Beloved Historical Figures Who Aren’t Who They Seem To Be

Thomas Jefferson, a well-known Founding Father and the writer of the Declaration of Independence, is hailed for his accomplishments, but in reality, he did not believe that all men are equal like he stated in the Declaration. A bit hypocritical, right?

In recent years, it’s thankfully become more socially acceptable to hold historical and public figures accountable for their racism and bigoted practices. For instance, Thomas Jefferson has been receiving criticism for owning over 600 slaves in his lifetime and even fathering six children with one. Activists have — sometimes successfully — fought vociferously for the removal of Confederate monuments such as the ones commemorating Robert E. Lee. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this past year, many people have been knocking down statues of historical figures who were known to own slaves. This development has been extremely refreshing and long overdue. Should we overlook these people’s life and accomplishments that changed history forever? Definitely not (remember, slave-owning was considered socially acceptable back then), but more light needs to be shed on the injustices they committed, and more of the truth must be taught to others in schools.

But in reality, most historical figures are still not being held to a reasonable standard. We blindly worship far too many “great” men and women who don’t deserve to be lauded without knowing the evil behind the good. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of historical figures who are still lauded as heroes even though they were rabid racists. It’s time to put an end to this. Here are just a few of the many racist historical figures that we, as a society, need to stop idolizing.

Churchill is hailed by many Westerners as one of World War II’s heroes. He served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1940 and 1945. During that time, he contributed to the defeat of the Nazis and Hitler, which is certainly a noble feat.

However, we shouldn’t let him off the hook for his blatant racism and white supremacist beliefs, which drove many of his policy decisions. There were many instances when he made extremely bigoted comments. On one occasion, he remarked that he despised people with “slit eyes and pigtails.” On another, he claimed that people from India are “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.”

He also expressed racist sentiment toward black people, stating that he “did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people.” And throughout much of his political career, he was a staunch advocate for eugenics and colonialism. He believed that indigenous people were inferior and deserved to be colonized. He made the following statement to the Palestine Royal Commission in 1937:

“I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

This rhetoric is inexcusable and should not be condoned as simply a “product of the times” he lived in. Even a lot of his contemporaries found his white supremacist views appalling. Those views were just as preposterous and racist back then as they are today.

2. Ronald Reagan

Among many people on the right, Reagan has achieved hero-worship status. Countless conservatives uphold him as a representative of the “respectable right.” Although known for his economic policies- Reaganomics- it can be argued that they were actually more detrimental to the economy than beneficial. In fact, it can also be argued that Reagan was one of America’s worst presidents.

He was not a virtuous person, and he did not advance justice. He was arguably just as racist as Donald Trump — he just wasn’t always vocal about it in public. But that doesn’t necessarily make it any better. Here’s a repulsively racist comment he made on the phone with Richard Nixon in 1971: “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did . . . to see those, those monkeys from those African countries.” He continued, “Damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes.”

This makes it clear as daylight that he perceived white people as more “civilized” than other races. But his racism was evident throughout his presidency even without him saying it explicitly. His policy positions were incredibly racist, classist, and inhumane.

He denounced policies that would disproportionately help impoverished people of color, such as housing benefits, food stamp programs, and aid to impoverished children. Denying these basic human rights is cruel and unacceptable. Additionally, he helped perpetuate the racist concept of the black “welfare queen” by using the derogatory term to dismiss impoverished black women seeking government support. Not to mention his blatant disregard for the members of the LGBTQ+ community during the AIDS epidemic during his presidency makes him (in my opinion) one of our worst presidents.

3. Walt Disney

It shattered my childhood dreams a bit when I learned about some of Walt Disney’s unabashed prejudices — although many of his fans are still in denial about it, there’s evidence that he was both racist and anti-semitic.

In the 1930s, he was involved with a pro-Nazi organization called the German American Bund. Around the same time, he also had close cozy personal ties with Nazis. For example, he hosted Leni Riefenstahl, a well-known film director who specialized in producing Nazi propaganda. He even offered her a tour of Disney Studios.

He was also known to make blatantly racist remarks. In his well-researched biography called Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler refers to many instances when Walt used racist slurs. For example, Walt tended to use the offensive word “pickaninny” to describe black children. And at a meeting described in the biography, he used the term “n***er pile” when discussing the seven dwarves from Snow White.

As if that wasn’t enough evidence, there’s also the fact that he gave the green light to the racist elements of Song of the South and other Disney movies that were released during his lifetime. According to Gabler, Walt was aware that Song of the South would be perceived (rightfully) as racist. But he didn’t care enough to do anything about it.

4. John Wayne

There’s a lot of old white people who revere John Wayne as the king of Western films. Wayne was a popular icon and prolific actor from the 1920s all the way through the 1970s.

It’s fitting that many of his fans appear to be racist, because Wayne was a racist himself. He even explicitly advocated for white supremacy.

Here’s what he said when he was asked to give his opinion about anti-Black discrimination:

With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.

In 1971, Playboy Magazine asked him for his thoughts about Native Americans’ portrayal in Western films. This was his response:

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

Need I say more?

5. Woodrow Wilson

Wilson, who served as 28th president of the US between 1913 and 1921, is often lauded as one of the greatest presidents in history. He led the country through World War I. He also oversaw the founding of the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. Those are notable feats, but they’re not the whole story.

“Wilson’s sentiment for self-determination and democracy never had a chance against his three bedrock ‘ism’s: colonialism, racism, and anticommunism.”

When you examine his presidency in its entirety, it becomes obvious that he did immense damage to the causes of racial justice and world peace.

According to a recent article in the Atlantic, aptly titled The Racist Legacy of Woodrow Wilson, “Wilson oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices.” And when he was confronted about his racism, he flippantly dismissed concerns about it.

Segregation around the country grew even worse during his presidency, and he blatantly refused to address it. He even once threw prominent civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office when Trotter (an ardent supporter of Wilson at the time) visited to discuss the rampant segregation across the US. His policies were also extremely oppressive towards people in other parts of the world.

As Loewen writes in Lies My Teacher Told Me:

“Under Wilson, the United States intervened in Latin America more often
than at any other time in our history. We landed troops in Mexico in 1914,
Haiti in 1915, the Dominican Republic in 1916, Mexico again in 1916 (and
nine more times before the end of Wilson’s presidency), Cuba in 1917, and
Panama in 1918. Throughout his administration Wilson maintained forces in
Nicaragua, using them to determine Nicaragua’s president and to force passage of a treaty preferential to the United States.”

These foreign interventions were highly unpopular, and their effects were devastating and long-lasting.

Sadly, these historical figures are just the tip of the iceberg. Countless other historical figures held similarly bigoted beliefs, but they are unheard of because the American education system only teaches the good bits of these people. The attitudes of these people are evident of past racism that has spread into today’s world.

But we don’t have to dismiss these revelations by saying, “oh well, nobody is perfect!” or “yeah, but all historical figures were flawed!” That does a major disservice to the many historical figures who were not racist or — better yet — who were vocally anti-racist. We don’t have to delude ourselves into admiring these figures as “great men who were flawed.”

No, we don’t have to admire them at all.

We can still discuss their role in history and acknowledge, for instance, that Churchill was instrumental in defeating the Nazis. And we can still enjoy watching Disney movies with our children. But we don’t have to teach our children to look up to these figures as “great.” But if we’re looking for heroes or role models, we deserve much, much better. But remember- we cannot change the past, but we can do better for the future.

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Injustice from the eyes of a high schooler. Activist. Lover of history. Here to educate and inspire.

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Amy Zhang

Injustice from the eyes of a high schooler. Activist. Lover of history. Here to educate and inspire.