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Heroes but Not Saints

How should we judge reformers and radicals who were also racists?

In 2020, America will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Feminists and others are starting to plan the celebrations, which will include conferences, books, postage stamps, and new monuments honoring the women who fought and won that major battle. In anticipation, New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples recently triggered a controversy by penning a column pointing out that some leaders of the women’s suffrage movement were racists, as evidenced by their remarks, writings and their opposition to the 15th Amendment, which granted African American men the right to vote in 1870.

In his column, Staples cites the work of several contemporary historians, including Elsa Barkley Brown (University of Maryland), Lori Ginzberg (Penn State) and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (Morgan State) to accuse the women’s suffrage movement of “acquiescing to white supremacy.”

Staples particularly focuses his attention on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, both iconic figures in the women’s suffrage movement. Anthony and Stanton had been abolitionists and championed the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. But they were angry that the 15th Amendment secured voting rights for all men (regardless of race) but not for women of any race.

“I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman,” Anthony said in 1866 at a meeting with abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. She wasn’t alone in expressing such views. Anna Howard Shaw, a Methodist minister and president of the National Women Suffrage Association, declared: “You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!”

As late as 1913, the white organizers of a mass protest parade for suffrage in Washington, D.C. insisted that black participants march in an all-black contingent at the back of the march instead of with their state delegations. Ida B. Wells, the African American leader of the anti-lynching struggle as well as an ardent feminist, refused to accommodate to her white sisters’ racism, but most black activists reluctantly agreed.

Alice Paul, the bold leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s, was the chief organizer of that 1913 parade that pushed black women to the back of the march. Paul reflected some of the attitudes of her upper-class upbringing, including prejudice against Jews and African Americans. Her National Woman’s Party was overwhelmingly white, middle class, and Protestant.

There’s no denying that some key suffrage leaders had serious blind spots when it came to race. But Staples’ rendition of this history downplays the reality that the women’s suffrage movement was hardly monolithic in its views on the subject.

In fact, there was considerable disagreement within the women’s suffrage movement over the issue of race. Many white activists believed that struggles for women’s and racial equality went hand in hand. For example, Wendell Phillips was not only a leading abolitionist — a leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society as well as the Boston Vigilance Committee, an organization that assisted fugitive slaves — but also an early advocate for women’s rights. In 1840 he led an unsuccessful effort to have America’s women delegates recognized at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. In 1846 he wrote an article in the Liberator, an abolitionist publication, calling for the right of women to own property and to secure the vote. Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and other leading suffragists supported the 15th Amendment. Likewise, the great social reformer Jane Addams, founder of Hull House and the settlement house movement, was not only deeply involved in the crusade for women’s suffrage but was also a founder of the NAACP in 1909.

The reality of racism within the suffrage movement is hardly news. In his brilliant 1974 book, Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States, Robert Allen documented that racism was pervasive not only within the women’s rights movement but also within the Progressive, populist, labor, and socialist movements from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. But he also noted that many white and black activists within these movements mounted fierce challenges to racist attitudes among their colleagues. Struggles over racism have been a common feature of every progressive and radical movement in American history as well as today.

The discussion of racism within the women’s suffrage and other reform movements raises a larger question: What standards should we use to judge progressives and radicals who came of age 150, 100, or even 50 years ago? Should we hold them to today’s standards? If not, then what?

We all stand on the shoulders of earlier generations of reformers and radicals who challenged the status quo of their day. It is important to celebrate those progressive pioneers who fought and won many victories that have made America a more democratic, inclusive country. Back in 1900, people who called for women’s suffrage, laws protecting the environment and consumers, an end to lynching, the right of workers to form unions, a progressive income tax, a federal minimum wage, old-age insurance, dismantling of Jim Crow laws, the eight-hour workday, and government-subsidized health care and housing were considered impractical idealists, utopian dreamers, or dangerous socialists. Now we take these ideas for granted. Many of the radical ideas of one generation have become the common sense of the next.

