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Leaders Confront Neglected Cases of Police Brutality; Social Change in the Hands of Young People; Aalayah Eastmond, Parkland Survivor, Executive Council Member, Team Enough, and Alicia Garza, Co-Founder, Black Lives Matter, are Interviewed About Social Change and Equal Justice; Legacy of Thomas Jefferson; Interview With Author Lemn Sissay. Aired 2-3p ET
Aired June 26, 2020 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Amanpour." Here's what's coming up.
The youth mobilizing for change. I'm joined by young activists from Black Lives Matter and the Parkland School shooting movement for gun control.
Then, stolen from his mother, dehumanized by the system. Poet, author and playwright, Lemn Sissay, about being a black child in Britain's care
system, and channeling trauma through art.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JON MEACHAM, ROGERS CHAIR IN AMERICAN PRESIDENCY, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY: If the best people in the public lives of the nation in the past could get
stuff so horribly wrong, what are we getting so horribly wrong right now?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: All men are created equal, but did the founding father who wrote it actually live up to it? Historians, Jon Meacham and Annette Gordon-Reed,
speak to our Walter Isaacson about Thomas Jefferson and America's moral reckoning.
Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour working from home in London.
As protests continue unabated a month after the death of George Floyd, leaders across the United States are confronting neglected cases of police
brutality. In Colorado for instance, the governor has ordered an investigation of three white officers responsible for the death last summer
of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, who died after he was placed in a police choke hold. McClain was unarmed, walking home from a convenience store when
he was killed. And in Arizona, 27-year-old Carlos Ingram Lopez died outside his grandmother's house, also restrained by police. Also saying he couldn't
breathe. Video of his death was kept from the public for almost two months.
This week, Congress has passed a major police reform bill named for George Floyd, but despite calls for quick action, the bill is likely to die in the
Senate where on Wednesday, Democrats blocked a completing Republican bill.
So, the hard work of social change falls largely to young people. Leading the marches and organizing resistance all across the world. And I'm joined
now such two such leaders from two generations, uniting in their demand for equal justice. 19-year-old Aalayah Eastmond, a Generation Z activist and
survivor of the Parkland School shooting back in 2018. And Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. She's a millennial now working with Black
Futures Lab to build African-American political power on the local and national level.
Welcome to you both. Welcome to the program.
Because it is extraordinary what we're seeing, that it's really very difficult to see where the leadership is. Aalayah, can you tell me what
brought you u to this current state of activism?
AALAYAH EASTMOND, PARKLAND SURVIVOR, EXECUTIVE COUNCIL MEMBER, TEAM ENOUGH: Absolutely. My activism started with gun violence prevention after the
shooting happened in my high school with amplifying the stories of black and brown youth. And we see in this movement that black youth have taken
this space in this movement for black lives. And being here in D.C. in the nation's capital, I saw a lot of disorganization to the protests and I
thought, why not bring my two cents with a core group of organizers to bring organizations and to create a list of demands that we want to see in
our society for black lives.
AMANPOUR: And there's sort of a cross movement, isn't there? Because you know, it started with the shoo tinging and it then, I guess not morphed,
but added the Black Lives Movement.
EASTMOND: Absolutely. And I think it's really important that people recognize that when we talk about gun violence, police violence is also a
part of that conversation as well. It goes into the fact that black lives are also being killed by police and that goes hand in hand with gun
violence as well. So, when we talk about what change we want to see, it goes hand in hand with the change that we want to see in gun violence
because police violence is also directly impacted into that as well.
AMANPOUR: So, let me turn to you, Alicia, because, you know, you obviously started Black Lives Matter along with others, and this was you know, in
reaction to the, to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and exoneration of George Zimmerman. So, tell me what you are hearing from, from Aalayah right
now, in terms of the generational, young people's movement on the street and is it because there's just been a failure of political leadership to
address these issues.
ALICIA GARZA, CO-FOUNDER, BLACK LIVES MATTER: Well, absolutely. And it's so great to be on this program with Aalayah because I think, you know, the
March For Our Lives and the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement for black lives, really represents a growing, right, of not only
dissatisfaction with the way that things are organized now, but it also represents a vision for this country and frankly, for this world, that
everyone has the access that we need and that we deserve to being safe, to being able to live in communities that are nourished with the things we
need to live well.
