Once again, we
honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a visionary who devoted his short life to
eradicating the inequities of American social justice. Many Americans used the day off in a
constructive manner to extend his legacy through volunteer work. He has become
an icon for social justice, but we should be wary of making demigods out of
example) an icon of the Democratic Party, Woodrow Wilson, who served as
president of Princeton University, then governor of New Jersey, and finally
President of the United States. He was
also a visionary for world peace. His
idea of a regular meeting of sovereign states, The League of Nations, survived
him and became the United Nations. His
vision is honored with a school for international studies named after him on
the Princeton campus.
months, there has been a movement at the university to remove his name from the
campus. The charge: contributing to the inequities of
social justice which Dr. King fought against. The movement leaders believe that given Wilson’s racist attitudes he
should not be so honored with a school dedicated to international relations
named after him. The movement has good
intentions, but I hope the school remains unchanged with its intentions and the
man for whom it is named.
place in history has been challenged because stories of his racism have been
widely circulated in recent years. A
product of the south - a region of America which has received the historical
reputation of being racist towards African-Americans - Wilson chose like-minded
individuals to help run the government. The result was the segregation of government agencies, which had been
desegregated for decades.
Wilson was equally loathsome. Allegedly,
he and his wife told “darkie” jokes at the White House dinner table. The President embraced the historical telling
of the Reconstruction Period in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which (like
it or not) forever put to rest the idea that this new movie medium was solely
for entertainment. Yet this same man
envisioned an entity which would enable people from different cultures the
opportunity to resolve their difference through peaceable means. Go figure!
In some ways,
Wilson was like many of us: a complex character whose ultimate legacy can’t be
defined in simple terms. Yes, he was
devoted to the idea of world peace. On
the other hand, if I had the opportunity to meet Woodrow Wilson, I would
thank him for his efforts on the world stage, then ask him to remove his
glasses so I could punch him in the face for his offensive attitudes towards
obviously I have a thing or two to learn about peace; but hey, that’s me.
at Princeton obviously wants to enact some sort of historical revenge on
Wilson. Their goal is tantamount to
erasing history, an action which inevitably always comes back to haunt humanity
sooner or later. The movement’s leaders
should be content with the job they’ve done so far - raising awareness about the
other side of Wilson’s character - and call it a day.
In any case,
karma exacted its own revenge on Wilson. The President suffered a debilitating stroke in the midst of a rail stop
tour of America to promote his League of Nations idea. He served out the remainder of his presidency
in physical paralysis, with his wife Edith acting as a gatekeeper from political
Washington, and the rest of the world for that matter. They retired to a house in DC, where on a good day he could walk ten feet between two doors in his house
hopes of writing his memoirs after he left the White House. He completed little more than the dedication
page. Yes, karma is a bitch.
been kind to Wilson - and King for that matter - until recently. Some unseemly rumors have been heard about
King’s extra marital affairs in recent years.
This is the luxury history affords us: we can learn about those people we cherish if we just dig deep enough. The
lessons we learn should not affect their respective legacies, but should remind
us that these men were just mere mortals.
that! Mere mortals! Not gods! Not demigods!
If we are
disappointed about Wilson’s racism or King’s running around, then perhaps we should
adjust our standards so we aren’t so shocked when we learn more about how they
lived their lives. We are the ones who
set ourselves up for the pain and disappointment we inevitably feel.
We can look
back at the past and pass judgment on the actions of others. It isn’t quite fair for us to use our values,
which we like to think are more developed today, than the values of
yesterday. Yet we do it anyway.
our icons should always be in terms of black and white. We should know better. We should always allow for all the shades of
gray in our heroes.
In any event,
karma will come back and bite our legacies
in the ass. Just think what people in
2116 will think about us! “My God,” they’ll
say, “What the eff were those people thinking when they put Donald Trump in the
for reading. I love you, karma!)