At the same time, we need to understand that many of the leading progressive thinkers and activists were heroes but not saints. All of them had flaws — some personal, some political. It is important not to put them on too high a pedestal, but to see them as human beings who were products of their times. Many expressed views, or engaged in behavior, that progressives today rightly consider objectionable.

During his early days as an activist with the railroad workers union in the late 1800s, Eugene Debs told jokes in black dialect, supported keeping blacks out of jobs in the South, and favored segregation on trains. He also had bigoted views towards Jews, Italians, Chinese and other immigrant groups, according to historian Nick Salvatore’s Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. But Debs’ views evolved. As the leader and five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party in the early 1900s, Debs challenged his fellow unionists and Socialists who sought to keep blacks out of their movement. He told them that “white workingmen would be exploited so long as the Negroes were held in an inferior position,” according to Ray Ginger, author of another Debs biography, The Bending Cross.

Foes of birth control and abortion have attacked Margaret Sanger, the courageous founder of Planned Parenthood. In 2015, for example, 25 House Republicans campaigned to have a bust of the pioneering family planning advocate removed from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas declared that Sanger didn’t belong there because of her “inhumane life’s work,” and because she “advocated for the extermination of African Americans.”

At one point in her life, Sanger flirted with the now-discredited eugenics movement, which sought to improve the overall health and fitness of humankind through selective breeding and which enjoyed widespread support from mainstream doctors, scientists and the general public in the early 1900s. Some leaders of the eugenics movement were vicious racists who viewed eugenics as a means to create a “superior” white human race. Sanger was not among them, but her embrace of some aspects of eugenics understandably damaged her reputation.

Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916 (primarily serving white immigrant women) and went to jail to defend women’s rights to contraception. In 1930, with the support of the prominent black activist and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, the Urban League, and the Amsterdam News (New York’s leading black newspaper), Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem, staffed by a black doctor and black social worker. Then, in 1939, key leaders in the black community encouraged Sanger to expand her efforts to the rural South, where most African Americans lived. Thus began the “Negro Project,” with Du Bois, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Harlem’s powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church, anti-lynching crusader Ida Wells, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and other black leaders lending support. Like her African-American supporters, Sanger viewed birth control as a way to empower black women, not as a means to reduce the black population. Sanger explained that the project was designed to help “a group notoriously underprivileged and handicapped…to get a fair share of the better things in life. To give them the means of helping themselves is perhaps the richest gift of all. We believe birth control knowledge brought to this group, is the most direct, constructive aid that can be given them to improve their immediate situation.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, a progressive icon, absorbed the casual anti-Semitism of her upper-class WASP upbringing. In 1918, she described Harvard Law professor Felix Frankfurter, then serving as an advisor to President Wilson, as “an interesting little man but very Jew.” That same year, after attending a party for Bernard Baruch when her husband Franklin was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, she wrote to her mother-in-law, ”I’d rather be hung than seen at” the party, since it would be ”mostly Jews.” She also reported that ”The Jew party was appalling.” By the 1930s, however, she became a crusader for Jewish causes, a foe of anti-Semitism and racism, and a powerful (though unsuccessful) advocate for getting her husband, by then the president, to do more to save Jews from the Nazi holocaust.

Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, is justifiably admired for orchestrating the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed school segregation and many other path breaking liberal Supreme Court rulings. But as California’s Attorney General at the start of World War 2, he played a leading role in rounding up Japanese Americans, putting them in internment camps, and confiscating their property and businesses. Only in retirement did Warren acknowledge that the relocation was a mistake based on hysteria. Theodor Geisel’s racist depictions of Japanese Americans in his editorial cartoons (under his pen name Dr. Seuss) for the radical newspaper PM during World War II contradicted his lifelong opposition to racism and anti-Semitism, and his effort to teach children to stand up to bullies and tyrants.

