The Man Who Came to Dinner By Jaime O'Neill Created Feb 1 2014 - 10:39am

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 place again."
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.