Episode 6, Season 4
Black American experiences during Jim Crow were deeply affected by the ever-present threat of lynching and other forms of racist violence. Historian Kidada Williams amplifies perspectives from Black families, telling stories of lynching victims obscured by white newspapers. She and Kellie Carter Jackson urge educators to confront the role of this violence in American history, how major institutions stood idly by and how Black Americans fought for justice.
Content Advisory: This episode contains graphic descriptions of racial violence. We know that addressing the realities of the Jim Crow era can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges, and we discuss strategies for sharing this difficult content with your students.
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- Learning for Justice, Student Text, Before Rosa Parks: Ida B. Wells (grades 6-8)
- Learning for Justice Student Text, Origins of Lynching Culture in the United States (grades 9-12)
- Learning for Justice, Film, An Outrage (grades 9-12)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Abc.
Bethany Jay: You may not be surprised to hear this: I generally don’t pay attention to NASCAR. But my ears perked up recently when I heard this on NPR:
[NEWS CLIP: Rain disrupted a NASCAR playoff race on Monday, but it did not dampen the celebration of Bubba Wallace when he was declared the winner of the NASCAR Cup Series.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bubba Wallace: No way.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, person: Yes!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bubba Wallace: No way! [cheers]]
[NEWS CLIP: Bubba Wallace became only the second Black driver to win at NASCAR's top level, following Wendell Scott in 1963.]
Bethany Jay: Bubba Wallace first entered my consciousness in 2020. Like other non-NASCAR fans, I learned his name when he publicly urged the organization to ban the display of Confederate flags at their events. When Wallace told NASCAR to quote, "Get them out of here," he was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. And to my surprise, NASCAR responded within days by prohibiting the Confederate flag at their events, saying it, "Runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment."
Bethany Jay: Within weeks, Bubba Wallace was back in the news. And again, people like me were paying attention. But this time, the news was nothing to be celebrated. The morning before a race at Talladega, Wallace's crew discovered a noose in their garage. He viewed it as a threat, and NASCAR and the FBI agreed, both launching investigations into the incident. Wallace's experience had just become the latest—and most public example of a disturbing American tradition. During the Jim Crow era, nooses were the most prominent tool associated with the thousands of lynchings that took place across the United States, and they've continued to be used as threats of violence, many times when African Americans have been seen as invading white spaces, and in response to moments when movements for Black equality have gained ground.
Bethany Jay: The Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations often brandished nooses in public, and regularly left them as warnings at people's homes and places of work. When James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962, a student at Mississippi State displayed a life-sized Black doll hung from a noose in protest. The practice didn't end with the civil rights movement. Even again in 2015, a student at the University of Mississippi tied a noose around the neck of a statue of James Meredith. And in 2016, another Ole Miss student did the same thing. In 2017, bananas were found hanging from nooses when a Black woman was elected student government president at American University. That same year, Florida's first African-American state attorney received a noose in the mail with the message, "She should pick cotton for the rest of her life and be whipped." Multiple nooses have been found at the National Museum of African American History and Culture since it opened in 2016. And of course, this is only a partial list.
Bethany Jay: In the case of Bubba Wallace, the FBI eventually determined that the incident was not a hate crime. The noose had been seen in the garage at Talladega before it was assigned to Wallace. But this is not the point. Wallace experienced the noose as a warning. And as a Black man in the very white space of NASCAR, viewing the noose as an explicit threat of racial violence was based on a long historical record.
Bethany Jay: Some Americans would like to forget Jim Crow and the thousands of Black people brutally murdered at the hands of mobs. But as William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." The continued use of a noose as a racist threat shows us that. We live in the world that lynching helped to make, and we need to reckon with its legacy in the classroom and in our public culture.
Bethany Jay: I'm Bethany Jay, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of Learning for Justice, the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Bethany Jay: This episode contains graphic descriptions of racial violence. We know that talking about the realities of the Jim Crow era can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges, and we will discuss strategies for sharing this difficult content with your students.
Bethany Jay: Black Americans during Jim Crow were deeply affected by the ever-present threat of lynching and other forms of racial violence. Kidada Williams collected accounts of those experiences in her book, They Left Great Marks on Me. In this episode, she examines the role that extralegal violence played in enforcing the racist codes of Jim Crow. Then, Kellie Carter Jackson will discuss how Black Americans fought for justice during this era, while public institutions stood idly by.
Bethany Jay: Here's my co-host Hasan Kwame Jeffries and his conversation with historian Kidada Williams. I'm so glad you could join us. Let's get started.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the themes that we have been covering in this season of Teaching Hard History is racial violence during the Jim Crow era. And certainly, when you talk about racial violence and racial terrorism during Jim Crow, you have to talk about lynching, which is why I'm so glad to welcome to the podcast Dr. Kidada Williams to help us unpack the history of lynching and how to teach it accurately and effectively in the classroom. Kidada, welcome to the podcast. So glad to have you.
Kidada Williams: Thank you so much for having me and for covering this topic. I'm glad to be here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What was lynching?
Kidada Williams: Lynching was a form of extra-legal killing that happened primarily in the Southern states to African Americans from the Civil War to about the Second World War. Lynching takes on a variety of forms. They can be individual killings of Black people by one individual, they can be small gangs who participate in the killing of an African American who's resisting subjugation. And they can also take the form of full-scale mobs and massacres that kill large numbers of Black people in communities during this time. So the practice is quite diverse over the entire history of its occurrence.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And what was its relationship to Jim Crow?
Kidada Williams: Lynching and other forms of violence were the power behind Jim Crow. And what we mean by that is, for African Americans who resisted segregation and disenfranchisement, they knew the possibility that they or anyone in their family could be lynched.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So did lynchings only occur in the South?
Kidada Williams: They did not. There were a good number of lynchings in the Midwest and in the larger heartland. States like Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma all had decent numbers of lynchings. There are hardly any lynchers who are prosecuted in the Southern states. In some of the Midwestern and heartland states, there are some efforts to sometimes prosecute, but most of the people get away with what they've done.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So how do we generally know about lynchings?
Kidada Williams: I think one of the easiest ways that we gain access to the history of lynching is the extensive documentation of it in newspapers across the country. So lynching is not a secret in America. It's published quite widely. Sometimes the killings are even advertised in the newspaper in advance.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I want to share with our listeners an article that appeared in the Sacramento Union on May 19, 1922, that describes in pretty graphic detail the lynching of a young African-American boy. The title of the article is "Negro, 15, is Burned at Stake." It reads, "Davisboro, Georgia, May 18. Charles Atkins, a Negro, 15, one of four taken into custody today in connection with the killing of Mrs. Elizabeth Kitchens, 20 years old, was burned at the stake tonight. The lynching occurred at the scene of the murder, and followed an alleged confession from the prisoner. He was tortured over a slow fire for 15 minutes and then, shrieking with pain, was questioned concerning his accomplices. Members of the mob, comprising nearly 2,000 people, then raised the body again, fastened it to a pine tree with trace chains and re-lighted the fire. More than 200 shots were fired into the charred body following the boy's death."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We have been stressing, Kidada, to our listeners that one of the best ways to teach about the Jim Crow era is to use primary sources. And one of the sources that people use all the time are newspapers and newspaper articles, just like the one I read from the Sacramento Union. But if we only use that in this instance, for example, are we getting the full story? Is there more to this incident than is reported in this story?
