NEW YORK, N.Y. — President Trump has refused to unequivocally condemn the white supremacists and Nazis who came to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia to terrorize and proselytize. The president also accused those who would remove Confederate monuments, such as the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, of attempting to change history and culture. In doing so, Trump earned the gratitude of David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who thanked the president for his “honesty and courage.”
It is worth remembering that 63 years ago U.Va. hosted a series of seminal lectures that refuted much of the racist cant and false “history” that Trump now defends. In the midst of American apartheid, these lectures correctly traced the origins of what became known as “Jim Crow,” and they now explain Trump’s craven and ignominious response to acts of racism and domestic terror.
The orator was Professor C. Vann Woodward — a white, Arkansas veteran of World War II — who had worked with the NAACP and other historians to write briefs that supported the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In 1954, a few months after school segregation was ruled unconstitutional, Woodward came to U.Va. to give three nights of lectures that drew upon the same well as his work on Brown.
In Maury Hall, not far from where Heather Heyer was killed on Saturday in an act of domestic terrorism, Woodward dismissed the mistaken belief that codified segregation was a perpetual feature of the South. Woodward chronicled the rise of what we know as formal Jim Crow: the post-Reconstruction, discriminatory laws created by racists, opportunistic politicians, and fearful voters.
In front of an integrated audience, Woodward detailed how African-Americans were systematically stripped of their franchise and other rights gained during Reconstruction. For example, it was not until 1898, 33 years after the Civil War, that South Carolina legally segregated train cars. By 1915, Jim Crow had exponentially expanded, and South Carolina’s laws prohibited whites and African-Americans from sharing the same “lavatories, toilets, drinking water buckets, pails, cups, dippers, or glasses.” Furthermore, in Louisiana in 1896, there were 130,334 African-American voters, and in 1904, there were 1,342.
The Lee monument that Trump now defends as one of “our beautiful statues” was erected in 1924, a time when white supremacists were engaging in rampant terrorism, when membership in the Ku Klux Klan was reported to be 5 million, and when, in some states, Jim Crow had been extended to many facets of public life. The Lee monument — placed in the midst of a public park — was a clarion notice of white supremacy. Contrary to the president’s recent admonition, there is nothing “foolish” about citizens and elected officials taking deliberate, educated, and well-considered steps to remove it.
Woodward’s lectures were reprinted as “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” a book that Martin Luther King Jr. called “the historical bible of the civil rights movement.” Over the years, Woodward revised and expanded “The Strange Career,” to address historical developments such as the Commonwealth of Virginia’s dishonorable leadership in the “massive resistance” to desegregation, and the “panic of white retreat” in the North that led to “de facto segregation of residence[s] — and schools.”
Throughout “The Strange Career,” Woodward acknowledges the political opportunists in the North and the South who gave tacit or vocal approval to Jim Crow and the suffering of millions. For example, Woodward notes how President Woodrow Wilson benefited from the robust support of Southern “progressives” who used racism as a foundational principle, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “preference for state over federal action” in the face of indefensible, gross violations of civil and human rights.
It is clear that Trump falls in line with many other American demagogues who courted, appeased, or ignored racists to seize and retain power. Decades ago, by hosting Woodward, U.Va. played a role in dispelling the lies that supported segregation and caused irreparable harm to generations of Americans.
Now, after white supremacists have hijacked Charlottesville and U.Va. as a canvas for terrorism and hate, Trump is weaving another false history that enables violence and prejudice. It is a false history that disrespects the memory of Heather Heyer, a victim of terrorism. It is a lie that underwrites, shelters, and encourages white supremacist organizations. For Trump, any short-term political gain will be shallow, and the long-term, damaging effects on the republic will be profound.
Rob Cuthbert is a writer and advocate researching the uses of legal history to support litigation and legislative advocacy. He is also a veteran of the U.S. Army.