Bob Woodson: Slavery Was America’s “Birth Defect,” But It Doesn’t Define America

March 2, 2020 Updated: March 28, 2020

“The 1619 Project” published by New York Times Magazine has been described by several Civil War scholars as historically inaccurate.

But in the eyes of Bob Woodson, who has devoted the past several decades to helping people in troubled, low-income communities, its biggest problem is that it defines America as being incurably racist.

Just how does Woodson’s brainchild, “1776,” seek to counter this narrative?

And how did the war on poverty radically transform black communities in America?

This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

In this episode, we’ll sit down with Bob Woodson, the founder and president of the Woodson Center. A former civil rights advocate, he is the recipient of the Bradley Prize and the Presidential Citizens Medal.

Jan Jekielek: Bob Woodson, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Bob Woodson: Pleased to be here.

Mr. Jekielek: So Bob, “1776,” is a campaign that you launched in response to the 1619 Project. What is this about?

Mr. Woodson: The 1619 Project, authored by the New York Times, really, in summary, it says that America’s founders were racist and they owned slaves, and therefore the Declaration of Independence that declared freedom and justice for all was invalid because the framers of that document were not worthy of the principles. And therefore the principles are invalid. And therefore, America should be defined by its birth, by 1619, when the first slaves arrived on the shore. And then it concludes by saying, America is irredeemably racist to its core, racist in its DNA, and therefore the only solution is for white America to provide reparations to black Americans. So, they’re saying that whites in America are inherently the victimizers, and blacks are a class of victims, and it offers no solutions at all to the problem. They’re saying that America is defined by race, and just leaves it there.

With 1776, we are challenging it by saying, “No, America cannot be defined by its birth defect of slavery.” None of us should be defined by what we used to be in our past—that America’s defined not only by its problem—i.e. slavery and discrimination—but also the promise of freedom and justice for all. And our Constitution is a document that allows for self-correction, and we are the only nation to ever have an emancipation proclamation to end slavery—the only nation in the world.

Mr. Jekielek: You said at the launch of 1776 something to the effect of, “Nothing is more lethal than giving people a good excuse to fail.” Can you expand on this a bit?

Mr. Woodson: Black Americans… are faced with an internal crisis. We have more blacks killing blacks in one year than were lynched in the whole period of 60 years under slavery. We have a 9/11 every six months. We have 70 percent of babies that are born out of wedlock. But that’s an internal problem. And for 1619 to say that that problem is caused by the shadow of slavery and discrimination is patently untrue and lethal. Because what you’re saying to people is that you have no capacity to be agents of your own uplift; that if you’re having babies out of wedlock, it’s not your fault; if you’re robbing and killing, it’s not your fault; if you’re taking drugs, it’s not your fault. That’s very lethal.

Mr. Woodson: It’s saying to people, “you’re almost like impotent children. You have no capacity of self-control, of self-discipline, of self-uplift.” And so it undermines that capacity of self-liberation that used to characterize Black Americans even in the presence of slavery and discrimination. None of the problems that we’re witnessing over the last 50 years were in evidence when we were enslaved or doing a whole period of Jim Crow de jure segregation. And in fact, as I’ve said here, when white people were at their worst, blacks were at their best.

And so what we did through these series of essays is carefully refute this notion that the conditions that many black Americans are facing today are related to that legacy of slavery. That is patently a lie. It’s not true. It is a false narrative. So what we are doing is presenting evidence that it’s false.

One study for instance that I cited my essay is that between 1920 and 1940, the education gap between blacks and whites in the South was three years. Whites had an eighth-grade education; blacks [of the same age] had fifth grade. But Julius Rosenwald, the CEO of Sears, partnered with Booker T. Washington and together they built 5,000, what they call Rosenwald Schools. Rosenwald put up part of the money; the other came from Black Americans who sold dinners, and they put up $4.6 million to build these schools. And as a consequence… the education gap closed within six months.

Same with the marriage rate in the [Great Depression] between 1930 and 1940 when our economy went broke. The unemployment rate among whites was 25 percent; it was 40 percent for the black community. But the black community during that time when there was de jure segregation, the economy was failing, our marriage rate was higher than any other group in society. Elderly people could walk freely in those neighborhoods without fear of being mugged by their grandchildren.