Kidada Williams: There's so much more to the story, and you're never getting the full story of a lynching from a newspaper, especially one that is reporting so far away from the crime. African Americans who experienced this violence documented it, and they did what they could to try to get justice afterwards. And when we look for those sources like that for the killing of Charles Atkins, we actually find records from members of his family. And I have letters his father wrote to the NAACP. I'll read the first one.
Kidada Williams: "June 20, 1926. I am looking around for a good lawyer to bring suit against the state of Georgia for the lynching of my son at the age of 13 years old on the year 1922, 18th day of May. I am getting old and miss the support of my family, and feel that the state should help me bury this burden. I wish to have a favorable answer soon. Respectfully yours, Gaynor Atkins."
Kidada Williams: Members of the NAACP write back to Gaynor, and then we have his follow up letter. "July 16th, 1926. Dear Sirs, I wrote you some time ago concerning what happened to me. Now I will tell you the facts in this case to the very best of my knowledge. In May, 1922, in Washington County, state of Georgia, my boy was lynched for killing a white woman that was carrying US mail on a route to Davisboro, Georgia. He was lynched without any investigation by the people of Washington and Johnson counties, and myself and my wife was beaten nearly to death because it was said that my boy did the killing. My wife was kept in jail for a long time, and I was kept in jail nearly two years. And it was said shortly after this happened that a white man killed the woman and gave my boy her auto that she carried the mail in to make it appear that my boy did the killing since my boy knew no better than to let this man give him this auto. Please let me hear from you by return mail, as I would very much like to hear from you as quick as possible. Yours truly, Gaynor Atkins."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things that just strikes me to the core when I hear Gaynor Atkins write to the NAACP seeking justice some four years after the killing of his boy is that these are real people. One of the things that gets a little bit lost in that Sacramento Union, in that white newspaper account is that this is a child who had parents and who had family who loved him, who also suffer because of this heinous act against not only him, but their entire family.
Kidada Williams: Right. Lynching shatters families. It leaves them devastated. The families were never the same. Many were not safe staying in the community. They had to pick up and they had to leave quickly, and they lost everything in the process. So not only are they devastated by what happened, but they lose their means of livelihood, they lose their homes, they lose their community.
Kidada Williams: If we're looking for sources on how it affected family members, we may not find it immediately at the time a lynching occurred, but in the months or years afterwards when they do things like Gaynor Atkins did like write letters to try to get a degree of justice. What happens with family members is that it may take them some time—years even—to come to terms with it, like Gaynor Atkins. He couldn't hold a protest demonstration in Georgia at the time—he needed to get safe himself. And then he needed to come to terms with what happened to him and to his boy and to the rest of his family. But after that happens, he's able to try to fight for justice for his boy and for himself. There's no lynching victim that didn't have people.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.
Kidada Williams: You know? That didn't have someone who loved them, someone who knew them, someone who was friends with them, someone who worked with them. And they all lived through that killing, and they all had their stories about what that killing meant to them, what it did to the family, what it meant to the community. Those stories are there in families. Some families pass them on and pass them down. Other families, they were too difficult to speak about. And so you've got a silence in some family stories, but you've got in other families a determination that people say their name, that people know who their loved ones were. So much so that in places where we see the lynching photographs of Without Sanctuary exhibited across the country, where there are signbooks, where there are books where visitors to the exhibit can write about their reflections, write their reflections about what they see, a lot of families name their loved ones who were killed, and the date and the place for those killings. And I think that's a testament to how those stories pass on.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, the teachers who tune in to the podcast teach everything from kindergarten to college. When would you introduce the subject of lynching to students?
Kidada Williams: I would wait until probably middle school. I would consider what's age appropriate. If we're starting with middle school, I think that middle schoolers could probably do best with newspaper reports, simple poems like Bertha Johnston's in 1912, "I Met a Blue-Eyed Girl." They could look at some plays, potentially, and some of the artwork. By the time they get to high school, I would expect that they would be able to do more in-depth exercises, maybe look at the photos, maybe look at plays and short stories and personal letters and diaries, and even some of the political writing that we see African-American anti-lynching activists produce during this era.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So what are some of the don'ts when teaching about lynching? And if we don't do those things, what should we do in their stead?
Kidada Williams: Don't only use white sources—particularly white newspapers—as your source for understanding this violence. Compare white newspapers and Black newspapers to help students see the difference in the coverage. What often happens with the white newspapers, what they do is act as stenographers for the mob. They essentially report in the newspaper what members of the mob or their friends and family reported to them without any real investigation. But Black reporters are willing to go and do those investigations. They're willing to do that research, to interview Black and white people from the community and members of the victim's family.
Kidada Williams: And you see that because Black reporters are more likely to have direct connections with members of the families or to experience lynchings, the lynching of African Americans, the way that other Black people do, which is understand what could happen to them or to people they know.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Are those reports from Black reporters available to us today?
Kidada Williams: They are available to us today. The Chicago Defender was one of those papers that has been digitized, that's easily available and that reported a lot on lynching. They had correspondents stationed in the South who conducted their own investigations or relied on people who conducted investigations, and they reported that in the paper. So you see that with the Chicago Defender, the Washington Bee, the Richmond Planet, the Baltimore Afro-American, in a variety of papers North and South you see African-American detailed coverage of lynching.
Kidada Williams: I also think that they should be looking as much as possible for Black people's representations of lynching, whether that is art, political writing, reporting or fiction. There are too many sources that exist that cover African Americans' understandings and experiences of this violence, for that to not get covered in any lesson on lynching. Black artists, for example, who are representing lynching in their art. For example, Charles White's 1945 woodcut, "A Hope For the Future." What we see in the woodcut is the mother holding a son, an infant baby boy, and outside the window is a tree in the distance with a small noose hanging from it. And so she has brought a child into the world, and she has hope for the future, but she also knows about the outside world and what fate could befall her son. I think that work like that serves as a powerful indictment of lynching. It's an example of the wide array of resistance we see African Americans engaging in in response to it.
Bethany Jay: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Bethany Jay. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast, so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources—as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Now let's return to Hasan's conversation with Kidada Williams.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the primary sources that we have that documents lynchings are the picture postcards, the photographs that were taken at the scene of the crime during the moment. They actually focus on the mob. You might see the body of the lynching victim, but the photograph is centered on those who are participating in this heinous crime.
