On Oct. 16, 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited a man to have dinner with him in the White House, a social engagement that stirred up a dark cloud of racist hysteria. The man who came to dinner was Booker T. Washington. Since Americans seem determined to ignore our history, there are bound to be readers who will draw a blank when they read that name, so it's worth mentioning that Booker T. Washington was the most influential African-American leader of his time, a crusader for civil rights who, among other things, fought to protect the voting rights of black males (women of any color did not yet have the right to vote) who were systematically being blocked from exercising that right. Later generations of civil rights activists would come to be critical of Booker T. Washington, finding him insufficiently militant in his view that gains for black Americans could only be achieved gradually, and only as "the Negro" proved himself worthy of equality. But Booker T. Washington was a courageous voice of his time, an era when lynchings were ubiquitous, racism was endemic and overt, and the Ku Klux Klan was viewed favorably by most Americans.
Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican in a time when being a Republican
wasn't the shameful thing it is these days, wanted to make a statement
about equality and human dignity by inviting the first ever
African-American to dine with a U.S. President in the "people's house."
The racists went ballistic.
A little jingle, popular with children following that White House
dinner, went like this: "The Statue of Liberty hung her head;/ Columbia
dropped in a swoon,/ The American eagle drooped and died,/
When Teddy dined with the coon."
The Governor of Mississippi, James Vardaman, wrote that the White
House was "so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have
taken refuge in the stable," and added that he was "as much opposed to
Booker T. Washington as a voter as I am to the cocoanut-headed,
chocolate-colored typical little coon who blacks my shoes every morning.
Neither is fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship."
South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman warned that "the action of
President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our
killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their
Booker T. Washington, it should be remembered, was born a slave,
living in bondage until he was nine years old. His father was a white
plantation owner who impregnated a slave woman, then had nothing further
to do with the child he'd fathered, a fairly common scenario when some
people owned other people and treated them as property.
We forget this heritage at our peril, especially as we ignore the
parallels between that dinner in the White House a hundred and twelve
years ago, and the undercurrent of racist outrage prompted by the fact
that a black man now occupies that same house. Every day on my Facebook
page, photos of Barack and Michelle Obama pop up, along with a slogan
that reads "Kick Them Out of OUR House."
I get emails daily revealing the racism that fuels so much of the
right wing rage toward Barack Obama, the duly elected leader of the
nation some of them refer to as "the Ubangee," or "Obongo," or "Jungle
Bunny." Many of these comments are accompanied by the idea that the
President of the United States is "not one of us," and that "real
Americans" will soon rise up and take their country back, by violence if
necessary. Many of these same people cheered George Zimmerman for
"standing his ground" against a "thug from the 'hood." Many of these
same people also insists they are not racists, and that it is, in fact,
the people who think they are racists who are the real racists. It's the
kind of thing Sara Palin did when she tweeted, on Martin Luther King's
birthday, that Obama should "stop playing the race card."
Not all people who are vocal in opposition to President Obama are
driven by racism, of course, but far too many are. Racism is part of the
ugliest strain woven into the fabric of this nation, a country founded
on the idea of human equality by men who owned other men and women, a
nation that has struggled with that contradiction as it tried to
reconcile its noblest rhetoric with its most shameful practices. Mostly,
those efforts to justify the unjustifiable were directed toward trying
to prove that black people weren't really people. We even codified that
idea into law when we defined them as 3/5ths human, and we had several
generations of scientists hard at work to support the idea that Negroes
was measurably less than their masters. More than a hundred years after
an American president outraged the nation by inviting a black man to
dinner in the White House for the first time, our struggle to overcome
racism continues. And, in this month dedicated to Black History, there's
no better time for Americans to think about the oldest and most
intractable ailment of our national soul.