The Woodson Center, a community development organization, is creating a “1776” coalition with black leaders to rebut assertions made in The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which aims to reframe the United States’ origin story to focus on slavery and oppression.
The New York Times Magazine released the 1619 Project last year with the stated goal of making slavery understood as not just the nation’s original sin but also central to “the country’s very origin.” The project commemorated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in the colony of Virginia.
Bob Woodson, founder and president of the Woodson Center, is convening a consortium of leading black academics, business leaders, clergy, columnists and others to challenge that alternative history of the country’s founding.
“America’s rightful birth date is 1776,” Mr. Woodson said. “Most of the contributors of the 1619 Project purport to speak for all of black America with a false and harmful narrative, one that perpetuates victimhood and ignores successes.”
Mr. Woodson said his project is not intended to discount the legacy of racial discrimination and slavery, but to spotlight what he views as a proper understanding of the nation’s history.
“Through 1776, we choose to highlight America’s promise and to elevate the inspiring stories of blacks who rose and achieved and thrived — in spite of prejudice,” he said.
Mr. Woodson, a former civil rights activist who once led the National Urban League’s Department of Criminal Justice, formally launched the group Friday at the National Press Club in Washington. He made clear that his effort was not aligned with a political party.
“We are trying to, with 1776, to present to the country and particularly black America, a reason to think more independently than what they’ve been taught,” Mr. Woodson said at Friday’s event. “The answers will not be found through electoral politics. But if I could speak politically for a second, my goal is not to recruit Republicans, make them Democrats. I want the black vote to be an independent swing vote.”
Joining him were the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page, Shelby Steele of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Brown University’s Glenn Loury, Carol Swain formerly of Vanderbilt University, Hope for Prisoners CEO Jon Ponder, and He Brought Us Out Ministry leaders Gary and Patricia Wyatt, among others.
Ms. Swain, a high school dropout who grew up in rural poverty and married at 16 before becoming an accomplished professor of politics and law, said she hoped her life story would show a positive view of human potential.
“I believe the 1619 project offers a very crippling message to our children,” Ms. Swain said. “I was spared from having that message brought to me, and I believe that if I had been exposed to that, if I had internalized that negative message, I don’t believe that I would have been able to do the things that I’ve done in life.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project and New York Times Magazine staff writer, said in an email that the organizers of the 1776 gathering did not reach out to her about Friday’s event and she had no comment on their activities.
Mr. Woodson told The Washington Times that his organization would not shy away from discussion with The New York Times, but he said the 1776 group had no interest in provoking a back-and-forth with the 1619 Project’s proponents.
“What we would rather do is provide, go around the gatekeepers and go directly to parents, to teachers, to superintendents, and provide them with the kind of evidence that an alternative is [possible],” Mr. Woodson said.
F.H. Buckley, foundation professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, said he thought people would have to be anti-American to appreciate the 1619 Project or be sympathetic to its presentation. As a naturalized U.S. citizen from Canada, Mr. Buckley said he was familiar with the story the 1619 Project was trying to tell but that the endeavor did not adequately capture a complete historical account.
“There’s a story that could be usefully told along the lines of the 1619 Project,” Mr. Buckley said. “But all that said, it’s just horribly incomplete in terms of what the Framers were thinking about in 1787. I think the story that needs to be told clearly is what was on the minds of people in 1787 when they put our Constitution together.”
The large-scale pushback to the 1619 Project is attributable to its swift impact. After it was published, the project was turned into part of the curriculum used in 3,500 classrooms across all 50 states as part of a collaboration between The New York Times and the Pulitzer Center.
Five school systems, including Chicago and the District of Columbia, have implemented the curriculum districtwide. Random House plans to adapt the project for younger audiences through a series of children’s books, and Ten Speed Press is developing a graphic novel.
Mr. Woodson said he too plans to develop a K-12 curriculum and create educational videos, and he noted that 1776 is developing a “retail strategy.”
The 1619 Project has become a major selling point for The New York Times’ business side. Last week, about six months after the project started, The Times sent its readers and subscribers a note from Ms. Hannah-Jones saying the project would have been impossible to accomplish without their support.
During the Academy Awards presentation, the paper introduced a national TV advertising campaign for the project. In the ad, actress and singer Janelle Monae stands on a dark shore near Point Comfort, Virginia, where the first slaves arrived. “No aspect of the country we know today has been untouched by the slavery that followed,” Miss Monae says as brooding music swells. “America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began.”
The Times also is preparing to roll out “The 1619 Collection” of merchandise including men’s and women’s shirts and accessories such as tote bags. A note accompanying the merchandise online says 50% of proceeds will be donated to the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund within the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Journalism watchdogs have noticed the transition from journalism to advocacy at The Times. Sarah Scire of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab wrote that the advertising campaign boosting the 1619 Project “seems to broaden the paper’s idea of what truth is” and may have cost the publication more than $2.6 million — the price of 30 seconds of airtime during the Academy Awards show.
Mr. Woodson said he is hoping to line up the financial muscle and resources to compete with The Times’ campaign.
“We’re hopeful. We have several major donors who are giving careful consideration to funding us,” Mr. Woodson said. “So we anticipate we’ll be able to fight this Goliath.”