And so, there is other evidence. And when blacks were denied access to hotels, we built our own hotels: the Waluhaje in Atlanta, the Saint Teresa in New York, the Saint Charles in Chicago—I could go on. When we were denied access to banks, we built our own banks; medical schools; dental schools. And so we had a rich tradition. Chicago, as you know, is characterized by violence. In 1929, there were 731 black-owned businesses in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. There were $100 million in real estate assets in 1929. And so the point is that blacks achieved this level of self-sufficiency and independence because of the strong moral code of conduct that was based upon our Christian faith, and also the whole virtues of our founders of thrift; of being responsible. There were several blacks who were born slaves, who died millionaires, because of the free enterprise system that 1619 says is racist.

And so all of the problems that we’re witnessing today did not happen until the ’60s. Prior to that, poverty was never associated with social dysfunction. Being poor didn’t mean that you had to steal. Being poor meant you were broke, but you still had values of personal responsibility; of resilience. And so what we are doing in 1776 is to go back and document through our research how blacks were able to achieve resilience and self-sufficiency. What were the strategies? … For instance, Robert Smalls was a man who was born 1836 in Sumter, South Carolina, and he was a slave, and he worked on a supply ship for the Confederacy. Well, he stole the ship, picked up his family members, and…put on the hat of his master and made the hand signals, and got through all the Confederate batteries, and turned the ship over to the Union navy. President Lincoln and Congress gave him $1500, which was a lot of money then, but also it convinced Lincoln to allow blacks to fight in the war—Civil War.

Robert Smalls became, after the war, became wealthy. He became a politician during Reconstruction, served in Congress, actually went back and purchased the plantation on which he was a slave, and took in the children of the slave master who were destitute at the time. So, I just think this is an act of profound grace. And so, if a Robert Smalls could act without contempt, animosity, and anger towards the people who actually enslaved him, how can some black with a PhD from Harvard today living in a gated community talk about anger, and the need for revenge, and the need for all these things?

And so, these are the kinds of contradictions that 1776 is trying to confront, but we don’t want to confront it with a counter-argument. Because people are inspired to change and improve when you can show them victories that are possible—not constantly reminding them of injuries to be avoided.

Hank Aaron was the home run king. Looking at Hank Aaron’s record through the prism of 1619, you’ll say he was the strikeout king. But looking at it through the prism of 1776, we say he’s a home run king, because if you make a lot of home runs, that means you’re going to strike out a lot. But 1619 looks at the deficits of America, and not the assets versus the deficits. So we think there should be a more balanced understanding of this great nation of ours. As one of our essayists said, “If America was so incurably racist, why are black and brown people from all over the world risking their lives to come here?” If it was such an incurably evil place, why in the history of this country, black Americans sacrificed their lives fighting for this nation? And I don’t believe one was ever convicted of treason. Now, the 1619 is saying that all of the sacrifices that blacks who came before them made, were naive; they were misguided. And that’s what we’re trying to do in 1776 is to find out the strategies of black survival in the presence of de jure segregation and slavery. How can we learn from those experiences, and then how can we find people today who are employing those same strategies of resilience? So, it’s very uplifting, it’s aspirational, it’s inspirational, and that’s what the American public is looking for. We want answers.

Mr. Jekielek: Bob, you were in the civil rights movement back in the day, but then you chose to leave. I think this speaks a bit to your philosophy. Maybe you could kind of expand on this.

Mr. Woodson: I was born in Philadelphia to a low-income black neighborhood, but it was very cohesive. My dad died when I was nine, leaving my mother with a fifth-grade education and five children to raise from ages 9 to 18. And so, therefore, I found refuge in my peer group. I have six fellows who were close friends back then, and we remain close. And they were a year older than me, and so when they graduated from school, I dropped out of high school and went into the military, because you don’t grow up in these neighborhoods unaffiliated. So, I went into the military and found myself in the space program. They saw talents in me, and so I was flying an airplane tracking missiles—and involved in expansion of the space program.

But I took courses on campus after I got my GED. I took courses from the University of Miami when it was segregated. So, I have nine credits from the University of Miami in math at a time when I couldn’t take those courses on campus. And so, then I got out and went to a small black college, Cheyney. I was on a year’s probation because my SAT scores were so poor. But half of us made the Dean’s list in six months, and then I earned a full scholarship to University of Pennsylvania, and got involved in the civil rights movement from there. But again, I took that experience with me of understanding that your destiny is determined by what you do, not what anyone else does, and nothing is more lethal than a good excuse for failure.

