Upon learning of the assassination of Martin Luther King, young Civil Rights activist Robert Woodson knew that waves of indignant violence could follow. “I was about ready to leave the [Civil Rights] movement at the time,” Woodson recalls. “I was called back to town, because [it] was on fire. I recruited seven or eight community leaders, and I said to them that we cannot allow anyone to get killed in this kind of foolishness. Each of us interposed ourselves between the police and the young rioters. Because we were known, we were able to counsel them to stop. Though some stores were looted and burned, no lives were lost.”
This act of keeping the peace is Woodson’s most memorable moment from his work in the Civil Rights movement. It is emblematic of the Philadelphia native’s broader ethos with respect to the empowerment of black America. When speaking before black audiences, he summarizes his philosophy as: “When the doors of opportunity were opened, not everyone was prepared to walk through them. Just being black was not sufficient to enable you to take advantage of the opportunities of desegregation.”
Woodson does not merely preach a message of personal responsibility and self-empowerment in the communities he serves. In the early 1970s, he worked as director of the National Urban League to create strategies that would reduce crime by bolstering community institutions. Later, he would continue his community-building efforts as director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Neighborhood Revitalization Project in Washington, D.C.
Growing disillusioned with the American Enterprise Institute’s focus on theory, rather than action, Woodson left the organization in the early ‘80s. In 1981, with a grant of only $25,000, he founded his National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which in 2016 was renamed The Woodson Center. The Center works “to bring recognition, training, and funding to grassroots leaders and organizations working to confront the problems facing their communities and heal their neighborhoods with proven, sustainable solutions.” Contrasting the approach of his previous employers — on the right, AEI, and on the left, the Urban League — The Woodson Center fuses the goals of ending poverty with the practical ethos of empowerment and self-improvement.
The Woodson Center’s most recent initiative is 1776 Unites, whose network of black scholars and activists produces essays and develops curricula in order to build “a positive movement in response to the overwhelming narratives of oppression, grievance and ignorance to America’s history—and its promise for the future.” Scholarly contributors include John H. McWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and Ian Rowe, a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
1776 Unites is explicitly reminiscent of the New York Times’ 1619 project and offers an uplifting, inspiring counterweight to the latter’s pessimistic, disempowering view of American history. The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of [the United States’] national narrative.” The project’s actual content fails to live up to its intent, if only because of its litany of historical inaccuracies, as exposed by several historians. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz and three other leading scholars wrote that the project displaced “historical understanding by ideology.” Despite these concerns, the 1619 project is currently being incorporated in school curricula across the country.
The Left presumes to speak for marginalized people. But if the people in whose name they claim to advocate stand up and say, ‘You don’t speak for me’, that undermines their perceived moral authority.
Woodson’s 1776 Unites, on the other hand, does not allow historical narratives to be warped by an agenda. Its essays simultaneously recognize the horrors of the past while striving for a better world in the here-and-now. For example, one of its essays by DeForest Soaries extols the role that improving one’s local community plays in the fight for freedom outside the political realm.
On early successes of 1776 Unites, Woodson points to “The very fact that Nikole Hannah Jones [creator of the 1619 project] and others are now backtracking some of the fundamental premises of their work…Another indicator of success is that when we issued our first alternative curriculum, it was downloaded 3,000 times in the first five days. The 1619 project had 4,500 downloaded over the course of an entire year.”
Woodson recognizes that ideas alone cannot turn the tide in the fight for freedom—tactics matter. “Since the Left is using race as a bludgeon,” he says, “I think that it is important for the face of our message to be black. It’s black-led, but everyone participates—just like the Civil Rights coalition. The Left presumes to speak for marginalized people. But if the people in whose name they claim to advocate stand up and say, ‘You don’t speak for me’, that undermines their perceived moral authority.”
Woodson believes that ‘The greatest pushback [against the victim narrative] has to come from the most unlikely source, and that is low-income blacks. They are going to be the patriots that will save America’s culture.’
1776 Unites will not alone win the modern culture wars. Woodson believes that “The greatest pushback [against the leftwing victim narrative] has to come from the most unlikely source, and that is low-income blacks. They are going to be the patriots that will save America’s culture.”
Consistent with his professional work, Woodson views the 2020 election through a cultural lens. “There’s a part of me that thinks that conservatives need a wilderness experience. But I’m also afraid that if Biden wins and Harris becomes Vice President, with the whacky things she’s saying and doing, that this country could descend into chaos. This is the first time that public officials are siding with rioters over police. I’ve never heard of a mayor giving up a police precinct so that the rioters can burn it down. This is very scary. One of the first responsibilities of government is to protect its citizens. I think the vote is for chaos or for community.”
Regardless of who wins, 1776 Unites, with Woodson at the helm, will continue apace. “People will be looking for sane alternatives to the madness,” Woodson confidently asserts. “I trust the American people.”
Logan Chipkin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia and a contributor to Broad + Liberty. @ChipkinLogan