‘Fight for it:’ Nikole Hannah-Jones on abolition, reparations, and building a more just future

Journalist Hannah-Jones delivered the 22nd annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture in Social Justice in conversation with Sarah Jackson of the Annenberg School for Communication.

Hannah-Jones hands a "The 1619 Project" book to a lecture attendee
Nikole Hannah-Jones signed books and greeted audience members after the lecture. (Image: Eddy Marenco)

At 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 25, Zellerbach Theater’s audience seating was packed to capacity as the Penn community gathered for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture in Social Justice to hear Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the 1619 Project, in conversation with Sarah J. Jackson. But the stage itself, decorated like a living room, with an area rug, side tables, and two black leather chairs bookended by fiddle-leaf figs and parlor palms, was silent.

The event opened with audio from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Images from the Black struggle for equality glowed as projections on a screen: Rosa Parks’ mugshot. Black men carrying signs reading “I am a man.” A man with a rifle posing beside a billboard urging voters to “Pull the lever for the Black Panthers.” A portrait of Frederick Douglass. A lunch counter sit-in. A button that read, “We shall overcome.”

King’s booming voice resonated in the theater. “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he said. “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

But the stage was stark, empty. Just one day after delivering that speech at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in support of 1,300 striking sanitation workers, King himself was struck down outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. That was April 4, 1968.

This spring will mark the 55th anniversary of King’s death. And yet, all MLK celebrations are centered on his January birth, to mark not his untimely murder, but his life and work.

For the last 22 years, one of the ways Penn has honored King’s life and work is with the Lecture in Social Justice, which is co-hosted by the Center for Africana Studies and the Annenberg School for Communication.

Beth Winkelstein, interim provost, and faculty member Camille Z. Charles stepped out to introduce Nikole Hannah-Jones and Jackson, the Presidential Associate Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and co-director of the Media, Inequality & Change Center.

“Dr. King knew that ours is a remarkable yet deeply flawed nation,” Winkelstein said. “And Ms. Hannah-Jones would surely note that its founding blueprint was drawn up not in 1776, but in 1619. We’ve been structurally unsound ever since. Despite the challenges or perhaps because of them, we remain not only hopeful, but confident in our ability to make the world a better, more equitable place.”

Hannah-Jones is a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, and the Knight Chair of Race and Journalism at Howard University. She won the Pulitzer Prize for the 1619 Project, initially a magazine feature, now a book, curriculum, podcast, and a documentary. The magazine’s publication date—August 2019—marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colony of Virginia. The work’s stated aim is to “reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.”

Sarah J. Jackson and Nikole Hannah-Jones at the 2023 MLK Lecture in social justice
“You can’t get a colorblind society until you’ve addressed all of the effects of a race-specific society,” said Nikole Hannah-Jones in conversation with Sarah J. Jackson. “What the 1619 Project is trying to do is to really complexify and subvert these myths about America.” (Image: Eddy Marenco)

To begin her conversation with Hannah-Jones, Jackson noted that Jan. 26 marked the premier of the 1619 Project as a docuseries on the streaming service Hulu. Jackson asked the reporter about translating long-form essays for documentary film.

In February 2019, Hannah-Jones pitched the idea of the 1619 Project to the New York Times Magazine, she said. The article went to press the following August. It was a compressed timeline, she said, and writing a book and creating the subsequent documentary allowed her to add essays and respond to critiques.

A frequent response to her article was, “If this were true, I would have heard of this before,” she said. The book and documentary allowed her to lay out her sources and present other voices corroborating her research, she said. “The difference between a magazine article and a book is you can provide endnotes.”

Jackson asked Hannah-Jones to reflect on how the arguments made in the 1619 Project connect to King’s goals around economic equality.

“Legal equality is only going to go so far,” Hannah-Jones said. “You have to deal with the material economic disadvantage that most Black Americans—no matter where they live in the country—were dealing with.”

In response to economic realities, King “began to really sharpen his critique,” she said. “And of course, that’s when he begins to lose the white, liberal, northern support in places like Philadelphia, where they were fine as long as the Civil Rights Movement was about making the South behave. They were unwilling to look at the hyper-segregation of Black people in northern cities and neighborhoods and schools, and certainly not the economic disadvantage that black Americans were facing.

“Realize: you can’t get a colorblind society until you’ve addressed all of the effects of a race-specific society,” Hannah-Jones said. “What the 1619 Project is trying to do is to really complexify and subvert these myths about America.”

Jackson and Hannah-Jones discussed racial apartheid and the need for a new abolition movement. “We begin to use the carceral system to replicate (as close as possible) the institution of slavery” right after slavery is abolished, Hannah-Jones said. “We can’t enslave 95% of Black people, but we can lop enough of them off in this system,” she said. “There is a continuity, and the continuity is that we, as a people, are seen as a problematic people who need to be resolved and who need to be fixed. And who, hopefully, will just go away.”