And so failure was not an option for me. So, I took that energy into the civil rights movement. … I had this big debate before the New York Bar Association with Julius Chambers who was a black Harvard lawyer, and I was debating him at the New York Bar Association on a whole issue of whether we ought to embrace school integration. I guess about 80 percent through the debate, I posed this question to Julius, I said, “Julius, if we have two circumstances: situation A, where there’s an all black school but there’s a presence of excellence; school B is integrated, where excellence is diminished excellence. Where should we send our children?” He said to school B. I said, “Then this debate is over,” because I believe what we ought to do is pursue excellence. And then if you pursue excellence, let that attract people of different races, as opposed to believing that somehow sitting next to a white child, he imparts knowledge and wisdom. And so, this has been a divide that I’ve had with the civil rights movement for over 50 years. I believe the opposite of segregation is desegregation; it is not integration.

If I choose to go to a black church, that’s a choice that I make. I don’t want anybody telling me that I can’t do that because I’m practicing segregation. We use this term “segregation” too loosely. I don’t think that the Supreme Court decision should have been argued that separate is inherently unequal. I think we should have argued that separation is “strategically unequal” because if you say something is “inherently unequal”, it means: anything that’s all black, is all bad. And that’s what we’re struggling with.

A woman named Marva Collins in the Eastside Academy in Chicago, public school teacher, got tired of seeing kids fail, and started what she called the Eastside Academy in this low-income neighborhood where she preached and insisted upon excellence. And kids who were dropping out of the public school were coming to her, and they were learning and they were achieving. And when her reputation grew, whites were bringing their children in from the suburbs to attend her Academy because their children were struggling, but they knew that Marva Collins had a special way of teaching children with challenges. And so, that’s how integration should be a response to excellence because if you create a center of excellence, people will seek you out. That’s what should attract people, is the presence of excellence. And that’s why I’m saying, in the black community, we used to understand that we must pursue excellence.

And once we do, people will seek us out, as opposed to [giving us] special treatment as if we are “perpetual victims”, that our destiny is determined. Can you imagine if you are a 10-year-old child being raised in an inner-city school that now has the 1619 curriculum that said, “America is irretrievably racist, and therefore, unless white people give you something, you can’t possibly help yourself”? And also they’re vilifying the police department as saying, “Well, the police are agents of white suppression.” Why then would that child now who is 18 … why would they want to join the military? Why would they want to become police officers to protect their community? So, I think what is happening today is more dangerous than people realize. It has national security implications. Police forces are under physical attack and they’re (the perpetrators) being encouraged by liberal left-wing politicians. Police officers—people are throwing water on them and they’re not being charged with assault. But the result of this is that recruitment for police officers throughout the country in some cases are down 62 percent, which means in Minnesota, the police department reports they cannot even respond readily to all of the 911 calls. Well, if this is allowed to spread, what is our country going to be like?

And so, this 1619 isn’t some abstract debate. It has real-world consequences, dire consequences for our future if it’s not stopped. And 1776 is determined to stop the bleeding.

Mr. Jekielek: You wrote an op-ed about 1776 where you mentioned that 1619 is a grand weapon in for identity politics—

Mr. Woodson: It’s been weaponized, that race has been weaponized and used as a political tool … using low-income blacks as the battering ram to really attack the fundamentals of this nation. I really think that there are many on the left—and I don’t say “liberals”—I say left-wing people—are doing everything they can to denigrate this country because they despise it. And I think freedom-loving people need to stand together and push back against this, and they’re using the black community in the most exploitative way. That’s what really angers me: the black community, and the real conditions of slavery and discrimination, are being used as a tool to really injure this nation.

Mr. Jekielek: Tell me more about this. How is that actually happening, practically?