And for me, I think that one of the major things that we have to pay attention to in this moment is that there has been an incredible failure of
leadership. There's been a failure of leadership to address what keeps communities safe. What keeps young people safe in their schools and their
places of learning. And what keeps black people safe in our communities.
AMANPOUR: Can I just ask you both, is there a difference between the millennial generation and what you're looking for and the Gen Z generation?
Is there a difference in terms of -- not in terms of the activism, but of what you might be able to learn from each other and a how you might be able
to sort of join forces?
EASTMOND: I think for me personally, it's recognizing that young people have now taken the baton of a lot of these movements that are arising right
now and it's now millennial's job to teach us and guide us along the way because a lot of them have already been on this path. A lot of them have
already been in these movements. And now, it's Gen Z's turn to take the baton and have these conversations. So, I really look to have that guidance
and that shared knowledge and we're in these spaces together.
GARZA: I mean, I agree with that --
AMANPOUR: So, I want to ask you -- yes, go ahead. Yes. Go ahead.
GARZA: Well, I agree with that and I also think that this generation, whether it be millennials or Gen Z, is actually showing this country what
it can be and how it can reach its potential and its promise. I think the question here is for the generation that is in leadership and the
generation that is governing at this moment, what will you do to meet this vision?
And you know, again, I think that it's hard sometimes because we try to purse out folks who are actually not that far apart in age. But there's in
larger question here, which is for decisionmakers, for policymakers, for rule makers, what are you doing to change the rules that have been rigged
against our communities for so long and will you generate and gather the political will and frankly, the courage, to advance solutions that don't
just tinker around the edges, but that get to the core of problem? That's, I think, what I personally am looking for in this moment.
AMANPOUR: So, look, you did mention, and you're right, there's not a massive difference in age, but a significant difference in age. According
to the latest Pew research, 41 percent of those who have attended a protest in the last month are between the ages of 18 and 29 and there's a huge
number of Gen Z, obviously, organizers on the street.
What I want to ask you both is, Alicia, what you have learned and, Aalayah, what you are learning, if anything different, about the power of the
street. In order, in other words the power of the people who have come out on the streets to actually influence those who are in power, the political
leaders, who you want to actually, you know, do reform, and make the changes you're calling for. Let me ask you first, Aalayah.
EASTMOND: Yes, for me, I think I have a unique position here being in D.C., marching in the nation's capital. And we do have that space to be
that voice to demand elected officials to do what we're asking them to do when it comes to black lives because we're no longer at this stage of
asking. We are now demanding. And being here in D.C., that's a very unique position but I also stress to folks that as we're protesting, you need to
keep in mind that we have to have the same energy when we're voting and keeping in mind that we have to vote out those that still don't care about
black lives that are in these offices.
AMANPOUR: Alicia, I spoke in the last couple of weeks with a great civil rights leader and activist, Mary Francis Berry. And of the -- you know, the
protests and political movement, she said this. Let's just listen to her and I'd love you to respond.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARY FRANCIS BERRY, FORMER CHAIR, U.S. COMMISSION ON CIVIL RIGHTS: There will be a, an inclination on the part of political officials to once they
pass some police reform measures, which will probably be insufficient in my view, they will go on to something else. And say that if you want more
done, then go out and vote and, you know, campaign and all that. Voting is important. But you must have protests. It's an essential ingredient of
politics and it must be a longer duration than a week or two weeks or a month.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, Alicia, you've been leader in Black Lives for the last seven years. What do you make of what, you know, obviously a previous generation
activist, but who's currently active as well, says about all the issues you care about, but also about you have to translate at the ballot box?
GARZA: Well, actually, I think she's saying something different and as somebody who's been involved in organizing since I was 12, what I can say
is that what we have in terms of our power as a movement is both protests and it is also the organizing that happens to change the rules and to
change culture. That is what I think that March For Our Lives understands very deeply, it's what Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives
understands very deeply.
And I think sometimes what we do is we look at protests and we look at the people who are out in the streets and we say, well, what are you going to
do to translate that into power? And I almost feel like that's the wrong question. What I heard her saying was you actually need both. You need both
things. Protest is helpful because it puts pressure on people who are making laws and making decisions to not just tinker around the edges but to
go straight to the core. You have to continue to build pressure whether it be through protests or through ongoing sustained organizing and engagement
to make sure that your demands are met and to make sure that our voices are heard.
