MLK lecture features award-winning journalist

Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Nikole-Hannah Jones was joined by Pearl Alexander, Archie Ervin and President Ángel Cabrera on Jan. 14, 2021 for a virtual talk. // Photo by Madhura Gangal via BlueJeans Events

On Thursday, Jan. 14, Tech hosted the 10th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture, this year featuring Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a staff writer for The New York Times, as well as the creator of “The 1619 Project”, which she said was what her work, her career and her academic trajectory had all culminated in.

The event was sponsored by Institute Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (IDEI) and the Division of Student Life as a part of Tech’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

It began with a brief introduction by Archie Ervin, vice president of IDEI, who introduced the guest speaker Hannah-Jones, as well as Pearl Alexander, executive director of Staff Diversity, Inclusion, and Engagement.

Afterwards, a conversation unfolded about Hannah-Jones’ career, her coverage of racial injustice and “The 1619 Project.”

Hannah-Jones started off by describing how the project came to be and what it meant to her.

“I had been thinking about it for a few years since I was in high school … I have really spent a lot of my career trying to show that the legacy of slavery and anti-blackness shapes so much of the institutions we see in this country,” Hannah-Jones said.

The project relates the past to the present in a multitude of ways.

“I wanted to show that nothing about modern American life, or very little, anyway, has been left untouched by the legacy of slavery, and that’s really what this … project was aimed to do,” Hannah-Jones said.

She explained that both the project and her podcast, related to her project, were meant to point out how fragile democracy is. Additionally, it points out how American democracy is a lot younger than is commonly believed.

“What the project does … is it takes all of the areas of American life, which are really some of the ‘pinnacles’ of American life … and it actually shows how they are linked to slavery,” said Hannah-Jones.

She further expounded upon the rationale behind her project.

“I think … what’s important is to explicate, what is the role of popular history or national history that we’re taught?” Hannah-Jones said. “It’s not actually just to tell us what happened, it’s to make us think about our country and ourselves in a very particular way. And, therefore, facts that service that narrative are lifted up, and facts that detract from that narrative are either played down or rendered invisible altogether.”

Hannah-Jones emphasizes the importance of who is telling stories.

“What we showed with The 1619 [project] is the power of narrative,” Hannah-Jones said. “It’s the power of who gets to tell the stories in this country, and who shapes our perception.”

When asked by Alexander what her response to some of the criticism garnered by her project was, Hannah-Jones pointed out that some of the criticism was legitimate, but she explained some criticism some of it was illegitimate and political.

She mentioned that given the size of the project as well as the nature of creating in general, she had to be open to the fact that not everything in it was perfect, and that there were arguments she could have made stronger, or in hindsight, would have made differently.

Towards the end of the lecture, she answered some questions sent in by those in the audience.

Hannah-Jones advised students and educators to be active in learning the parts of history that might not have otherwise been taught to them.

President Ángel Cabrera then offered his closing remarks.

“As much as historians can work on telling us the facts, sometimes it takes … a storyteller to reframe those facts, to tell the story in a different way that helps us connect the dots… I think that your contribution is really, really important,” Cabrera said.

Archie Ervin shared some of his thoughts on moving forward.

“Martin Luther King once said, ‘The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’” said Ervin. “My professional work has been around building capacity for inclusion, and that involves many disciplines … I am optimistic that we have the capability to evolve. I’m not saying that it’s easy, or it will be easy, but I am ever, ever, hopeful.”