Mr. Woodson: Fred Siegel at the Manhattan Institute has a book: “The Future Once Happened Here.” And in it, he documents the fact that the black community is a barometer of the moral health of the country. That’s the way I look at it, and he does too. And the very fact that central to the cohesiveness of a person’s life is your family—having a two-parent family. Up until 1962, 85 percent of all black households had a man and a woman raising children. And then we had the poverty program come along. There were two social scientists, Cloward and Piven at the Columbia University School of Social Work. They were leftists, and they said: “One of the ways that we can emphasize the contradictions of capitalism is to just flood the system with welfare recipients.”

But they couldn’t just do this because of their political philosophy. But then you had Mayor John Lindsay, who was a liberal mayor. Then the federal government had its poverty programs, so they began to open up poverty offices throughout New York and the major cities to actively recruit blacks into the welfare system following the white riots. They said, “We must recruit.” … But welfare in the black community, up until that time, was stigmatized. … No one wants to go on “relief,” they called it. And so, what the left had to do is to challenge that stigmatization, and the way you do it is to say, “Well, welfare is really social insurance. Welfare is really reparations for the evils of slavery and discrimination, so you have a right to it.” … This is what they actually wrote: that if somehow we can separate work from income, it will make the father redundant and then it’ll transfer the authority to the state. And then you will see an increase in school dropout rates, drug addiction, crime—all of these social dysfunctions will begin to occur. And they were correct.

And he points out in his book that in just a three to four-year period in the early ’70s, when the rules changed, it was aided by the women’s movement because they felt that the father was redundant. The Black Power movement said that the nuclear family was Ozzie and Harriet Eurocentric, and therefore racist, and so we should not be holding blacks to the standard of a nuclear family. And welfare was a right. And so suddenly, that stigma was removed, and blacks were recruited into the welfare system, and they made welfare more generous than work. And as a consequence, thousands flooded into the system at a time when the unemployment rate for black men in New York was 4 percent.

And sure enough, what they predicted came true. … You saw all of the pathologies began to express itself as the family disintegrated. And so, we went from 85 percent [with a] family [to now] only 30 percent now being raised [by both parents]. So, this decline occurred not as a result of slavery and discrimination, as I pointed out, because the black family rate was constant up until that time. And so, this is why we have the conditions today.

…It is important for us in 1776 to really fill this education void of information, but it’s not going to be done by publishing white papers and having this discussion on talk radio. We have got to develop a retail strategy, as the left has done, to develop curriculum, to develop video tapes, social media—let’s go back and talk about the blacks who were born slaves, who died millionaires.

Mr. Jekielek: I’ve read about the Cloward-Piven strategy. It’s astounding to me that people could come up with an idea that would effectively destroy society as it exists; not considering that these are people.

Mr. Woodson: The left is good at marketing, and those of us who believe in the founders, we’re not very good at a retail strategy. And that’s what we’re trying to present. 1619 had a commercial at the Oscars. … That same commercial supporting 1619 was at the NBA All-Star Game. That commercial costs $2.3 million. Those of us who believe in liberty, who believe in this nation, we have to be willing to invest the way the other side has invested. And that’s what 1776 is trying to do: persuade Americans that if you believe in freedom, if you believe in it, you can’t just be content with funding some scholars to write about it.

There are thousands and millions of people whose lives are the embodiment of the values of the founders. … We’ve got 2,500 low-income grassroots leaders of all races in 39 states that are part of the Woodson Center network.
Mr. Jekielek: Tell me a little bit about this Woodson Center. You’ve been building this for decades.

Mr. Woodson: 38 years ago I started the Woodson Center. It was called the “National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise”. And the reason I used the word “enterprise” is because I believe that the principles that operate in the market economy should operate in a social economy. Only 3 percent of people in a market economy are entrepreneurs, but they generate 70 percent of the jobs. And these entrepreneurs tend to be C-students; not A-students. I say that A-students come back to universities and teach; C-students endow.

But in our social economy, the experts are professionally trained people. But we believe that the real social entrepreneurs are my grassroots leaders that are in these communities. There are two types: There are ones who are in poverty but not of poverty.

If we say that 70 percent of families in these low-income drug-infested neighborhoods are raising children that are troubled, it means 30 percent are not. We go into the homes of the 30 percent to try to find out what is the secret of how they were able to thrive and to progress in the presence of this dysfunctional community. And so, the Woodson Center has built its reputation by going in and taking what works among the 30 percent and then applying it to the 70 percent.