But it's not just enough to change laws as she also a said. It's very important to change the way in which we understand what is right and what
is wrong. What people deserve and who we can be as a society and as a nation. And so, I appreciate her perspective here, because I think it's
absolutely right. And I think it will help people who are watching this program right now understand that it's not just about getting into the
streets, but that it is about being in the streets, it is about engaging with lawmakers and rule makers to change the rules and it's also very much
about making sure that we participate many in the decisions that are impacting our lives.
And when we participate, whether that be through voting, whether it be through engaging with elected officials, whether it be through organizing
in your community, what it means is that lawmakers don't feel like they can do things about us without us. And so, that sustained level of activity is
both about being in the streets, but it's also very much about staying in relationship to people who care about these issues and bringing more people
into the fight. Those are the core components of what it means to build a movement like this one.
AMANPOUR: You're absolutely right and that is exactly what Mary Francis Berry said. But I want also just drill down a little on this voting thing
and, Aalayah, and both of you, actually, I want to quote Barack Obama. He said in an article at the beginning of this month, eventually, aspirations
have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices. And in a democracy, that only happens when we let government officials who are
responsive to our demands.
I'm really fascinated to ask you both, you first, Aalayah, because you all are certainly, the millennials, the majority voting group now come the 2020
election. You've overtaken the baby boomers and you have a huge amount of political power in that regard should you decide to exercise it.
Aalayah, you and the people who you are active with and your friends and your peers, do they feel that this year is an important year to continue
doing the activism, but also to go to the ballot box?
EASTMOND: Absolutely. I think when we talk about activism and voting, they both go hand in hand. That's exactly what we mean when we're talk about
protesting as well, is that you can't do one without the other, and I think that's how we create sustainable change is when we're having both of these
conversations simultaneously and we're doing the work on both ends.
AMANPOUR: And, Alicia, there's obviously a lot written about the disaffection of young people. No matter who, especially in the black
population. They say listen, we vote, we vote, we vote. You tell us to vote for, you know, you and then nothing happens. Can you address that and just
let me know whether you think you, your generation, will actually, you know, use the voting power this November?
GARZA: Well, I know it. And you know, Aalayah just spoke beautifully to the work that they're doing and will continue to do to make sure that
voting looks like protests. And also, the organizations that I am a part of including the Black to the Future Action Fund and in the Black Futures Lab,
are working to expand the black electorate, expanding into black communities that, you know, are always told that we need to vote, but are
rarely engaged with in a substantive way. And we are also pushing campaigns to better understand the needs of our communities and to stop engaging with
black communities in such a transactional manner.
My organization did the largest survey of black people in America in 155 years, and it's called the Black Census Project. And what we learned is
that more than 50 percent of the people we talk to felt that politicians don't care about black people. We also learned that the number one issue
facing the survey respondents that we talked to was low wages that were not enough to support a family. And then, of course, we learned a lot of other
things, but including that black communities felt often that they are never asked questions about what we experience and what we want for our futures.
That's why we developed the Black Agenda, which is a set of policy solutions that actually help to organize people to get involved in
democracy. We are addressing the specific issues that black communities care about from jobs to housing to health care to policing and police
violence. And we are charging elected officials with the responsibility of making sure that the rules that have been rigged against our communities
for so long are intervened upon, but we also know very clearly that there are some lawmakers that are incredibly resistant to changing those rules.
And so, those people also need to know that they will be held accountable. And by held accountable, what I mean is, if they are not moving forward an
agenda that advances our communities, then they will be voted out. We need to -- and our work is very much about making sure that politicians are
concerned about disappointing our communities. And right now, that's not totally the case.
So, I look forward to working with March For Our Lives and Aalayah and so many other people across the country to ensure that we are putting people
in office that are changing the rules that have been rigged against us for so long, but also making sure to hold accountable the people who refuse to
enforce the rules that keep us safe in our communities.
AMANPOUR: Aalayah, I want to ask you -- both of you, a personal question about how you're feeling, you know, emotionally about, obviously,
everything that has happened but also about, you know, your hope for the future and whether you -- you know, you had this time in COVID or under
lockdown to really think about how to respond now to something as monumental as what happened to George Floyd and the movement and the
uprising that it has launched.
You know, we hear -- we read headlines, white America has woken up to racism, now what? So, I just want to know, emotionally, Aalayah, how you
feel about this movement and about whether you really feel that you have all hands on deck for this now.