Kidada Williams: They were taken for a glorification of what they're doing. And that's why they're not a source that should be used without a lot of thinking about the ethics of using them. I think you have to be careful of shifting the center of focus from Black people who are harmed by this violence, to the perpetrators and their abettors. If you're using photographs of the mob, make sure that you're not allowing the story to end with them.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.
Kidada Williams: If teachers use photographs, then they should only use photographs if they have the personal story of the family to teach right alongside the use of the photograph. So I acknowledge the value of photographs, but there are other sources that can communicate the same thing.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Without doing the harm that the image can do.
Kidada Williams: Absolutely. Bertha Johnston's "I Met a Little Blue-Eyed Girl," what her poem does, it tells the story of encountering a little girl who has a locket, and inside the locket she has the tooth of a man her father helped lynch. And what's really interesting about the story is just how cavalier the girl was. She's like, "No, he wasn't the man who actually did it, but my family had fun that day."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wow. If there's photographs of the murderers at the scene of the crime, how is this allowed to happen without consequence?
Kidada Williams: The only reason it happens without any consequence is because the majority of white people in the South—and in America—allowed it. Paul Laurence Dunbar has this great piece called "The Fourth of July and Race Outrages." And what he talks about is allowing these killings to occur, but still celebrating the Fourth of July. It was published in The New York Times, July 10, 1903.
Kidada Williams: "Sitting with closed lips over our own bloody deeds, we accomplished the fine irony of a protest to Russia, contemplating with placid eyes the destruction of all the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution stood for. We celebrate the thing which our own action proclaims we do not believe."
Kidada Williams: I think that most students believe that lynchings took place in this isolated landscape where there are no institutions available or around to stop it, and that's simply not true. All of the institutions that would be needed to handle an African American accused of a crime were completely in place. There was law enforcement, there were the courts, et cetera. All of the institutions that we may think today would play a role in making sure lynching didn't happen, or if it did it was punished, were there. But they were actually complicit, actively involved in the killing, or sitting complicitly silent, allowing it to occur.
Kidada Williams: What would often happen is that a lynch mob would overtake a jail, and the jail would send to the governor a request for the militia to come in and help. And what the governor would say is that, "It's out of my control. It was too big for me to deal with. I can't control the will of the people." They would essentially throw up their hands and cry helplessness in the face of the will of the people. Now that's not all governors, but it's a lot of governors, particularly in the Southern states, who do that. White people in the community benefit from lynching in the sense that African Americans are terrorized and less likely to fight against Jim Crow, are less likely to fight for equality. A lot of people are actually okay with it. They may not participate in the mob themselves, but they also may not play a role in stopping the mobs from forming, or stopping the killers from getting away with the crimes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, you could have stopped with, "Because white people in America were okay with it." Period. Full stop there.
Kidada Williams: Listen, listen. That's what gets my students all the time, because my students are always, "Why didn't African Americans fight back?" I'm like, "Well, why didn't the white majority stop this from happening?"
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: [laughs] Exactly! Right.
Kidada Williams: And that's a hard truth for my students to hear, but they hear it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm. And that's also the truth that people don't want them to hear. That's the whole anti-CRT thing, madness and hysteria, right? Because it is an indictment, and people don't like to be indicted.
Kidada Williams: Exactly. But you have to point the finger at what's actually going on.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah, absolutely. One of the characteristics that defined life for African Americans during the Jim Crow era was fear. And lynching certainly heightened that fear, not only for the immediate victims of it, those who lost their lives and their family members, but also for the African-American community writ large.
Kidada Williams: Absolutely. Lynching is part of this larger freedom-denying enterprise that we see after the Civil War and after the emancipation of slavery. And violence becomes a way to roll back the gains of Reconstruction, and limit their rights and their freedoms and their opportunities. African Americans have to consider the fact that they or a member of their family might be lynched if they resist the new forces of subjugation that are emerging like disenfranchisement and segregation.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But fear is something that is hard to wrap your mind around if you are not exposed to that particular kind of fear. How can we help our students make sense of the fear that African Americans felt as a result of lynching?
Kidada Williams: One of the ways we can do that is with sources where African Americans document their fears. So Richard Wright in his essay "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," talks about a fight he has with white boys in the neighborhood, and he goes home to his mother for comfort, and she disciplines him all the while yelling at him that he should never fight with white people. And what's clear in that story is how terrified she is of what could happen if a mob comes for him and for all of them. And so we have sources to help students understand a world they themselves did not live in, and even to recognize their own privilege. But even as we do that, we shouldn't assume that our students don't know that kind of fear. Given the world we live in today, many of them may feel a similar kind of fear, but maybe for different reasons.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Is there a relatable analogy when it comes to trying to understand fear and how it might operate when it comes to school shootings?
Kidada Williams: I think that's a great example, especially given the drills they go through in order to prepare for a shooting in a school. But I also think—and it's more difficult to address in a classroom—that there are other examples in terms of violence that may exist in their own communities, violence that may exist in their own families. And even some students have probably had moments with police. So this is why I don't think that we should assume that all students don't know what that fear is like.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: At a certain point, we begin to see a decline in the numbers of lynchings. What explains that, and when do we begin to see it taper off?
Kidada Williams: So we see the violence against African Americans really start to tick up in the 1880s, and it doesn't really start to come down until the 1930s. And some of the reasons for that are economic. You've got some Northerners who are shy about investing in the South if lynch mobs can come through and just tear everything up. So that's one reason why the numbers start to go down. Another reason some of the numbers start to go down is because there are greater pushes from other parts of the US for federal anti-lynching legislation, which would essentially work like this: if Southern states fail to prosecute lynchers, then the federal government would step in and take over those prosecutions. And rather than deal with the federal government intervening, you start to see more Southern states, more Southern governors in particular, start to push back and demonstrate a greater willingness to put down mobs, to even stop them from forming in the first place.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the things that I like to encourage teachers to use are documentary films and film in general that take an informed look at different elements of the African-American experience. Do you have any films that you would recommend to teachers as entry points for conversation and discussion on this subject?
Kidada Williams: I would recommend some of the short films produced by the EJI that tell the story of lynching. And those are easily available on their website, and they're short enough and they're detailed enough for teachers, even middle school teachers, to be able to use them in the classroom.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And EJI, of course, is the Equal Justice Initiative out of Montgomery, Alabama, which also is responsible for the Legacy Museum, which covers the history of racial violence and racial terror from slavery to mass incarceration. They also constructed the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is a memorial to the victims of lynching in America. What are your thoughts on that form of memorialization of lynching?
Kidada Williams: I think that form of remembrance of lynching is incredibly important, and the work of the EJI is critical for us understanding what happened. So not just pointing a finger at what happened, but understanding what happened and what it did to people. And I think that work starts by naming the names, by marking the historical record with a documentation of their names. The other things that the EJI is doing is erecting historic markers to make sure that local communities know what happened there. They're also holding memorial services at scenes of lynching, and gathering soil at the site as a way to acknowledge what's happened, and to try to deliver a degree of justice, however small, to the victims and their families today.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the responses that you often hear to efforts to keep the knowledge of this aspect of America's past alive and to make sure that people don't forget it, is that we should just let it go, right? Like, it happened in the past. It's over. We should just move beyond it. How do you respond to those who say just let it go?