And my model for that is taken from the Bible—the Genesis of Joseph and Pharaoh. That’s the model. As you know, the story of Joseph, who was from a dysfunctional Hebrew family, and he was sold into slavery by his brothers… But when in slavery, he never submitted to despair. He was falsely accused when he went to the house of Potiphar—of having sex with Potiphar’s wife. He was in prison; he became the best prisoner. He went in at 17. At 31, Pharaoh had this dream that none of his experts … and they remember Joseph. They brought him before Pharaoh and he refused to bow down to Pharaoh, so Pharaoh knew he had integrity. But then they developed an alliance where this uneducated 31-year-old Hebrew was empowered by Pharaoh, and together they saved Egypt and fed the world.

That’s a paradigm for what we’re trying to do at the Woodson Center. We’re trying to recruit wealthy pharaohs who have influence and money to work with, and empower, these low-income leaders who are the “Josephs”. And we want to bring them together.

We’ve had community activists, many of them were ex-offenders, many of them were redeemed souls, coming together with the finest of our academicians and some wealthy business people. So, that’s the coalition that we’re trying to hold, to rebuild, and take 1776 to scale—that many of these 2,500 grassroots leaders are like insurgents during the Second World War. The war was won by the allies supporting insurgents in Italy and in France, and other nations. Freedom-loving people need to support America’s insurgents, and those are the people living their lives by the principles of our founders. But we need to elevate them and let them speak for themselves, and end the divisiveness in the country, and let their views, attitudes, and behavior prevail. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s remarkable. It’s very much a bipartisan or multi-partisan issue. You’ve got people from all walks of life, all sorts of backgrounds, sharing this common framework.

Mr. Woodson: Clarence Page and I have been friends—we’ve never voted for the same party in our lives. And Bernard Anderson, who is one of the first black faculty at the Wharton School, and very active and liberal democratic politics. Bernie is a part of our movement as well. And we have Ben Lowry, a conservative professor at Brown University. So, this really defies the left-right divide, it really defies the class divide, and it’s really bringing together ordinary people who share a passion for this nation, and who believe that we should be defined by the content of our character; not the color of our skin. And so, that’s what we’re trying to bring to attention, and bring it to scale—sort of reclaiming the country from the inside out. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Mr. Jekielek: I understand there’s over 3,000 schools that have already adopted this 1619 curriculum.

Mr. Woodson: Destructive. Poison. It’s moral and spiritual poison.

Mr. Jekielek: Are you developing some kind of alternative curriculum?

Mr. Woodson: Absolutely. We have 14 essays. …We’re going to expand those, but we’re going to extract the knowledge and wisdom that is embedded in these essays, and put it into curriculum. We want to take some of the experiences of people in the past, and we want to make that a part of the curriculum for K through 12. We want to see more movies like “Harriet”, and “Hidden Figures”. And so, that’s what we’re going to be promoting: a whole comprehensive retail agenda so that parents can be offered an alternative. If they receive a copy of 1619, we want them to compare it to 1776. So, we really want the real competition of ideas. And so, we’re trying to put some competitive material in the hands of people. And our grassroots leaders, the 2,500 that I talked about, I look at them as civic teachers.

Communities of trust already exist within communities. Rather than always looking at teachers as being well-educated scholars, we need to look at grassroots leaders as civic teachers. They’re already teaching children; they’re already moral mentors and character coaches to young people. Well, we just want to add an agenda item, and that is the knowledge about civic restoration and civic knowledge about America. And so, that’s what we want: to empower those grassroots leaders to be civic teachers. So, we want to put manuals, we want to put materials in their hands; movies, and inspirational social media. So, that’s our plan, but it’s going to take a lot of money. The left is spending millions and millions. We’re just getting started, but this is a David and Goliath moment. So, David is reaching out for help, so we can defeat this Goliath— this 1619.

Mr. Jekielek: Where can people find 1776 online?

Mr. Woodson: You can find it online: 1776unites.com; woodsoncenter.org. The Woodson Center is hosting 1776, but you can go online and look at it. Again, it’s 1776unites.com and woodsoncenter.org. That’s where you can find us.

Mr. Jekielek: Wonderful. Bob Woodson, it’s such a pleasure to speak with you today.

Mr. Woodson: Thank you. Great opportunity.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 
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