EASTMOND: Yes, absolutely. Like -- as you can hear, I'm losing my voice. I'm genuinely exhausted as a young black woman here in this space
protesting consistently every single day, but I think it's important that me recognizing, me being a black woman, fighting for Breonna Taylor and
Sandra Bland and the black -- the countless black women whose stories are being erased right now. So, I think that's really my main focus as I'm
protesting is really getting justice for the numerous black women whose stories continuously get erased and the names that we don't know simply
because they are black women.
AMANPOUR: And, Alicia, in our final moment, you know, we've heard a lot about the -- it didn't just happen out of nowhere in Minneapolis, you know,
after the killing of George Floyd, a lot was written about how the local residents, grass roots, just organized and they got everything, you know,
together and they -- it was an example of absolutely spontaneous leadership from the ground up rather than from the top down. You've been at this for a
long time. And I'm just wondering, you know, what sort of plan is or is it at all different in the wake of George Floyd's death? Is leadership from
the bottom up now?
GARZA: I think it's important for us to tell new stories about protests, uprising, rebellion and organizing. And the fact of the matter is there is
a beautiful, flourishing, vibrant ecosystem of organizations of black people and indigenous people and immigrants who have been organizing in
that community for a long time.
Sure. There are people who come to protests for the very first time in their lives because they're sick and tired of being sick and tired, but so
much of protests, while it seems spontaneous, right, is actually the result of these kinds of organizations who have been doing this work on the ground
to help people better understand what are the problems that our communities face and who's responsible for them.
That's not to say that everybody who's in the streets are a part of an organization. In fact, I think that's not true. But I want to make sure we
don't discard the fact that there is an infrastructure on the ground that has been working to change policy, change culture and that can help, right,
bring people into vehicles that help them take action in addition to going into the streets.
You know, people like the Black Visions Collective, people like the Minnesota Freedom Fund, these are organizations that have been serving
their communities for a while now. And each of those organizers and activists are probably a part of other institutions and organizations that
are working to fight for social change.
And so, it's important to say this because I think when we talk about movements and we talk about protests, we often have this narrative that
there aren't leaders and there isn't a plan. And I think we need to be very clear. The March For Our Lives has had a plan for years now and has
organized a lot of us around their demands and their vision for gun violence free country. Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives
has also a had the same. We're very stuck in this paradigm that, you know, unless we reflect movements that we saw in the last period of civil rights,
then suddenly, it's spontaneous and kind of unorganized.
When in fact, there are so many leaders across the country who have been leading for the last decade, to bring us to a moment like this, to be able
to bring more people into the fight. And so, I want to use the rest of my time to just say thank you to all of those folks and I'm really honored and
humbled to be the very smallest piece of this moment of change.
AMANPOUR: Yes. And we're really amazed to be witnessing and be able to report on it. So, we thank you both very much, Alicia and Aalayah, for
joining us with all that you're doing. Thank you very much.
And now, a lot has been written of course of this moment of moral reckoning. And my next guest has been described as a literary luminary.
Lemn Sissay is a poet, author, playwright and chancellor of Manchester University here in the U.K. But all that glitters is not gold and a painful
past lurks as he tells in his latest book, "My Name Is Why." It is a brutally honest account of growing up and going on a long journey that is
the very embody embodiment of systemic racism here in Britain.
Lemn Sissay, welcome to the program.
I want to just, obviously, start by asking you the title of your book, "My Name Is Why." Tell me about that.
LEMN SISSAY, POET AND AUTHOR, "MY NAME IS WHY": For the first 18 years of my life, I thought my name was Norman. My mother came over to England from
Ethiopia in the 1960s at a time when Ethiopia was shining. The organization of Africa unity was established in 1963. She came over in 1967 to further
her studies. A student of on the edge of tomorrow. And she found herself pregnant and she was placed in a mother and babies home in England and had
her child stolen from her. Quite literally.
My name was changed then to Norman. And the foster parents who had taken me, they wanted to call me Mark. So, I thought my name was Norman Mark
Greenwood. I didn't meet a black person until I was 13, 12 years of age. I didn't know another person of color until I was 16, 17 years of age. At 12
years of age --
AMANPOUR: What --
SISSAY: -- the foster parents -- yes. OK.
