- - Monday, March 21, 2022

This is the second episode in an occasional series that will focus on slavery, the Constitution and the current debate over the meaning of America’s founding. The first episode featured a conversation with historian Joseph Ellis.

In 1967, in an interview at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the Rev. Martin Kuther King Jr., was asked why Black people continued to struggle at the bottom rungs of American society even after passage of the landmark civil and voting rights bills in the middle of the decade.

His answer invoking history still resonates today, as Americans grapple with the legacy of racial injustice amid competing interpretations of the past.

“The fact is that the Negro was a slave in this country for 244 years,” King said. “That was a willful thing that was done. The Negro was brought here in chains, treated in very inhuman fashion, and this led to the thingification of the Negro, so he was not looked upon as a person.”

The extent to which the institution of slavery, abolished in 1865, still shapes American life is the subject of intense debate. In an essay defending the contentious claims of The 1619 Project, New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein said enslavement is “inextricable” to U.S. history.

“So many of our persistent racial inequalities stem from its enduring legacy,” Mr. Silverstein said.

In this episode of History As It Happens, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor discusses the role of the founding generation – and its compromises over slavery as written in the Constitution – in determining the course of America’s anguished history of race and racism.

“As long as race is going to be so powerful in identifying people and polarizing people in politics, then the history of race in this country is going to be a battleground,” said Mr. Taylor, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation chair at the University of Virginia.

Although slavery was abolished in 1865 through constitutional amendment, the document’s original protections for slavery weigh heavily on our current “history wars.” They explain why different people draw different meanings from the American founding, producing a chasm in interpretation about what it means to be an American.

“We treat the Constitution in this country with such extraordinary reverence … that it has become abstracted from its actual historical context,” Mr. Taylor said.

To listen to the full conversation with Mr. Taylor, download this episode of History As It Happens.

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