Kidada Williams: Well, I think the injustice of Jim Crow and the violence that undergirded that system is not something that we can just sort of snap our fingers and will away and wish away, because we still live in the future created by that history. And we see that in examples all around us, whether it is the flash of terror a Black person has when they're pulled over by police for driving while Black, whether it is the January 6 event, whether it is police shootings of unarmed African Americans, whether it is the massacre at Mother Emanuel in 2015 in Charleston. This history is with us every day, and I don't think that there's any moving on from it unless we are willing to acknowledge it. So you can't do one without the other.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What do you want students to take away from lessons on lynching?
Kidada Williams: What I want students to know is that you don't get Jim Crow, you don't get disenfranchisement without lynching and other forms of racist violence, including racialized rape, which is also happening at the time. African Americans didn't just walk away from their rights and their protections and their privileges, they lived in the specter of being killed or having their loved ones killed. And that's what undergirded that system, that sometimes we like to dismiss as where people sit on the bus or Black kids wanting to be in a quote-unquote "white" school. And so when people like to wax philosophical and think about the good old days, they need to know the reality of those good old days and how violent they actually were for Black folks.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thank you so much for these insights on a topic that is so deeply troubling, but as you pointed out, it’s so necessary for us to understand.
Kidada Williams: Thank you so much for having me.
Bethany Jay: Kidada E. Williams is an Associate Professor of History at Wayne State University. She is the author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I. And she has a new book coming out called Saw Death Coming: Liberation, Trauma, and the Tragedy of Reconstruction. Dr. Williams is also the host of Seizing Freedom, a podcast from Vermont Public Radio.
Bethany Jay: Next up, we talk with historian Kellie Carter Jackson about how African Americans responded to racial violence during the Jim Crow era. She begins her conversation with Hasan Kwame Jeffries by looking at how this legacy of resistance began before the Civil War.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm really honored to welcome Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson to the podcast. Kelly, welcome, and thanks so much for joining us.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things that always strikes me when I introduce—in general terms—American history to my students, is their belief at how calm and nice the past was. Even though they understand that slavery existed, they somehow still think that things were sort of peaceful and tranquil, and everybody got along. And that there certainly were moments of disruption and upheaval, you know, Civil War, yeah, that's five years, a couple hundred thousand people died. But otherwise, everything else is pretty calm, you know? But the reality is somewhat different. America, historically, has been a violent place. Is that safe to say?
Kellie Carter Jackson: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. There is not really a moment in our history in which we are not experiencing some sort of violent upheaval, unrest, backlash. I tell my students all the time: every course you take is the history of violence or the study of violence. So if you're taking the American History Survey and you go from the slave trade to the Civil War, you're going from the violence of chattel slavery to the violence of the Civil War. If you're going from Reconstruction to the present, you're going from the violence of Reconstruction to usually around 9/11 is when people stop their classes. If you're thinking about teaching the war between the wars, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, I mean, the dots in the historical timeline are pinpoints to violence. We really can't escape it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: How should we think about the role of violence as it relates to the color line in America?
Kellie Carter Jackson: Mm-hmm. I mean, violence is what propels us from moments to movements all throughout history. So when I think about the period I study, the abolitionist movement, violence accelerated what becomes the Civil War. I think about the rise of Black political power and the rise of the KKK happening almost simultaneously during the Reconstruction period. And even when we think about the long freedom struggle or the civil rights movement, so much of that movement is really about a response to violence—violence at the voting booth, violence at lunch counters, violence in schools. When I look at the long freedom struggle, I see it as not a movement of nonviolence, I see it as a response to the violent oppression of white supremacy.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What do we need to know about violence in American society during the antebellum era?
Kellie Carter Jackson: Hmm. So that's nothing but violence.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: [laughs]
Kellie Carter Jackson: I don't even know how to understand the antebellum era without talking about violence. You know, people might talk about, like, "Oh, technology or transportation or trains," and I'm like, "No, it's all violence. It's all violence." [laughs]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.
Kellie Carter Jackson: And I think of this because when we think about the 1830s or even the 1840s and especially the 1850s, this is a period that is rife with anti-abolitionist mob attacks in which Black schools are destroyed, Black businesses are destroyed, Black people are lynched. You have Black printing presses and even white printing presses that are destroyed. There are so many attacks against anyone who would try to promote the abolition of slavery. So Black people have always had a long, rich history of defending themselves, from the moment that they were enslaved in this country to defend not just their freedom, but the freedom of other Black people.
Kellie Carter Jackson: There's a long, rich heritage of not just what I call self-preservation or self-defense, but really sort of protective violence. This act of the Black community to protect not just themselves but kin, their community, strangers from slave catchers, from masters, from people that would seek to do them harm.
Kellie Carter Jackson: So William Lloyd Garrison was really seen as the head of the abolitionist movement. Oftentimes we credit William Lloyd Garrison with having this approach of moral suasion and nonviolence and turning the other cheek. And I say that if moral suasion is the house that William Lloyd Garrison built, Black people are merely renters. They're not invested completely. They are taking up these ideas because they have a friend in Garrison, because they find allyship in white abolitionists, but when push comes to shove, Black people shifted in their use of violence and their belief about how violence might be effective in overthrowing slavery. The way that they justified it was basically thinking about the institution of slavery itself. They would say things like, 'Well, if slavery was created by violence and sustained through violence, it only made sense that slavery would be abolished by violence."
Kellie Carter Jackson: One of those incidents is with the Christiana Resistance in 1851, in which William and Eliza Parker stand up against Edward Gorsuch, who was a slave owner and tries to retrieve his "property" that have run away to William Parker's house to receive refuge and shelter. And an altercation breaks out over who is going to relinquish this property. And both men are sort of saying "Over my dead body." And at the end of the day, that's exactly what you got: Edward Gorsuch as a dead body. He died at the hands of enslaved people who refused to give him their humanity. The abolitionist community is in full support of William Parker and his wife. Frederick Douglass houses William Parker in his home, and basically helps William Parker get out of Dodge to Canada until things can sort of cool on the case. He talks about not looking upon him as a murderer, but as a defender of liberty and justice.
Kellie Carter Jackson: There's another incident of Lewis Hayden, who kept two kegs of gunpowder inside his front door, so that whenever slave catchers came to his home looking for freedom seekers, Lewis Hayden would answer with a candlestick and sort of say, "You can leave in peace or you can leave in pieces," and then gesture to the two kegs of gunpowder. And no one was willing to call his bluff. I mean, he was serious about protecting Black men and women that came to him for refuge.