AMANPOUR: No. I just want to quickly -- I'll get back to the when you were 12. But I just want to ask you, because this is -- you know, what you're
saying is emblematic of what we and the whole world is waking up to right now. Until you were 12 years old, you didn't see anybody or know anybody in
any meaningful way that looked like you. What effect did that have on you? Were you aware of it then?
SISSAY: Yes. Well, I grew only with indigenous English people. So, mainly the color of skin -- the color of their skin was white. So, they -- I heard
the fear, the fear of the city. The fear of other black people. You know, they were deemed to be less, to be a threat, et cetera. And there was a lot
of racism at school. I mean, it's -- racism is something that comes from people who are both frightened and don't understand the world.
So, I was brought up amongst frightened people who don't understand the world. Yes. And my name --
AMANPOUR: You said --
SISSAY: My name means the question why.
AMANPOUR: You say -- and is that what it means, Sissay, is the question why?
SISSAY: No, Lemn, which is said lemon in Ethiopia.
SISSAY: Yes, it means the way it's pronounced in Ethiopia is lemon. And it means the question why. It's as simple as that. And that's the name my
mother gave me and that's the name on my birth certificate. And I received my birth certificate after I'd left the foster parents and I was brought up
in the children's homes of England. And it is the best name, the best name in the world is the name that you were given, you know.
AMANPOUR: Yes, it must be. But I also know that we all have been mispronouncing it for a long time because we've been saying Lemn and you
call yourself Lemn when -- no, you don't? You don't?
SISSAY: No, look. It's very simple. When I was in England when I received my birth certificate, I didn't know any Ethiopians. So, I thought my name
was Lemn. I thought it was a spelling mistake. Then when I went to Ethiopia, when I met my mother, it's lemon.
And so, Ethiopians, they can call me lemon. That makes my heart burst and everybody else, it's OK, I'm Lemn. Names can be --
AMANPOUR: OK. So, I want to get back -- yes, they can be complicated and it's the whole story that you tell, which is amazing. But I also want to
ask you about something you just touched upon. You know, you said growing up and we saw these beautiful pictures of you as a little boy, the only
black boy amongst all these other white kids at school and elsewhere. But you said you experienced racism.
And when you told your adopted parents, they basically said that, you know, they're color blind and everybody's god's children. What did that mean to
you? I mean, at that time, when they said, you know, we got to be color blind and, you know -- did it -- do you feel it denied you something as
well? Because this amazing piece in your book also says -- and you're talking about Muhammad Ali, and this was in the '70s, Ali was at his most
famous that year. No one told me I was the same color as him. No one told me I wa the same color as Martin Luther King.
In my parent's eyes though, there were no black heroes. In their world, Africa was full of poor people waiting to be saved.
SISSAY: Yes. Absolutely. Every time somebody said to me that they were color blind, I became invisible. The only time anybody told me that they
were color blind is when they saw color. It's very similar to people who say you know, that all tribes are the same. They don't see one tribe from
another tribe. When in fact, we have to. We have to see our differences so then we can celebrate our similarities.
When you close somebody down and tell them that you can't see their color, you're effectively not recognizing that person. You're effectively telling
them how you see -- how your vision, what is important to you, but you don't see color is more important than how they define themselves.
I am a black man. I am a human being. I'm an Ethiopian. I'm British. I'm a collection of molecules. I am everything that I see and feel. By the way, I
don't see myself, do I, because I'm always looking outwards. It is not my job to tell you how to define yourself and it is not your job, you know,
anybody's job, to tell me they can't see me, that they're color blind.
Imagine if you were like a woman and a man comes up to you saying, no, I don't see that you're a woman. You're a human being. You're a human being.
You're not a woman. You're a human being. When somebody says that, they're telling you how you should define yourself in their presence. You know, all
of these sayings, you're being -- et cetera.
AMANPOUR: Yes. So, Lemn, how did you discover that you are black? Because you went through -- I mean, if I didn't read it and didn't know it, it
would with the most -- I can't even believe it, that after 12 years or so of calling mom and dad, they essentially gave you away and you went into
AMANPOUR: How was that? And what -- how did you come out the other end, thinking what?
SISSAY: We have to know here that I was stolen from my mother.
So I wasn't a child being brought to England to be fostered or adopted.
AMANPOUR: Yes. Yes.
SISSAY: It's very important, that.
But, yes, they just would not call me. They put me into children's homes and said they'd never visit, and they never did. And I was then sort of
found through a series of children's homes, telling myself, I'm not crazy, there's something wrong with what they're doing to me.
