A Conversation with Historians about Racial Injustice

As part of an ongoing series, Columbia scholars Christopher L. Brown, Eric Foner, Stephanie McCurry, and Bailey Yellen, discuss the Black Lives Matter movement.

Emma Sheinbaum
July 31, 2020

On July 29, 2020, the Columbia University Department of History aired the second installment in the new monthly panel series In Conversation with Historians. Co-sponsored by the Committee on Inclusion & Diversity and organized by Saeeda Islam (Faculty Affairs Coordinator) and Emma Sheinbaum (Communications & Development Coordinator in the History Department), “In Conversation with Historians: Black Lives Matter, Part Two” featured some of the History Department’s faculty and doctoral students to discuss historical and current racial injustice issues, institutional anti-Blackness, the Black resistance, white supremacy throughout history and other related topics.

The intention of this series is to address why history matters and why understanding history intersectionally is crucial to processing and participating in today’s movement. It is vital for the History Department to speak on issues affecting our community by engaging with each other. The panel included scholars from varying backgrounds and research areas within the History Department: Professor Christopher L. Brown, Professor Stephanie McCurry, Professor Emeritus Eric Foner, and Bailey Yellen.

 The discussion opened with the following question: How does an issue or question become a public issue and a basis for political change?

Emancipation, Global Abolition and Public Issues

History Professor Brown, who specializes in the history of eighteenth-century Britain, the early modern British Empire and the comparative history of slavery and abolition, emphasized the importance of a galvanizing incident, committed action and ties with existing historical fractures in society. He drew resonances between the Transatlantic slave trade resistance and today’s BLM movement against police brutality and the prison-industrial complex; these elements contribute to today’s sense of urgency we see about issues that were always there.

What are some things that shift the landscape toward change? Brown said that it is “committed activists who want to see change; a galvanizing incident for an experience that has a way of crystallizing the issue so people can’t just miss it, [that] confronts them with what they’ve been looking at for a while but found ways to ignore, apologize for, and dismiss. And something easier to miss but maybe the most important, the kind of insecurities, fractures and unhappiness in a culture where there is a sense that things are in a very deep sense not far. That the nation or the culture or society is on a track that is not acceptable to a large swath of the public.”

Brown also noted that the murder of George Floyd, the pandemic and the shortcomings of the federal government have cultivated a sense of urgency. We are in a moment, he said, where large amounts of people are realizing we can’t be complacent anymore.

Full Video of the Panel Two

Reconstruction Era’s Impact, Democrat and Republican Parties and the New Jim Crow

Professor Emeritus of History Eric Foner specializes in the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery and 19th-century America. In the discussion, he explored the ways in which the “unresolved legacy of Reconstruction remains a part of our lives” socially, politically, economically and beyond.

Foner walked the audience through the evolution of how the original political parties have shifted ideologies from emancipation through today; this addressed the misconceptions that today’s Democrats and Republicans stances have always been static when in fact their ideologies were inverse up until the civil rights era, citing numerous particular key points that marked the shift. He also discussed the ways in which the New Jim Crow South’s ideology, including historical revisionism and how the experiences of Black people in the United States were misrepresented, which has pervasive and damaging repercussions to this day.

 White Backlash and White Supremacy

History Professor Stephanie McCurry specializes in the American Civil War and Reconstruction, the nineteenth century United States, the American South, the history of women and gender, the study of Confederate Monuments and memory, and Slavery and its Legacy in the United States. She outlined how much was required to strip away the institution of slavery and the fierce backlash from white people, particularly in the South.

“Even the recognition that Black people no longer belong to white people and white people do not hold the right to discipline them,” McCurry said, is distinct from political emancipation. A freed Black person may have the right to leave their former slave owner on paper, but she drew attention to the violence that awaits claiming and acting on that freedom.

The “organized white supremacy movement shaped the conditions of Black freedom in those first years of Reconstruction and we are still in this world,” she said, adding that even Northern democrats participated in this brutal violence.

“No matter what the law said, you had to enforce it. The danger of that human being insisting on those rights exists. Democracy has to be able to survive the violence and so many times it doesn’t, we backtrack,” said McCurry, who also emphasized the importance of studying institutional racism throughout history to understand the script of violence the United States government still adheres to today.

 Black Resistance Throughout History

Bailey Yellen is a doctoral student of History at Columbia University who studies slavery, the transatlantic antislavery movement and emancipation. Yellen’s research includes black resistance in the Atlantic World and the circulation of abolitionist literature between the United States and the British Empire during the 19th century.

“Black actors have taken on really public leadership positions as well as being driving forces of the movements behind the scenes,” she said, “When thinking about the transatlantic slave trade, it’s important to note that anti-slavery sentiment existed before the movement coalesced.”

Yellen covered the Black resistance and the centrality of Black activism throughout history. “The current BLM is honoring this history by describing itself as a movement founded by and led by Black activists.”

She also stressed that both then and now, “there is a certain amount of danger associated with their activism for Black lives. The danger is very real and can have devastating effects on individuals and their communities.” To be able to live freely without threat of violence is still in contention, she said. Although lynching has not gone away, “It’s important to note that the practices and forms have changed. During Reconstruction and Jim Crow, lynching was oftentimes a public event that was well-documented... and now lynchings are much more shrouded in secrecy, which I think makes it easier for law enforcement and casual observers to not call it that, to say this is a suicide or not to see it as part of a larger pattern.”

With this history in mind, Yellen asked: “How do we prepare for the inevitable backlash and how do we protect the gains that have been made by the BLM movement and that will continue to be made?”

The panelists collaboratively answered the final question submitted by the public: “Could any of you speak to the comments made by Tom Cotton about the Founders’ perception of slavery as a ‘necessary evil’ and perhaps to what extent that belief, if true, held out beyond abolition?”

The panelists highlighted how Cotton’s rhetoric was ultimately pro-slavery and revisionist, and indicated while slavery was certainly the nation’s foundation, just as the 1619 also argues, Cotton justified its inhumanity and evils by calling it necessary.