Kellie Carter Jackson: And there are other stories as well of just enslaved people who armed themselves, who stole their master's pistols or rifles or horses, or used whatever they could to get free, and then made good on the promise of defending themselves to the point of death. And so I think of John Anderson, who basically warned a slave catcher, "Hey, if you keep coming for me, I'm going to kill you." And the man keeps pursuing him and keeps pursuing him, and so John Anderson is telling this story before a mixed crowd and basically says, "Listen, he kept coming for me, so I killed him." And the audience erupts in applause and says, "You did right!" And they're, you know, saying, "Bravo!" And it just represents the shift that society had in how they perceived Black people who were trying to obtain their freedom. It was something incredible if you could cause violence to the very system that was violating you.
Kellie Carter Jackson: And so not only did they support it, but they also saw that kind of response as godly, as natural, but also as God ordained. And that's, I think, where we start to see the real shift in the 1850s, is that there's so much more support among the public for a violent response, because the South is so violent. These violent tensions erupt into what becomes a civil war. And even when the system of slavery is abolished, there are still attempts made by former slave holders to violently keep Black people tethered to the land, tethered to the plantation, tethered to that kind of backbreaking work with very little pay, if any pay at all. And we see as Black people start to progress politically speaking, gaining the vote and citizenship and elected offices, there's an intense backlash to that. And you see more and more instances of riots, of unrest of mass murders that take place all across the country.
Kellie Carter Jackson: I believe it was Robert Smalls, who is a Black elected official who does a study and finds that in maybe a 20- or 30-year period, about 47,000 Black people are killed. I mean, that just—those numbers are staggering to me, and those numbers are reflective of Black people who were trying to assert their freedom and better themselves and improve their lives. And they find themselves the target of the Klan and the target of white men and women who don't want to be equal with them.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Did that come as a surprise to northern Republicans, to Abraham Lincoln, that violence would follow the end of the hostilities?
Kellie Carter Jackson: There's a quote that I stumbled upon that Abraham Lincoln gave that I think is so powerful. And he's talking after the abolition of slavery, and he says quote, "In reference to you colored people, let me say God has made you free, although have you been deprived of your God-given rights by your so-called masters, you are now so free as I am. And if those that claim to be your superiors do not know that you are free, take the sword and the bayonet and tell them who you are. For God created all men, giving each of them the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It's just so powerful to me because Lincoln is the one saying, "First, let me say God made you free. Contrary to popular belief of me being The Great Emancipator." [laughs] And then he goes on to say, like, you know, "You enforce your freedom."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Score one for Abe.
Kellie Carter Jackson: [laughs] I know, right? I know. I mean, Lincoln's—you know, he's complicated, he's complicated.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Exactly.
Kellie Carter Jackson: But for that, you know, I appreciate his support of them using force and even violent force to maintain their freedom, their citizenship even.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. For that, we can tip the tall cap.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Yeah, we sure can.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But now Black folk on the ground, they didn't need to hear from Abe to embrace the idea that, hey, we're going to have to keep fighting for this. What are some examples from the Reconstruction, the post-Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow era, of Black people responding to the violence that is being used to oppress?
Kellie Carter Jackson: Well, I think that one, we have to remember that Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, they go home armed. You know, they don't turn in their weapons when they go back home. They keep those guns, they keep those bayonets to protect and to preserve the freedom that they just fought for. So Black people have had a long history of arms even before the Civil War. During the abolitionist movement they are forming these Black self-protection societies. They're Black communities and sometimes with white allies that come together to defend themselves. And those communities are still defending themselves after the Civil War and during Reconstruction, and even towards the turn of the 20th century because the riots and the mob attacks that are taking place, the white terrorism that's taking place is so rampant.
Kellie Carter Jackson: And I found some really just incredible examples of how Black people have really mobilized their community to protect one another. There's one in which a predominantly Black mob lynches a white man. First of all let me just say, when I read about this I was dumbfounded because every single lynching that you read about in the late 19th, early 20th century period is about a Black man, but in this case, in central South Carolina in 1887, a man by the name of Mance Waldrop was lynched by a predominantly Black mob because he had sexually assaulted and murdered a 13-year-old girl, Black girl, by the name of Lula Sherman. And the community was just not going to stand for that kind of assault, for that kind of egregious murder. And they were going to stand up for their daughters. And the black men come together, they find out where Waldrop is being held. And when the sheriff gets made aware of the fact that the Black community wants to seek revenge on him, they try to get him out of town. And on the way of getting him out of town, his buggy gets accosted by this group of Black men and they take him out to the woods and they lynch him.
Kellie Carter Jackson: What's incredible to me is two things. One, the fact that they're able to do this, but also the fact that after it's happened, you would think, "Oh, well all hell is gonna break loose. The whole Black community is now going to get, you know, destroyed." That doesn't happen. The men who were largely responsible for the lynching, they get acquitted. And one gets pardoned by the governor of South Carolina, under the rationale that, well, this is what white men do when they suspect Black men of committing similar crimes. So I guess, an eye for an eye, you know? And it's insane. This whole moment, this whole episode is insane. But I do think that in some ways, white people are put on notice, that don't think that Black people won't retaliate. Don't think that they won't respond to violence with violence. And I think it's a moment that is powerful. It's maybe not a moment that is predominant, you know, that happens over and over again, but I think we only need to see a few examples of Black people pushing back to at least sort of arrest or curb the violence that takes place in that specific location. So maybe not wholesale, but maybe for that town it starts to cool down a little bit, when white people realize that their lives are also at risk for this behavior.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What is developing in my mind as I hear you walk us through this history, is that protective violence, defensive violence is really ever present. Coming out of the institution of slavery and running through Reconstruction and the redemption period as a necessary tool in order to survive, I'm wondering, once we reach the early 20th century, we see these race wars, not just merely riots, but whites attempting to literally destroy Black communities. And of course, Red Summer, the summer of 1919, where blood flows in the streets of cities across the country. Do we see in those instances, an extension of that willingness of Black folk to defend themselves? Or is it just like, hey, we've got to duck and cover right now?
Kellie Carter Jackson: Oftentimes we only show one side of the story, which is we show Black communities being destroyed or we show Black people being terrorized, but we never show the resistance. Even in Tulsa, Black people were armed and they were fighting back. But the problem is that Black people are one, almost always outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered. You know, it's not a fair fight. It's never a fair fight. A lot of these riots—and really they're not riots, it's racial terrorism that's being enacted on Black communities. I think "riot" makes it a little superficial or chaotic, and it's not. Most of this violence is coordinated, it is planned, it is strategic. They know who they're targeting and why. Certain people that are lynched or whose businesses are destroyed, those are some of the most prosperous people, the wealthiest Black people who get targeted.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Oftentimes, we think about lynchings of Black people as a response to sexual assault and to rape. But Ida B. Wells has also talked about how, no, no, no, actually, most of these attacks are about economic competitiveness, about successful Black people, about Black landowners that have gotten too big or somehow become a threat to white supremacy. Tulsa, for example, or even St. Louis or Elaine, Arkansas, these are prosperous Black enclaves. Maybe not prosperous in the way that we think of white wealth, but certainly well-to-do Black communities that have to be on guard from these white mob attacks because their success is a threat to the social order.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Where do you think the notion that Black folk somehow have always defaulted to non-violence comes from?