In the final children's home, it was like a virtual prison. And it was "1984," George Orwell "1984." At 18, they put me -- 17, they put me into an
assessment center, which was a virtual prison.
And I got to tell you that I take -- I took the government to court for all of this. And I won. And they have apologized. But it was horrific. That's
why it's in the book. That's why I wrote this book. That's why I spent this year trying to find my records, and that's why the moment I got them, I
wanted other people to see what happened.
I wanted my foster mother to see what happened and the other social workers to see what happened and my birth mother to see what happened and my
family. Yes, it is a protest in itself, this book.
AMANPOUR: And, Lemn, obviously, everybody knows because you're a very, very famous writer. And you have -- I mean, you just go every honor.
Obviously, you're the chancellor of Manchester University.
But your writing, your poems, your book are really touchstones for people. And I wonder, when you discuss not necessarily your experience, but the
idea of systemic racism that we're going through right now and the uprising against it, does it begin with the children? And does it begin with
Because you have said: "How a society treats children who have no one to look after them is a measure of how civilized it is. It's scandalous that a
prime minister should have to admit, as David Cameron did last autumn, that the care system shames our country, and that Ofsted," which is a school
organization, "should report that there are more counsels judged as inadequate than good for children's services."
This, you wrote in 2016.
I mean, the book is about raising the consciousness and awareness of young people in care out there in society, because we often look at young people
in care as if they're a problem waiting to happen.
In all the different countries around the world, often, when a child is in a children's home or is on the streets, they are not given the respect and
attention to their care that they deserve, especially here in England.
There are a lot of good people working for children around the world. I have got to say that. But, yes, I do believe that you can tell how well a
government is doing by how well it treats its child.
In Ethiopia, the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, he has adopted a child himself, which is a great example to the world, I think.
AMANPOUR: And, very finally -- I have got a minute left -- how do you see this moment? Are you hopeful, after all the you have gone through, but now
seeing this unprecedented global uprising for racial justice?
SISSAY: This is a wonderful time. We are living in revolutionary times.
In England, often, when we look back to the 1960s to when that was supposedly a revolutionary time. It's happening now. People are going to be
speaking about this time for centuries to come, at least 50 years to a century to come. So, I'm glad I'm alive today.
AMANPOUR: And I'm really glad that you're here to talk to us about it.
Lemn Sissay, let me say thank you very much indeed.
And now here's a question. Could a slave owner also be an advocate for equality for all? That is the riddle left behind by one of America's
founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Jon Meacham have teamed up for a study in contradiction. "In the Hands of the People: Thomas
Jefferson on Equality, Faith, Freedom, Compromise, and the Art of Citizenship" was edited by Meacham and has an afterword by Gordon-Reed.
And they tell our Walter Isaacson whether his monuments and that of so many others should come down.
WALTER ISAACSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Thank you, Christiane.
And, Annette Gordon-Reed, Jon Meacham, welcome to the show, both of you all.
Annette Gordon-Reed, HISTORY PROFESSOR, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Glad to be here.
ISAACSON: You have done this book on Jefferson. And I want to ask you, Annette Gordon-Reed, a question that Jon asked in the introduction to this
book, which is, why turn to a slaveholder to give us advice about what to do in troubled times like this in a diverse culture?
GORDON-REED: Well, because he wrote the Declaration of Independence, American independence, and he wrote words that have meaning then and have
even more meaning now to what we're trying to accomplish as we transform society.
So, his words matter, his ideals matter. And so that's why he's a good person to start with, I think.
ISAACSON: You say his ideals matter.
Jon, tell us, what is the Jeffersonian ideal?
JON MEACHAM, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: The ideal is one of human equality. It was not realized then, hasn't been realized now.
But he did, in a kind of mission statement for the country, devote the national experiment to an ideal. And you don't have to listen to me for
that. Lincoln said that. In 1859, he wrote a letter about Jefferson, saying that he was the only man who, in the rush of a revolutionary struggle for
independence, actually initiated that it would be an idea that would drive it and an idea that would be a stumbling block to tyranny and oppression
for all future generations.
ISAACSON: How do you wrestle, then, with slavery and him writing about equality, but being a slave owner?
GORDON-REED: Because I realize that there are many things that people believe intellectually that they are not capable of carrying out
emotionally, because of their commitments to a particular way of life, to their commitments to a community, their people.