Jackie Robinson not only broke baseball’s color line in 1947, he was also a civil rights activist during and after his playing career. But in 1949 — at the height of the Cold War — he allowed Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey to persuade him to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee so that he could publicly criticize Paul Robesonthe singer, actor, and activist, who was a target of Red Scare witch-hunters for his left-wing views. As expected, Robinson challenged Robeson’s patriotism. “I and other Americans of many races and faiths have too much invested in our country’s welfare for any of us to throw it away for a siren song sung in bass,” Robinson said. The press focused on Robinson’s criticism of Robeson and ignored his denunciation of American racism, including his observation that “The fact that it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality, and lynching when it happens doesn’t change the truth of his charges.” Shortly before his death in 1972, Robinson said he regretted his remarks about Robeson.

We’ve recently learned that Albert Einstein — a socialist, a close friend of Robeson, and a committed activist who took courageous stands and actions against racism — wrote some shocking slurs against the Chinese people in his private travel diaries written during the 1920s. The great scientist was not immune from the racist ideas of his time.

Martin Luther King plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. dissertation at Boston University and had several affairs while married to his wife Coretta. The iconic feminist leader Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women and author of the path breaking 1963 book The Feminist Mystique, was homophobic. Friedan worried that the involvement of “mannish” or “man-hating” lesbians within the movement would hinder the feminist cause. Paul Wellstone, the left-wing Senator from Minnesota, voted in favor of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which outlawed federal recognition of same-sex marriage. He later said he regretted his stance on the issue.

Some of these views and actions may be understandable in their historical context. Although progressives — whether reformers or radicals — are often pioneers in many aspects of their thinking, they cannot entirely transcend the prevailing social prejudices of their day. They were ahead of their times in many respects but also creatures of their time in other ways. Some of them revised and regretted their biased attitudes, but others did not. We can celebrate them for their important progressive contributions even while acknowledging the problems with some of their views.

The ongoing controversy over whether to dismantle statues of some prominent Confederate and Ku Klux Klan figures is a battle over whom we admire and consider as heroes.

Last year, the New Orleans City Council declared monuments of Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Confederate General PGT Beauregard public nuisances and had them removed. Memphis removed monuments celebrating Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early Klan leader and Confederate general. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered Confederate monuments removed from the city’s public spaces. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, directed the dismantling of a statue on the front lawn of the State House in Annapolis of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, whose 1857 ruling in the Dred Scott decision upheld slavery and denied citizenship to black Americans.

In response to student protests, Yale University renamed Calhoun College — a residential complex named for John C. Calhoun, a senator from South Carolina, vice president and influential advocate for slavery. To buttress the symbolism, Yale removed a portrait of Calhoun from a dining hall. The battle continues in cities and on campuses around the country. In August, protesters at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill toppled a Confederate monument, known as “Silent Sam,” that was erected on the campus in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Now Staples’ New York Times column has ignited controversy not over Confederate leaders, slave owners, or pro-slavery politicians but about the organizers, activists, artists, writers, and elected officials who fought to make the United States a more democratic and egalitarian country.

Recognizing and honoring the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the struggle for women’s rights does not mean we approve of all their views. If that were the standard, should we strip Eleanor Roosevelt’s name from high schools named for her in Maryland, New York, and California? Should we rename the California State Building in San Francisco, schools in California and Texas, and the fairgrounds in Santa Barbara named for Earl Warren? Should we tear down the 12-foot high statue of Albert Einstein at the entrance to the headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.? Should we remove the statue of Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) on the campus of the University of California-San Diego, or rename the nearby Geisel Library? Should the St. Paul, Minnesota school board take Paul Wellstone’s name off an elementary school dedicated to the late senator and his wife Sheila? Should Swarthmore College and Montclair State University eradicate Alice Paul’s name from buildings on their campuses?

We need to consider the totality of people’s contributions to the struggle for justice. Any monuments, plaques or other commemorations of Anthony, Stanton, and other feminists as part of the centennial celebration of women’s suffrage should mention their offensive views as well as their pioneering work for women’s rights so that future generations recognize that they — like many other reformers and radicals — were human beings who were both trapped by and sought to escape the social and political straightjackets of their times.

If we require our progressive and radical heroes to be saints — if we eliminate leaders from the progressive pantheon because they held some views or engaged in behaviors that were conventional in their day but problematic today — we won’t have many people left to admire.

Peter Dreier is the E.P.Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College and author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).

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