal Trade Commission, and other measures that greatly and permanently added to Washington’s reach and power.
Born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson was a loyal son of the old South who regretted the outcome of the Civil War. He used his high office to reverse some of its consequences. When he entered the White House a hundred years ago today, Washington was a rigidly segregated town — except for federal government agencies. They had been integrated during the post-war Reconstruction period, enabling African-Americans to obtain federal jobs and work side by side with whites in government agencies. Wilson promptly authorized members of his cabinet to reverse this long-standing policy of racial integration in the federal civil service.
To really understand that, we need to again recall how progressivism and racism were closely allied in North Carolina’s history. As Civitas’ Susan Myrick has written, progressives deliberately used racism in the White Supremacy Campaign of 1898 to utterly defeat the “fusion” alliance of blacks and Republicans. That ushered in decades of total Democratic Party and segregationist rule.
This deserves emphasis: It was Democrats and progressives who dubbed it the White Supremacy Campaign. And racism was an essential tool for progressives. To achieve their goals, they whipped up racial hatred, deliberately.
This is clearly shown in the career of Josephus Daniels. (Lee Craig’s biography of him is invaluable.) His resume is an ideal one for a progressive. He was owner and dominant voice of the News & Observer when it was the most influential media outlet in the state. He was a trustee of the University of North Carolina, ambassador to Mexico under President Franklin Roosevelt – and secretary of the Navy under Wilson.
He was also a kingpin of North Carolina and national Democratic politics. What is perhaps most chilling is that he doesn’t seem to be an especially hateful man. But he was a committed progressive, and his ideology and ambition overrode other considerations. Progressives believed white people wouldn’t support public schools that were racially integrated. And Republicans and black voters had forged a political alliance. For progressives, the solution was to stir up racism to shatter the fusion coalition, take power, then establish segregated public schools.
Daniels was a leader in that campaign. He never rejected it, though he admitted later in life that it was too cruel. Yet today’s North Carolina liberals have never come to terms with that twisted legacy.
A statue of Daniels (above) still stands in Nash Square in Raleigh, across from the N&O offices. The newspaper today and every day quotes him approvingly on its editorial page. His legacy is there in plain sight, yet so far hasn’t stirred much interest.
Nevertheless, there are stirrings of awareness the other legacy of progressivism. Charles Aycock was known as the “Education Governor” of North Carolina. He was also, however, a leader of the White Supremacy Movement. This year East Carolina University and Duke University have removed his names from residence halls. At least North Carolina is beginning to look at racism and progressivism.
If the state and nation are taking a new look at history, progressivism must be included. For racism was an integral part of its history.
That matters today. To our liberal friends, we pose this question: Could today’s progressives also put other goals ahead of minority rights? For example, what is more important to today’s progressives: jobs or climate change?
That’s at least as important as the question of whether a flag of a movement vanquished a century-and-a-half ago might hang among the historic artifacts scattered in and around state buildings.