And that's the fallibility of humankind, of human beings, to be able to see something -- and some things you can do things about. He thought that
moving from Great Britain, changing Virginia laws in lots of different ways, those were kinds of things that he worked on.
But this is something that he just could not bring himself to deal with. And that's a flaw. And that's a flaw that we recognize. Jon and I have
written about this.
ISAACSON: Jon, you written both about Jackson, Jefferson and others who were slave owners. Tell us how you wrestle with the question of judging
them by the times that they lived in, and also judging them by our standards and our times.
MEACHAM: The way I come -- the way I decide this, because I have written about incredibly flawed people, right, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston
Churchill, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson. These were people who have significant, significant moral failings that were not just moral failings.
They were massive political ones.
And they contributed to the most -- the deleterious chapters of our national story. But my view is, you can't then banish those people from the
public sphere or push them to the side, because that lets the rest of us off the hook.
These were political people. They were makers of manners and morals, but they were also mirrors of manners and morals. And so, when you talk about
Andrew Jackson, many, many Americans who are feeling awfully self-righteous about Andrew Jackson right now are living on land that his actions brought
into the presiding regime sphere of influence.
And what we have to do, I think, is not look up at them mindlessly and celebrate them. But we shouldn't look down on them condescendingly either,
but look them in the eye, see what we can learn, and then apply those lessons.
And the moral utility of history, in my view, is if the best people in the public lives of the nation in the past could get stuff so horribly wrong,
what are we getting so horribly wrong right now?
GORDON-REED: That's the thing that I talk to my students about quite a bit. What are the things today that people 100 years from now will look
back and say, can you imagine they did this?
Now, this doesn't mean that you excuse people. I mean, I think history is a moral enterprise, I mean, that you can't help, at some level, make
judgments about the people about whom you're writing. It's a question of balance, however.
And remember that, if you're talking about a human being, that we have our preoccupations. We are preoccupied, and I think rightly so, with slavery as
an institution, with race as a problem.
But Jefferson, those were not his categories, whether they should have been or not. That's not what he was preoccupied with. Jefferson -- the signal --
the most important thing in Jefferson's life was his participation as a revolutionary in the American Revolution and the creation of the United
States of America, a new country.
And that's -- once that happened, that became his focus. And he thought that that -- his life's mission would be to -- creating and maintaining
Now, this business about slavery, that would be something that would solve itself in time. Now, we know that's not true. We know that didn't happen.
But if we're -- as biographers, as we all are here, if you're looking at a person, you're trying to figure out what mattered to them and why did it
matter to them, and it's difficult to do anything in the world. That's one of the things that we have all learned, to do anything.
But to do lots of different things -- and I'm speaking of Jefferson now -- is pretty amazing. And I don't -- it's not a question of forgiving him for
not solving the slavery problem. I think the slavery problem was solved the way it was going to be solved.
And that is not something a person who put together a union could bear to think about.
ISAACSON: Do you think, having read so much about Jefferson, and you have written two or three books really on him, Annette, and you have written a
magisterial biography, Jon.
Do you think he wrestled with the moral issue of slavery personally, about having slaves and should he free them?
GORDON-REED: Wrestle would be too strong a word. No, I don't think he wrestled with it.
Peter Onuf and I, in our last book, one of the things we suggest is that France was a pivotal moment for him, when he was there as minister to
France. And he looked at Europe and saw the problem of the peasantry, saw pre-revolutionary France, how long it taken them to get to a point where
they would rebel.
And he -- his attitude about slavery, we think, changed there. And other people have noticed this. This is not something we have just come up with.
But we think -- we have some reasons why -- but he comes back. And he decides that, instead of working against it, he is going to be a -- quote,
unquote -- "good slave owner."
Amelioration becomes the word for him. And that happened to other people as well, but to do slavery, but do slavery in a different way. And, of course,
once you do that, it's over, if you start thinking of yourself as capable of being a good slave owner.
And so I don't think he wrestled, because he thought -- we look at it and say -- some people may look at this and say, how could he? But he would
think that he was a good person. And so he begins to change his attitudes about how to do this, and satisfies himself that he's doing as well as can
be done until this situation was over.
Not satisfactory, but I think that's -- I don't see him -- he's not tossing and turning at night, saying, oh, my God, I know this is wrong, and I
should be doing something. I think he thought the next generation of people would do it. His job was to keep the federalists from ruining the American
ISAACSON: Jon, we have had a lot of talk about removal of Confederate monuments, and now even there's talk about removal of Thomas Jefferson.