Kellie Carter Jackson: White supremacy. [laughs]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.
Kellie Carter Jackson: I mean, I say that very carefully, but very seriously.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Let me just say this: I think there's legitimacy to nonviolence. I think there's a utility to nonviolence. But I also think that there are ways that people have used nonviolence to mute the protest of Black people, to curb their response to oppression. I think that sometimes we have these romanticized ideas about Black people sort of sacrificing their bodies or their lives or laying down, you know, on the altar of equality. And while that makes for a very romantic story, I just don't think that that fits with how Black people actually felt about the violence that they were facing at the time. Black people are fighting back. That is the standard. That is the norm.
Kellie Carter Jackson: And when we see non-violence, it's actually more of an anomaly. We've made the anomaly the only story. Author Chimamanda Adichie says that the single story can be very dangerous, because it shuts out other ideas and other responses that have been effective in combating white supremacy.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I think the trope of "All black folk are nonviolent, except the violent ones who are often in the wrong" does the political work of delegitimizing Black responses to white supremacy.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, we have a clear double standard when it comes to protests, especially violent or forceful protests in this country, in which white people from the Boston Tea Party can sort of like destroy property, you know, run amok, go crazy, go buck wild, can throw Molotov cocktails to bomb cities. We talk about this a lot on my own podcast about the sort of terroristic acts that white people have taken, especially if you think about Tulsa, Oklahoma, dropping bombs on Black communities. Or, if you want to take it to a contemporary standpoint and think of armed white men and women at the state capitol in Michigan, or January 6, even equally important, white people have used violence and force in ways that Black people could never do.
Kellie Carter Jackson: We can make some sort of exception or excuse or rationale for understanding white violence and the way that it plays out. Even if you think about football games. "Oh, they're just boys being boys. Oh, they're just happy their team won." Like, we really find ways to excuse that kind of behavior. And yet when Black people are doing things that are not even violent, we sort of lose our minds. And I think the perfect example of that is, like, Colin Kaepernick and taking a knee. You know, he's not setting the flag on fire, or tearing up the flag, or doing a middle finger to the flag. But we see his gesture of kneeling—a posture that's common with prayer or common with a proposal—as incredibly violent to our patriotism. And I think part of the problem in America is that we don't know how to deal with Black protest, whether it's violent or nonviolent. We don't know how to reconcile it because we're unwilling to do the work of relinquishing the power that suppresses Black people.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, you raised the example of Colin Kaepernick, and I think that's a great example of the ways in which whiteness will turn even Black nonviolence violent.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Mm-hmm. Yes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In their own mind, right? Come on, you understand what's happening, right? It's not violent. "No, that's violence right there." Oh, come on!
Kellie Carter Jackson: [laughs] And it's hard trying to have conversations with people, calm conversations, about the long history of athletes and protest. I mean, you can go back to the '68 Olympics, you can look at Wilma Rudolph. There are lots of athletes who have used their position and power to make a statement about something. And yeah, there's just an intense double standard about how violence gets used.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the excuses that we tell ourselves sometimes when we don't want to confront this history is that it's too difficult to talk about violence. And yet we will talk about the Civil War. We will teach World War I. We will teach Vietnam. We will teach the American Revolution. That's all we do. As you said at the top of the interview, all we're doing is talking about violence.
Kellie Carter Jackson: It's all our classes. [laughs]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Exactly. So it's not that we don't want to talk about it. We don't want to talk about this. We don't want to talk about and teach these specific instances, the ways in which violence is used to control, to oppress, to exploit, and the ways in which violence is sometimes used by necessity to push back.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Yes. I definitely think that the reason we sidestep violence is because if you have that deep conversation, then you have to talk about culpability. You have to talk about complicity. You have to talk about the ways that white supremacy has worked, has caused harm, and also has benefited and given advantage to white communities.
Kellie Carter Jackson: We don't mind talking about violence in terms of, like, war or something that we glorify, if we think it's for a good cause, or if we're talking about World War II and killing Nazis. We don't really have a problem talking about that. But when you start talking about violence that has caused harm that white people in some way have benefited from, then that's a different conversation. And now we're not talking about violence, now we're talking about power and who has it and who wields it.
Kellie Carter Jackson: And so I actually don't think that we are that uncomfortable with violence. I think we are incredibly uncomfortable with power. Because now I have to justify why I live where I live, I have what I have, why I do what I do. Now I have to explain things that we can dismiss if we're just talking about violence, because violence is bad. Does that make sense?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It does, it does. Violence as an assertion of power, trying to gain power, trying to retain power. And for Black folk, trying to seize power back, power over their own bodies, communities and culture.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Yeah. The instance that I talked about of the Black community that lynches the white man, they don't follow up and go into the white community and firebomb houses and set homes on fire and destroy white schools. It's not about destruction for destruction's sake, or "I'm gonna destroy you!" Like, that's not what their violence is about. And I almost kind of feel like we need another word to describe violence as a response to white people's violence or oppression. If you're using violence to arrest violence, I don't even know that that's violence, you know?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You're right. We don't have the language. We don't have the language for it. And it strikes me too that, when you look at this long history, one of the things that has always struck me with the actions of white people—speaking broadly and generally here—the actions of segregationists, the actions of enslavers or the like, there's always been this fear that if they relinquish their power, if somehow they shared the power to make decisions in society, that Black folk would treat white folk like white folk have treated Black folk.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Exactly. Exactly.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And if it's always been predicated on violence, then God forbid, right? "We can't let Black people be free because we know what we've done to them!"
Kellie Carter Jackson: But there's no precedent for that.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: None.
Kellie Carter Jackson: You've never heard of a Black person going into a white church and shooting up white parishioners. You've never heard of a Black person setting a bomb in a white church and killing four little white girls. You've never heard of white people going into a Black restaurant and having food thrown at them or drinks poured on top of them. You've never heard of that, because it just doesn't happen.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The Quentin Tarantino movie has never happened, right?
Kellie Carter Jackson: Yeah. [laughs]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Where black folk just unleash hell on white folk, right?
Kellie Carter Jackson: Never. Never
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So y'all can just chill. It ain't gonna happen. That's not what we're about. But if you've only understood power through violence, I truly believe that you can't think of another way.
Kellie Carter Jackson: No.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So there's this assumption that power exercised over you cannot be done in a democratic way, cannot be done in a way that is other than violent. And that, to me, serves then as this rationalization, this justification for refusing to share power equitably, for refusing to treat other people humanely.
