By DeWayne Wickham
WASHINGTON — As I sat with a small group of black columnists a few feet away from the Oval Office waiting to meet with President Barack Obama, I couldn’t help but think about William Monroe Trotter.
The publisher of The Guardian, a black Boston newspaper, Trotter was booted out of the White House in 1914 after challenging Woodrow Wilson’s decision to permit the segregation of federal offices in the nation’s capital.
Now, 96 years later, our organization of black columnists — called the Trotter Group — carried the memory of this fiery black journalist with us to our meeting with the nation’s first black president. Trotter would be proud, and no doubt appreciate the irony of this moment.
This nation’s racial divide was a wedge issue for Wilson, a transplanted Southern Democrat who did a stint as president of Princeton University and New Jersey governor before making a successful run for the White House in 1912. He wooed blacks like Trotter and W.E.B. DuBois away from the Republican Party with a commitment to support their demand for racial equality. Back then blacks were wedded to the GOP in much the same way we now support Democrats.
But once he got into the White House, Wilson pandered to the other side of that racial divide by instituting Jim Crow practices for federal workers.
Obama on the other hand tries mightily to rise above this nation’s racial swamp. It was a remarkable coalition of blacks, Hispanics, young whites and Asians — a mix of people who look much more like this nation’s demographic future than its past — that put him in the White House.
Ever conscious of this, Obama refuses to see race — or racism — where so many of us think it can be found.
When I asked during our one-hour meeting with him in the Roosevelt Room of the White House how he thinks the nation should observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War next year, the president didn’t take the bait.
"I think it’s important for everybody to know that history," he deadpanned. "And if it’s presented in a smart and thoughtful and balanced way, I think it could be beneficial. And if it’s not presented in a smart and balanced way, it could end up being divisive."
Not satisfied with that answer, I tried to tie the old fight to one that rages now. "There are some who say when they hear people chant, ‘We want our country back, and they talk about states’ rights, that for them the Civil War is unsettled business," I told the president.
But instead of taking the path of a divider, as Wilson did with Trotter, Obama offered a bridge-building response.
"I think it’s important not to see race behind every disagreement with me. There’s a long tradition of federalism that predates the civil rights battles of the ’60s (and) of the Civil War. There’s a long tradition of suspicion of a powerful federal government that started with Thomas Jefferson and the founding of the country.
"And so, I think that my approach is always to take people at face value. If they say that they’re concerned about a government that’s grown too large and oppressive, then rather than suggest that they’ve got some illegitimate motives, I’ll take that at their word."
"I think that there’s a way of engaging people in their own terms about the things that they care about," he said. "I may not persuade them, but I continue to have faith that over time, if you make good policies and you try to explain to them as clearly as you can," the American people will understand.
I’m not sure he’s right about that. But I think there’s something to his determination not to give in to this nation’s racial demons the way Woodrow Wilson did.
And on this point, I’m sure William Monroe Trotter would agree.