© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Henry Louis Gates Talks Reconstruction To Alt-Right, Trump And Voter Suppression

Henry Louis Gates
Gwendolyn Glenn
Author and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates at UNC Charlotte.


Henry Louis Gates, a renowned and award-winning filmmaker, author of two dozen books, a professor and director of African American studies at Harvard University, has written about race in America. He explores the Civil War, Reconstruction to Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and the state of race relations today. 

Gates spoke at UNC Charlotte Tuesday for the school’s 2019 Chancellor Speaker Series and at the uptown campus to school donors and city leaders. WFAE's "All Things Considered" host, Gwendolyn Glenn, caught up with him to talk about race, voting, economics and other issues.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Let's talk about the message that you want to leave people with. You'll be talking with students, faculty from UNC Charlotte and also a lot of city leaders here in Charlotte. What's the message you want to leave today?

Henry Louis Gates: It's very important for people to understand the history of Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War and its rollback because it is a precursor to the period that we're experiencing today. Between 1870 and 1877, 2,000 black men were elected to public office, including Chris Rock's great-great-grandfather, who was elected to the House of Delegates in South Carolina. But within a few years, poof — all that disappeared.

Glenn: And I was going to ask you about that because you talk about that in your book and I think in an interview I heard you compare that roll back after Reconstruction to Jim Crow and on to what's happening now with the Trump administration and that rollback.

Gates: Reconstruction was 12 years of unprecedented black freedom followed by an alt-right rollback. And we're living through a period of eight years of a beautiful, brilliant, black family in the White House. A brilliant black president followed by an alt-right rollback. So the lesson of Reconstruction is that rights that we think are permanent, the right to vote, birthright citizenship, and the right of a woman to determine the fate of her own body. We think that these are inviolable. But they're not they're subject to the interpretation of the courts and sometimes the executive orders and that is the crisis that we're facing today. So what happened in Reconstruction can happen again. The most important way, the most devastating way that Reconstruction was rolled back was through voter suppression.

Glenn: And looking at today when you hear charges of voter suppression even right here in North Carolina you hear people talking about how laws are being changed. Compare that to today?

Gates: We see voter suppression happening throughout this country but particularly where there are strong black voting blocs in North Carolina and in other states. And we have to be on guard. We have to fight back and we have to register black people and like-minded people to vote.

Glenn: Well, Charlotte has had issues like that where you have had a lot of distrust by African Americans of the police department. You have economic gaps between the races and you've had a lot of unrest surrounding fatal police shootings, white police officers and black victims. How does  Charlotte compare to the rest of the country? Does it sound like most cities large cities like this? How does it compare?

Gates: I'm not an expert on Charlotte or black-white race relations or relationships between the community and the police but I know that throughout the country obviously anyone who's watched the news knows that for the last several years and much longer, there have been basic problems between the police and the black community.

I don't think it's only a racial thing. I think it's a class thing as well. I think that poor people are disenfranchised, poor people across the board feel alienated from all representatives of the power structure, the police included. And I think that one of the most important developments has been having police officers wear video cameras and also the fact that the people being stopped by the police have smartphones and are recording their interaction.

Glenn: Are you optimistic about common ground and also you dedicated your book to the Emanuel Nine. Why was that important to you?

Gates: Well, I did one of the last interviews with Reverend Clementa Pinckney for my series “Many Rivers To Cross,” which was 500 years of African American history. And I liked him very, very much and I admired him. And right now I'm filming a series on the history the black church. And Mother Emanuel plays a pivotal role both during slavery because it was the site of the plot of a famous slave rebellion in Charleston then it was shut down in 1832 and then reopened in 1865.

So when I heard that Reverend Pinckney and the other eight innocents at Mother Emanuel had been killed it just tore me up because I'd been there, I'd filmed there, I knew him. But if you would have asked me cold...if you had said a terrible racial tragedy happened in Charleston at a black church where do you think it was? I would have said Mother Emanuel because it was a symbol of black freedom. It was a symbol of black resistance during slavery and a symbol of black freedom during Reconstruction. 

Glenn: Well, thank you very much. 

Gates: Thank you. 

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.