Woodrow Wilson and Mount Rushmore are both children of the 20th century. Each of them is better known thanks to their mass photographic images rather than their physical presence—an early foreshadowing of our current mass media culture. Mount Rushmore, with its four quartz heads gazing across the nation, is an image so ubiquitous in the American West that it backdrops every South Dakota license plate. Woodrow Wilson, still photographed in a suit with his nearly invisible eyeglasses even while throwing out the opening day first pitch in 1916, is the foundational image of “looking presidential.” When united together in our mind’s eyes, Wilson’s dark full suits and his predecessor’s chiseled-stone faces, become the image of the ideal American leader. This image is commanding, indestructible, and indivisible from our country’s 244-year democracy.
As much as this keen awareness of public image propelled Wilson and Mount Rushmore into national icon status, their full history with visual culture reminds us that nothing is as simple as it often remembered. Mount Rushmore was not the first mountain-side monument sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved. In 1915, a decade before the approval of Mount Rushmore, Borglum was approached by the Daughters of the Confederacy to cast the Stone Mountain Memorial, in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Stone Mountain was designed to commemorate Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson to resist the rise of Union monuments in the North. Borglum was fired from the project after internal fighting among Klan organizers, and the monument was eventually completed and unveiled in 1965.
As Borglum was being approach in Georgia, 635 miles away in Washington, D.C., Woodrow Wilson sat in the White House at his private screening of the newly released blockbuster, Birth of a Nation. The movie is a notoriously racist film, known for propagating the Lost Cause ideology, purportedly instigating the second wave of the KKK, and its infamous White House showing. While Wilson’s exact words after seeing the film are up for debate, there is no denying his general sympathies.
Borglum and Wilson both recognized the power of visual culture for white supremacy in America. Borglum directly manipulated Stone Mountain during his initial work to perpetuate a hateful narrative for the post-Confederate generation. Wilson, while not directly crafting public images of white supremacy, perpetuated the work of others, which translated politically into his support of Jim Crow laws and segregation.
Ultimately, the question is - how do we remember these men and monuments as 21st century Americans? As I weave my way through the Mount Rushmore monument and museum, how do I reconcile the excitement of witnessing this historic site, while understanding that Borglum’s and the four presidents’ stories are not as romantic as I first thought?
White supremacy and the KKK are uncomfortable topics. We struggle to admit that our greatest American symbols are connected to it. We hide the truth under the shrouds of World War victories or a 5,725 ft. mountain. At the same time, though, does Borglum’s work on Stone Mountain negate our ability to revere Washington’s humility choosing democracy over absolute leadership? Does it undermine Lincoln’s commitment to preserving the Union? And in the same vain, should Wilson’s segregation of the federal government blind us from his progressive child labor laws or establishment of the 8-hour work day?
The images of Mount Rushmore and Woodrow Wilson are alive and well. They are stuck in our minds and on our license plates. But part of their livelihood is the opportunity for us as modern Americans to expose all parts of their truth. In this frank acknowledgement of our icons’ dishonor, we have a chance to reclaim the voices of marginalized histories, and not be victims of the same ignorance that manifested in these racist images and acts 100 years ago.
September 14, 2020