Kellie Carter Jackson: It's capitalism, right? So a lot of my students, they can't think outside of capitalism because somebody's gotta be on the bottom. Somebody's gotta lose. Somebody's gotta do the work. [laughs] Somebody has to occupy these spaces, and they can't imagine a world that is not based on either scarcity or supremacy. But again, it's just difficult to have these conversations when we're not honest about the devastation of white supremacy.
Bethany Jay: Learning for Justice has a special opportunity just for educators. After listening to this episode, you can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/PodcastPD—PD for professional development. That's "PodcastPD," all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode: "resistance"—all lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. It's a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Are there primary sources that you would recommend teachers use to facilitate these discussions?
Kellie Carter Jackson: Sure, there's a primary source book that I like to use. It's edited by Quintard Taylor. It's called From Timbuktu to Katrina. And there's a volume one and a volume two. I predominantly use the first volume, but there are a lot of passages of either letters or speeches or eyewitness accounts that I think are really useful. And I think they're useful one, because they're short enough for students to read them and grapple with them, but also they just give so much information about how people understood the moments that they were living in.
Kellie Carter Jackson: So one example I use of Frederick Douglass, he is penning an op-ed in his own newspaper, The Douglass Monthly. The op-ed is "Men of Color, to Arms." And he is encouraging them to enlist in the army, to fight for freedom. He basically says, "This is our fight. This is our war. White people won't even respect us unless we stand up for ourselves." And he starts recruiting for the Massachusetts regiments, the 54th and the 55th all-Black regiments. But it's just such a wonderful way of seeing how Frederick Douglass uses his voice to galvanize Black men to fight, and to fight for their own freedom and the freedom of others if they themselves are free.
Kellie Carter Jackson: I also like to use—there's a great speech by Lucy Parsons called "I'm an Anarchist." And it's just really powerful, because she really takes the stigma away from thinking of anarchists as violence seeking, and people that just want to make bombs and throw them. And she's like, "No, we want equality. We want equal humanity. We want equal treatment under the law." And she starts to lay out everything that they want and that they're working for. And I think that we don't talk about, well, what do white people want? What are they trying to preserve? Oh, their own supremacy? Their own dominance? Well what do Black people want? Well, what are they fighting for? What are they using violence for? What's at the heart of it? Oh, they want their kids to go to school, or, oh, they want to be able to vote? These are things that I think she really teases out in that speech.
Kellie Carter Jackson: And then there's another one. Jack Treece, who's actually a teenager. And he talks about being attacked by three white men, and what he did to fight them off, even though he wasn't that successful.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Some of the sources that I really like to use a lot is the Black press, to use Black newspapers. I often think that we get in the practice of reading a lot of white publications, and oftentimes Black voices are just left out of those narratives completely—not just their voices, but their stories in totality are left out of the narrative. And there's a lot of really good databases that you can go to now that have been digitized with these Black newspapers so that you can get little clippings or snippets of them.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Oh, also, you know what I'm finding that's also really useful are political cartoons and illustrations. Sometimes advertisements can tell you a lot about the moment. And I know there are databases that have them too, where you can get a lot of the illustrations and the cartoons, especially in, like, the late 19th century. They're super racist, super minstrelsy, but also really useful in letting students understand how Black people were being depicted visually.
Kellie Carter Jackson: And then I would say memoirs are really useful. Sometimes though, you kind of have to tease out a biography and a memoir a little bit, because they can be very self-indulgent about how a certain person sees themselves. But I do think that they are useful. Frederick Douglass writes, like, three different narratives, so all of those are really, really helpful.
Kellie Carter Jackson: I also like using Harriet Jacobs because she's the first woman to write an enslaved narrative that I think is really good. I like looking at the work of Ida B. Wells, and the early publications that she has gives a lot of truth and light on what's happening in the moment. Mary Church Terrell would be good. Who is the other one I'm forgetting? Oh, what's her name? Anna Julia Cooper! That's another one. Robert Smalls also. He was a formerly enslaved person, later becomes an elected official. Has a lot to say about the moment in which he's living and which he's experienced.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we think about teaching this in the classroom, how do we avoid traumatizing students—and particularly students of color?
Kellie Carter Jackson: Well for one, I don't show a lot of images. And I just remember being in a classroom, and a fellow professor was talking about lynchings and he was showing a lot of images. And then he got lost in his point, and he just left the PowerPoint slide on this lynching as he went on to talk about other things. And I'm like, "You can't just leave that up there! You can't just leave that there and meander onto another point. You can't forget that it's up there." So I'm always careful about what I'm showing.
Kellie Carter Jackson: I also think that we have to show that Black people are fighting back. So one of the things I like to ask my students when we're talking about violence is, what is the appropriate response? How should oppressed people respond to their oppression? And what do you do when you don't have the vote? What do you do when you don't have citizenship? What do you do when you're not even really considered a human being? What is the appropriate or reasonable response?
Kellie Carter Jackson: I think that oftentimes when we think about slavery, it's very easy for us to come to the conclusion of violence because we see slavery as so violent. But I think having these conversations gets more difficult as we move into the 20th century, because we can say, "Well, Black people have citizenship, and Black people have the vote—kind of." So then how should they respond to their oppression or their exploitation or the violence that they experience? And even in the current moment that we live in right now, if we think about the Black Lives Matter movement, what is an appropriate response? Is kneeling at the flag too radical? Or is kneeling during a football game simply not enough? How do we come up with a strategy, a method that effectively brings about structural, sustainable change—not just symbolic, but real systemic change—that allows us to create the world or progress the world to something that we want to all live in and can all benefit from? These are not easy questions, but it's definitely worth getting students to grapple with these big ideas.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Why do you think we should study this history, and how does it help us make sense of the moment in which we live?
Kellie Carter Jackson: Mmm. You know, until I came to grips with my grandmother, and the fact that she kept a gun in her nightstand, this history, it had a political meaning for me, but not personal meaning. And that's when I realized that this is not far removed from us. You know, my grandmother doesn't feel far away from me. And if we don't have hard conversations about the whys and the hows, and even the wheres, the locality of it, we will find ourselves repeating these very same atrocities.
Kellie Carter Jackson: When I think about what happened on January 6 and how violent that was, I realized that when I looked at that mob, and I looked at these people who were storming the Capitol with Confederate flags, with relics of the past to explain their own political grievances, it just made me want to double down even more on getting the message out to students, and really anyone that'll hear it on why this matters. Because if we don't get this, if we don't get why violence propels us from moment to movement, from war to war, we're just going to keep going along on this, like, treadmill. And I'm tired of feeling like movements, we get all this momentum and hype around it, but we don't really go anywhere. I want to go somewhere.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. I like that. So we've been talking a lot about violence, and African Americans as the victims of violence, but then also African Americans having to resort to violence to preserve their lives, to preserve their families and communities and the like. My experience in the classroom is that we can't just talk about the hardships and the horrors, we also have to talk about the ways in which African Americans were able to maintain their humanity through love, through joy, through friendship.
