Nikole Hannah-Jones brings King’s words to the forefront as 2022 MLK Symposium Keynote

The Q+A was moderated by The Black Voice Social Media Coordinator Tamia Fowlkes

Two and a half years ago, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project took the country by storm and landed her a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, but also unrelenting criticism from the American right. 

Hannah-Jones was the keynote speaker of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s MLK Day Symposium Tuesday, presented by the Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement and Student Affairs. Hannah-Jones is an award-winning journalist, the co-founder of The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Journalism and is the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones says that the majority of Americans disapproved of King during his lifetime at the 2022 MLK Symposium. Photo courtesy of Robin Robinson / The Black Voice.

In November 2021 Hannah-Jones authored “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” a book that expands on the essays and poems included in the 1619 Project.

Last week, Hannah-Jones was set to give an MLK Day address sponsored by the Union League Club of Chicago but was criticized by some members because they felt her work did not align with what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed. During that speech, she surprised the audience by reading quotes from some of his lesser-known speeches and passing them off as her own to show just how radical King was.

“The lesson that I was trying to impart was that most of us actually have no idea who Dr. King was, that our image of him has been strategically curated, often in service of those who are opposed to the things that he actually fought for,” Hannah-Jones said in an interview with UW-Madison student media before the keynote speech.

In her speech at the MLK Symposium, Hannah-Jones read selections from King’s less-popular speeches such as “The Birth of a New Age,” because she said King’s direct words aren’t reflected enough in events where he is commemorated. 

Hannah-Jones said education on King has been whitewashed, and in reality, he was “not so kumbaya” as most were taught to believe. At the time of his death, most Americans held an unfavorable view of King.  

Hannah-Jones also said that the backlash King faced from the American public in the 1960s mirrors the racist backlash to the Obama presidency and Black Lives Matter movement today. 

“The same states that are passing anti-critical race theory laws are also passing voter suppression laws,” Hannah-Jones said. 

Paris Wicker, a doctoral student in the School of Education, listened to the speech in Shannon Hall and said she felt encouraged after listening to Hannah-Jones speak. 

“It was just really important for me to come in and see how she maintains, how she continues to keep going in the face of all this adversity,” Wicker said. “Because it’s a moral obligation for us to be able to tell the truth.” 

Kacie Lucchini Butcher is the director of the UW-Madison Public History Project and history professor. In her History 401 class, she uses The 1619 Project as a case study. 

“I think the 1619 Project has exposed an important thing to the public — history is never static or fixed. History and historical interpretation are always changing based on archival materials, based on changing approaches to the study of the past, based on our cultural perspectives and values,” Lucchini Butcher said. 

According to Lucchini Butcher, King made speeches at UW-Madison in 1962 at the Wisconsin Union Theater and in 1965 at the Stock Pavilion. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones meets with UW-Madison student journalists before delivering the 2022 MLK Symposium keynote speech on January 25. Photo courtesy of Robin Robinson / The Black Voice.

In the student media interview, Hannah-Jones discussed the importance of widening the lens to understand America’s history and explained how when reading historical texts you often get one perspective and one person’s interpretation. 

At Howard University, Hannah-Jones teaches a class built around the 1619 Project, where she said she assigned her students to write a paragraph of what they believed the Declaration of Independence was, and then compared it to the actual document. 

“How we perceive things is shaped, and if you allow someone to just give you their interpretation of a document or a paragraph from a document … then you’re allowing other people to shape what the reality of that document is,” Hannah-Jones said.

Because Hannah-Jones is calling for change, people assume she wants history to be rewritten, but she says that this is far from the case. 

“You can’t really rewrite history, what happened happened,” Hannah-Jones said. “What you can do is refocus which parts of our history we’re paying attention to and whose narratives we’re uplifting, and you could try to get to a more honest understanding of history.”

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