Jackson raised the topic of reparations and Hannah-Jones’ essay “What is Owed,” published on June 24, 2020 in the New York Times Magazine.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, “all these institutions were looking to capitalize on the moment,” Hannah-Jones said. She realized that “our ask has to be far bigger than a bunch of private corporations doing diversity initiatives.

“If y’all really, really think it’s time for reckoning, we need to deal with the original issue of why Black Americans are suffering,” she said. “We’re suffering for a lot of reasons. But I’d rather suffer with money than without it.”

Slavery was an economic institution, Hannah-Jones said. “We are taught to think about slavery as a racist institution, as if the reason that we went to war was just [that] white people in the South are particularly racist, or the reason that you transport 13 million human beings across the Atlantic in the largest forced migration in human history was just to be racist.

“No. There was profit to be made. That is what drove the system, is extracting wealth from Black bodies and redistributing that wealth to white institutions and white people,” Hannah-Jones said.

Reparations is a legitimate political issue, she said, and she “wanted to use that moment” of the summer of 2020 to make that argument, she said. Other activists have raised the argument before her, she noted, but “it hits different in the New York Times.

Hannah-Jones got into journalism because she wanted to write about Black people. “It has always been impossible for me to divorce the work from the personal,” she said.

In reply to a question from Jackson about the experience working as a Black woman in the journalism industry, Hannah-Jones said, “People in our industry, they like to have phenotypical diversity. They want to be able to check off, okay, we got a Latino guy, gay person, got a Black person … But then, in your report, they want you to be white and straight. Right? They want you to write from what they think is a universal lens, but of course is not, in fact, the universal lens.”

In an earlier position at The Oregonian, Hannah-Jones was told that “the fact that I wanted to write about Black people was a problem,” she said, “a sign of my bias.”

“I was told, you know, if I wanted to be successful and ascend in my career, I had to learn to write about other things,” she said. As an investigative reporter, she decided to look at the data. She printed out every single story she had written and separated into a pile every story that included a Black person, even if the story wasn’t about race, she said. “And it was 10% of my stories. Ten percent was too much for them.”

“So, I took my little stack into the office, and I said, ‘Okay, these are all the stories I’ve written about Black people.’” She set her 10% down on the table. Then she set down the other 90%. “These are the rest of my stories,” Hannah-Jones said. “So, why don’t you write down … what the problem is and also tell me how many white reporters you’ve had a conversation with about how many white stories they’re writing.”

Hannah-Jones with a stack of 1619 Project books
Hannah-Jones’ work has been turned from an article into a book, school curriculum, and now a docuseries. (Image: Eddy Marenco)

When Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “the Blackest thing I ever did,” she said “it was one of those divine moments.”

“Y’all have to know my petty side,” she said. But “on any given day, most newsrooms don’t reflect America,” Hannah-Jones said. “Look at the newspaper. Does it reflect community, or does it reflect power?”

Jackson asked Hannah-Jones about refusing a job offer from the University of North Carolina (UNC). “That was a top-five petty moment for me,” Hannah-Jones said. After backlash following UNC’s announcement that Hannah-Jones would join the faculty at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the Board of Trustees took no action to approve Hannah-Jones’ application for tenure. Instead, UNC offered her a five-year contract with tenure review, to which Hannah-Jones agreed, she said.

“But they weren’t satisfied with that,” Hannah-Jones said. “So, they leaked a story saying the board didn’t vote on my tenure, but they hired me anyway.” The response from American academia was outrage.

Hannah-Jones was able to force a vote (she was ultimately given an offer that included tenure in June 2021), but at that point, she had decided to reject the offer in favor of teaching at an HBCU.

“I just wanted to send the message that, no longer do we need to be in a position where we do every single thing you tell us to do,” Hannah-Jones said. “We get every accolade, we check off every box, and then you just change the rules on us at the end. And then when you're forced to do right by us, we’re so happy to get the crumbs that we take the crumbs. Like, I’m overtaking the crumbs.”

Hannah-Jones accepted an offer from Howard University and has since raised almost $25 million to found the Center for Journalism & Democracy, Jackson said.

Jackson fielded questions from the audience. “What do we do, even when we’re weary, to be intentional and acts that are sustainable for ourselves and for our people, our community?” one person asked.

“We are here to commemorate Dr. King, right?” Hannah-Jones said. “And he said, he doesn’t know if he’ll reach the promised land, right? ‘I might not be there with you.’ But I know whether or not we do, we owe it to our ancestors to fight for it.”

“So, I never wake up and say, “How am I gonna keep going? I don’t have a choice,” Hannah-Jones said. “We may not ever see the world that we’re trying to build, but … we all better fight for it.”