Kellie Carter Jackson: You know, I stumbled upon this quote by Zora Neale Hurston, and she's saying this in 1928. She says, "I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood, who hold that nature somehow is giving them a low down dirty deal, and whose feelings are all about it. No, I do not weep at the world. I'm too busy sharpening my oyster knife."
Kellie Carter Jackson: And when I read that, I was like, "Oh my gosh, I love it!" [laughs]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: [laughs]
Kellie Carter Jackson: And I love it because she's like, white supremacy is not the totality of who I am or who I want to be, or where I'm going. I have other things to do. It kind of goes along the veins of Toni Morrison where she talks about racism being a distraction, distracting you from the things that you want to do. That you're constantly having to prove these myths to be a lie. And what would the world look like if we could just be and exist without having to combat a myth or a lie or violence or domination or exploitation?
Kellie Carter Jackson: I try to get my students to think outside of this lens of violence and domination and subordination, to get people to think about Blackness in ways that are void of whiteness. [laughs] And I think it's important because sometimes we get so caught up in thinking about racism that we don't understand the Black identity outside of whiteness, that we use so much of whiteness to explain Blackness. And so a lot of my syllabus has actually been about changing some of the things that we read to include things that don't really have anything to do with white people. [laughs]
Kellie Carter Jackson: And that's not as a way of trying to throw away white people or not have those discussions, but I want my students to understand, like, what does it mean to be Black? To think about a certain aspect or exercise or a recipe or a dance or a song or a poem, or just a simple experience, doing hair or sharing a meal, that just promotes fellowship and joy and laughter and kinship. I want my students to have a balanced understanding of blackness that doesn't just operate from a place of terrorism.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson, thank you so much for this conversation.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Thank you.
Bethany Jay: Kellie Carter Jackson is an associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. She is the author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, and the co-host of the Radiotopia podcast This Day In Esoteric Political History. Dr. Carter Jackson is also the Historian in Residence at the Museum of African-American History in Boston.
Bethany Jay: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Bethany Jay: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow Era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight—examining its history and lasting impact.
Bethany Jay: Thanks to Drs. Williams and Carter Jackson for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.
Bethany Jay: If you like what you've heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Bethany Jay: I'm Dr. Bethany Jay, professor of history at Salem State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
- NPR, Bubba Wallace makes history with his win in Talladega
- The Washington Post, Former Ole Miss student sentenced to six months for putting noose around statue
- Kidada Williams, Heard & Seen
- Kidada Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I
- Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror
- Sacramento Daily Union (24 April 1899), Negro Burned at Stake
- Sacramento Daily Union (19 May 1922), Negro, Fifteen, Is Burned at Stake
- The Atlanta Constitution (20 May 1922), Charlie Atkins Lynching
- NAACP, Correspondence between Gainer Atkins and Walter-White (PDF)
- BackStory with the American History Guys, Reflecting on Darkness (podcast guest: Kidada Williams)
- Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America
- National Museum of African American History and Culture, I Met A Little Blue-Eyed Girl (Bertha Johnston)
- The New York Times, The Chicago Defender, Legendary Black Newspaper, Prints Last Copy
- Library of Congress: Chronicling America, The Washington Bee
- Library of Congress: Chronicling America, Richmond Planet
- Maryland State Archives, Baltimore African American newspaper
- MoMA, Charles White: A Retrospective
- MoMA, Charles White. Hope for the Future. 1945
- New York Times (July 10, 1903), The Fourth of July and Race Outrages (Paul Laurence Dunbar)
- Richard Wright, The Ethics of Living Jim Crow
- Equal Justice Initiative, Public Education
- Equal Justice Initiative, Lynchings and Racial Violence during Reconstruction (video)
- Equal Justice Initiative, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration
- Equal Justice Initiative, National Memorial for Peace and Justice
- Equal Justice Initiative, Community Historical Marker Project
- Washington Post, Jan. 6 insurrection: The Washington Post’s investigation of the causes, cost and aftermath
- South Carolina Public Radio, One Year On: Charleston and Mother Emanuel A. M. E. Church
- Department of Justice. Justice Department Announces Multi-Million Dollar Civil Settlement in Principle in Mother Emanuel Charleston Church Mass Shooting
- Kidada Williams, African American and American History, Wayne State University
- Kidada Williams, I Saw Death Coming: Liberation, Trauma, and the Tragedy of Reconstruction
- Vermont Public Media, Seizing Freedom (podcast)
- Kellie Carter Jackson, Historian, Author, Educator, Speaker
- The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Agitator: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolitionists
- Mental Floss, The 1851 Christiana Resistance
- BlackPast, William Parker
- City of Boston, Boston’s own Underground Railroad conductors: Harriet and Lewis Hayden
- Historicist, "Not a Murderer but a Hero" (John Anderson)
- Smithsonian Magazine, Terrorized African-Americans Found Their Champion in Civil War Hero Robert Smalls
- Mr. Lincoln and Freedom, Entering Richmond
- American Nineteenth Century History (Vol. 6, No. 3, 09.2005), Lynch Law Reversed: The Rape of Lula Sherman, the Lynching of Manse Waldrop, and the Debate Over Lynching in the 1880s
- National Geographic. Remembering ‘Red Summer,’ when white mobs massacred Blacks from Tulsa to D.C.
- New York Times, What the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed
- Bill of Rights Institute, Ida B. Wells and the Campaign against Lynching
- Smithsonian Magazine, The East St. Louis Race Riot Left Dozens Dead, Devastating a Community on the Rise
- Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Elaine Massacre of 1919
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, About Chimamanda
- National Women's History Museum, Wilma Rudolph
- The New Yorker, “Django Unchained”: Put-On, Revenge, and the Aesthetics of Trash
- Dr. Quintard Taylor, Jr., From Timbuktu to Katrina: Sources in African-American History, Volume 1
- Dr. Quintard Taylor, Jr., From Timbuktu to Katrina: Sources in African-American History, Volume 2
- New York Heritage, Douglass Monthly
- Frederick Douglass, Men of Color, To Arms!
- BlackPast, (1886) Lucy Parsons, "I am An Anarchist"
- Learning for Justice, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs)
- National Women's History Museum, Mary Church Terrell
- National Park Service, Dr. Anna Julia Cooper (1859-1964)
- PBS The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Robert Smalls, from Escaped Slave to House of Representatives
- Zora Neale Hurston, How It Feels To Be Colored Me
- Array Now, Toni Morrison on Black Artists
- The Atlantic, Racism Is Terrible. Blackness Is Not.
- Kellie Carter Jackson, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence
- Kellie Carter Jackson (podcast co-host), This Day In Esoteric Political History.
- Kellie Carter Jackson, Africana Studies, Wellesley College
- Museum of African American History, Educational Programs