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On MLK Day, A Harvard Historian Connects Slavery To Today

A portrait of Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed
Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture
Annette Gordon-Reed will serve as the keynote speaker for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture's annual MLK Day Symposium.

Annette Gordon-Reed is one of the foremost scholars on race and American history working today — and Monday she’ll be the keynote speaker for the Dallas Institute’s 16th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium.

Gordon-Reed is a history professor at Harvard and a professor of legal history at Harvard Law School. She’s also the author of six books, including 2009’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family — which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. It looks into the family’s connection with Thomas Jefferson and how the Hemingses were essentially written out of the history books until recently.

In 2018, she spoke with Krys Boyd on Think more broadly about American slavery and its lasting legacy. Here are some highlights of that conversation:

…On the founding fathers:

“Remember, many of the people who were considered liberals for their time, Jefferson, Madison, these people didn’t think that African Americans could live in the United States in a multi-racial union with whites.”

…On racial inequality:

“It’s not enough to have emancipation. … A culture had grown up around this notion of Black inferiority and it’s one we’re still grappling with today. … Racism is not limited to the south. This is a feature of American life.”

…On race and the law:

“You cannot legislate morality. You can change the law. And constitutive law shapes society and society shapes law.”

…On the future:

“You can’t change history. It’s good to know it, but you have to use it as a basis for going forward. There’s no magic formula to this other than a belief that we are a country and we are going to go forward. And the best way to do that is to have the kind of unity that allows that. It doesn’t mean we’re the all the same or believe all the same things, but we have the best interest of the country at heart.”

Madison Hurd is an intern with KERA's Think.

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Madison Hurd is a graduate student at the University of North Texas