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Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones urges Texans to get organized, learn from history


Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones urges Texans to get organized, learn from history

Sep 23, 2023 | 6:13 pm ET
By Pooja Salhotra
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones urges Texans to get organized, learn from history
University of Texas at Austin journalism professor Kathleen McElroy speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones about confronting racial injustice at The Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday in Austin. (Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune)

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Listen to the full audio of our One on One with Nikole Hannah-Jones at TribFest 2023

Nikole Hannah-Jones, an acclaimed journalist best known for creating “The 1619 Project,” urged Texans to study history to prevent the erosion of democracy.

Conducting the interview Saturday was Kathleen O. McElroy, an acclaimed journalist whose botched hiring at Texas A&M University closely mirrors Hannah-Jones’ denial of tenure at the University of North Carolina.

McElroy was hired to launch a new journalism program at Texas A&M, her alma mater, but the offer was watered down after the university faced pushback from conservative groups who objected to McElroy’s previous advocacy for diversity and inclusion in newsrooms. McElroy, a former New York Times editor, rescinded her acceptance and settled with the university for $1 million.

Hannah-Jones was similarly denied a tenure position at the University of North Carolina last year after her appointment drew criticism from conservatives who disputed “The 1619 Project,” a New York Times Magazine essay published in August 2019 that reexamined slavery and has since been adapted to a book, podcast and television series. Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill in 2021 banning the teaching of “The 1619 Project” in Texas public schools.

Hannah-Jones acknowledged and lamented her and McElroy’s shared experience in academic institutions at St. David’s Episcopal Church for The Texas Tribune Festival session. She said it did not paint a good picture on the “state of higher education.”

“We both are representing what happens to so many black and brown women in the academy or no matter what your job is,” Hannah-Jones said. “You do everything they tell you you’re supposed to do, you do everything quote unquote ‘right,’ you follow the rules, you seem to excel, and then in the end they just pull the rug out and change the rules on you.”

Hannah-Jones said she used that moment – the kerfuffle at UNC – to do something not just for herself, but to make a point.

Hannah-Jones serves as a tenured professor at Howard University, a historically black research university in Washington, D.C, where she established the Center for Journalism and Democracy. The center is focused on promoting “historically-informed, pro-democracy” journalism, Hannah-Jones said, and is committed to providing resources to journalism students at historically Black colleges and universities.

Hannah-Jones, who majored in history, said that contrary to popular belief, democracy has only existed in the United States since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. She then warned that the future of democracy hinges upon the continued activism of the next generation.

“We are seeing a societal erosion I have not seen in my lifetime,” Hannah-Jones said. “This is an incredibly demoralizing time. We don’t have the luxury of not fighting.”

The journalist called out Texas, where the governor has banned the teaching of so-called critical race theory and more recently dismantled diversity, equity and inclusion offices in public higher education institutions. Texas school districts have also banned more books than any other state. Those decisions, along with the recent closure of school libraries in the Houston Independent School District, are ones Hannah-Jones says the public should be challenging more forcefully.

“To allow the governor to close libraries and y’all aren’t out there protesting every day is a disgrace,” Hannah-Jones said. “Go out there and fight for those kids.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University and New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

As The Texas Tribune's signature event of the year, The Texas Tribune Festival brings Texans closer to politics, policy and the day’s news from Texas and beyond. Browse on-demand recordings and catch up on the biggest headlines from Festival events at the Tribune’s Festival news page.