Gov. Phil Murphy acknowledged the former President Woodrow Wilson’s troubled history on race Thursday, but he did not say whether it was reason enough to stop using the former New Jersey governor’s desk.
Last week, a picture of Murphy taking a moment of silence for the death of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, which has spurred weeks of protests nationwide, behind Wilson’s desk was posted to the governor’s Twitter page.
“I don’t have, at my ready, usually Woodrow Wilson talking points, so you’ll forgive me for not having been asked this question before,” Murphy said at Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing. “I didn’t pose behind the desk. That is my desk. That’s the governor’s desk, but you’re right about his — I’ll be charitable — his uneven history as it relates to race.”
Wilson’s handling of race issues — U.S. Postal Service offices, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Treasury were segregated shortly after he took federal office in 1913 — spurred protests at Princeton University, where students sought to force the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to adopt a new name.
After impaneling a committee made up of members of its board of trustees, the University decided against renaming the school, instead creating a trustee committee on diversity and other actions signaling support for campus diversity.
“Princeton University, of which he was a former president, has been, I think, very soulful and reflective on that reality,” Murphy said, referring to Wilson’s poor handling of race relations. “It’s a good question. I don’t want you to think that I sought out a Woodrow Wilson desk to pose behind. That’s the desk I sit behind every day, but it’s a very, very fair point to be raised.”
Though Murphy serves as an ex-officio member of the university’s board of trustees, he was not on the board during the Wilson protests.
It’s not clear when or how Murphy obtained the desk — six members the governor’s communications staff did not respond to emails seeking comment sent at 2:30 p.m., 3:59 p.m. and 5:50 p.m. — but he didn’t inherit it from past governors.
Former Gov. Chris Christie used a different desk, as did Gov. Christie Todd Whitman and Gov. Jim McGreevey.
Incoming governors typically bring their own desks or choose one from statehouse storage, though it’s not clear whether ongoing construction at the state capitol that began before Murphy took office altered the process.
It remains to be seen whether Murphy’s use of Wilson’s desk causes any political headaches, but for at least one black lawmaker, it’s a problem.
In 2015, more the 300 Princeton students staged a walkout and march demanding Wilson’s name be removed from all school buildings due to his racist past. More than a dozen members of Black Justice League, a student group, held a 32-hour sit-in at the university president’s office in protest of Wilson’s views on race.
“The governor has missed the mark on social justice and matters that relate to the African American community,” Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Roselle) said. “His optics are even worse.”
Holley has criticized Murphy in the past.
In October, the assemblyman claimed Murphy ignored Newark’s lead crisis. He also charged the governor denied him a speaking role at a bill signing for a measure restoring voting rights to persons on probation or parole that was sponsored by Holley.
“He is one of very few governors in the country that has at his disposal a progressive Legislative Black Caucus, but he refuses to work with us in depth so that our issues are brought to the forefront for the common good of people,” he said.
State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark), the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and the longest-serving black legislator in New Jersey history, has criticized Murphy for patronizing black lawmakers, though that criticism also extended to legislative leaders.
That criticism wasn’t universal.
Bob Hugin, a former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who served on the 10-member committee on Wilson’s legacy at Princeton, declined to denounce Murphy over the issue.
“In this case, I would certainly think the governor’s intentions were to do the right thing. I wasn’t a big fan of him having a little bit of hypocrisy on the protest marches for social distancing versus other people’s funerals, etc.,” Hugin said. “But on this one, I think it’d be inappropriate for me to politicize something that is very serious in the current world today.”