Debate Continues Over Wilson Legacy

WilsonBy Donald Gilpin

Nearly three weeks after their 32-hour Nassau Hall sit-in, two members of the Black Justice League (BJL) sat down with two members of the opposition Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC) to discuss the issues before a gathering of about 200 students in Professor Peter Singer’s undergraduate class in Practical Ethics.

Mr. Singer, the Ira DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, invited the visiting students from the rival organizations with the goal of exploring the philosophical and ethical issues surrounding the questions of civil disobedience and the commemorating of historical figures.

Not surprisingly, the discussion quickly moved from abstract philosophical questions to the particulars of the current debate at Princeton University.

Citing many discussions with faculty and administration before the BJL resorted to civil disobedience, Princeton junior Trust Kupupika claimed that the civil disobedience was necessary and that the BJL did not seek erasure of Wilson’s name from the university, “We’re asking for acknowledgment of who he was, so that everyone will know these people aren’t just these god-like figures,” she said.

Speaking for the POCC, Allie Burton agreed that “Woodrow Wilson was a horrible racist,” but questioned “who decides whose flaws are bad enough so that” their legacy should be removed? And she further urged, “Don’t vilify the students who continue to applaud Wilson’s contributions to this university and the country.” Ms. Burton, who is African-American, asserted that many black students agree with her in questioning the BJL’s methods.

A founding member of the BJL, Destiny Crockett disputed Ms. Burton’s arguments and claimed that Wilson’s racist actions and attitudes were “more than just a flaw,” pointing out that the Woodrow Wilson issue was only one of the BJL’s demands. “We feel less than members of this community,” she said.

The second POCC speaker, Josh Zuckerman declared that occupying someone’s office for 32 hours was “extreme,” though he acknowledged that “bringing to light issues that have been swept under the rug is a very good thing.” The POCC is “not trying to restrict what is being said only how it is being said,” Mr. Zuckerman added.

He later expressed the opinion that “we all have the same broad goals” and that there was “a lot of common ground. We all want a community in which everyone feels valued and believes his or her views are respected and seriously considered. No one wants students to feel marginalized or second-class.”

Ms. Burton and Ms. Crockett were less optimistic. Ms. Burton expressed her approval of the fact that a dialogue between the two groups had actually taken place and urged that there be more such discussion, “but since we’re still talking past each other on a lot of things, I’m not sure how helpful it would be.”

Questioning the motives of the POCC leaders, Ms. Crockett referred to “a guise of open dialogue” and “the reality that they are an anti-Black Justice League group with no policy demands, and a habit of invoking the politics of respectability.”

As the discussion continued, including questions and comments from the members of the Practical Ethics class, the students debated the possibly “dangerous” precedent of removing honored names from public buildings and monuments. Mr. Singer questioned whether the country would need to change the name of its capital city since George Washington was a slave-holder.

On November 19 at the Nassau hall sit-in, the BJL demanded that the University publicly acknowledge Woodrow Wilson’s racist history and that his name be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs and the residence college, both named in his honor, also that the University add a distribution course requirement to help “equip students for life in a multicultural world,” cultural competency training for faculty, and affinity housing and space dedicated to specific cultural groups.

The POCC, which emerged rapidly in response to the BJL sit-in, wrote a public letter and organized a petition and their own meeting with Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber, acknowledged the need to address Mr. Wilson’s racist actions, but objected to the protestors’ methods and accused the BJL of intimidating other students and suppressing free speech.

The BJL protest and the ensuing reactions from POCC and others have prompted a barrage of editorials and commentary on both sides in local and national media, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Two letters in this newspaper last week were among many that have appeared on the subject in the press over the past three weeks.

Also weighing in on the debate were Mr. Wilson’s great-grandson, Thomas Hart Sayre, who, in an interview with Reuters acknowledged that Mr. Wilson’s racist attitudes were harmful, but argued that the school of public and international affairs and the residential college should not be renamed.

Further input from Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper Jr., in a letter to the Daily Princetonian last week, presented two sides of Wilson’s legacy and declared that Wilson was “a fairly typical white Northerner of his time” and that “the best way to judge Wilson on matters of race is not to keep score between good and bad deeds but to recognize him and judge him for what he really was.”

Mr. Cooper, a 1961 Princeton graduate, wrote that Mr. Wilson’s “record on race should never be excused, but neither should it be overblown or exaggerated.”

“He did show signs of racial prejudice,” Mr. Cooper stated, but he also did “many great things at Princeton and in the world. He began the long march toward the transformation of a small snobbish men’s college into this great, diverse university that can vigorously question his views and legacy.”

In their “Open Letter On Free Speech, Our Demands, and Civil Disruption” last week, the BJL claimed that their actions and demands “have opened up greater dialogue on a topic around which there was very little speech, and criticized opponents for “tone-policing and endorsing respectability politics” to “move attention away from the real and substantive issues raised.”

The BJL called on the University to “take responsibility for its history by formally recognizing Woodrow Wilson’s racist legacy in perpetuity, either with a plaque or with a web page …. To continue to honor such a man in the present manner, is to spit in the face of students whose presence on this campus Woodrow Wilson would have abhorred.”

A committee of the University’s Board of Trustees will be examining the issue of Woodrow Wilson’s name and legacy on campus, as discussions continue among various factions on campus and in the larger university community in responding to the Black Justice League.