So, let's look at that slope and see if we can get some footholds here, so it doesn't become so slippery of a slope.
First of all, with the Confederate monuments, how do you feel about now removing them, when they were put up to celebrate Confederate officers?
MEACHAM: Well, my view -- and my credentials here are, I was born in Chattanooga. I went to the university in the South. I grew up on Missionary
Ridge, a Civil War battlefield. I live in Nashville. So this is not some Upper East Side view.
I firmly believe that, if you took up arms against the Constitution, and thereby ended the experiment and the journey toward a more perfect union,
you ended the context that gave us the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, however incomplete and however poorly implemented.
You should not be venerated on public property. I'm not going to tell you what you should do at your house or in a church or a school. That's for
those institutions to decide.
But if it's a courthouse square, and you attempted to end the United States of America, and create a slave empire that had ambitions to go into the
Caribbean and go into Cuba, to look south, to create an independent nation, I don't think you should be there.
And my test which I proposed after Charlottesville, now almost three years ago, was, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, those people who were
wildly imperfect, should be judged by a different standard than Confederate figures.
ISAACSON: Annette, do you think you can draw such a crisp line between removing Confederate statues, but keeping up Jefferson and Jackson?
GORDON-REED: Yes. And I have written that.
And I have said that. There's a difference between trying to destroy the United States of America and trying -- and actually having created it. And
the people who created it are individuals that we have to grapple with their lives, with the imperfection of their lives, the good things they did
and the bad things that they did.
But it's hard to go on living in a place that people created without some sort of acknowledgement of what it is that they did. But what you can't do
-- this is what Jon mentioned before -- the sort of hero worship, the suggestion that they were gods, or that we can't criticize them, or that we
shouldn't talk about slavery, we should not talk about the way they fell short.
That's the problem. The problem is veneration, and without a realistic assessment of them.
The Confederates, this is -- I don't know. It's sort of odd to think how this -- what people have written about how we have come to this point, or
came to the point where people who lost the war got to put up monuments all over, and that people see them as people as worthy of veneration, that you
can have the flag of the United States and the Confederacy together, as if that's not mutually exclusive.
It is sort of is hard to see how we came to this point. So I do think it's a good bright line to draw.
ISAACSON: Jon, Jefferson knew that -- and this is in your book, all these quotes, about partisanship. I mean, he was pretty dedicated to engagement
in political issues.
But what would he think of the type of partisanship we have now at this moment?
MEACHAM: I think he would recognize it, honestly.
He once said, divisions of opinion have convulsed human societies since Greece and Rome. Divisions of opinion were the oxygen of a free government.
I'm a skeptic of the prevailing scholarly view that the founders had this vision of a one-party -- excuse me -- one-party state and we would all be
on Olympus with powdered wigs and solving problems.
They may have had that vision. We all have that vision. But they understood reality. If you worry -- if you're worried about or if you doubt me about
whether they understood reality, read the Constitution, which is entirely about reality.
The Constitution -- if Jefferson was an enlightenment document, the Constitution is a Calvinist document. It assumes we are all depraved and
sinful and driven by appetite and ambition. And we have done everything we can since then to prove them right.
So, I think this is a -- the Hemings -- the story about Sally Hemings was first publicized in 1802. And we -- with all love and respect to Annette,
we don't know that much more than that first piece, do we?
MEACHAM: The basic -- but it was...
GORDON-REED: Oh, you mean the basic outlines of the story?
GORDON-REED: Yes. Yes. Yes.
MEACHAM: It wasn't seen as a historical or cultural document. It was a partisan attack.
GORDON-REED: Yes, yes.
GORDON-REED: And continued during that -- during his presidency, and a few times afterwards.
ISAACSON: There's been a big debate recently coming out of "The New York Times" 1619 Project of, how much do we need to revise our concept of the
founding of this nation?
Do you think that makes sense? Or has it gone a bit too far?
GORDON-REED: Well, the problem is, historians have been writing about this now for quite some time.
But what we haven't done as much is to think about what that means for us today, that the legacy of slavery is still with us. There's a tendency --
there has been a tendency on the part of many people to say, oh, well, we knew that, but that's over. I think that's the -- that's the contribution
of the magazine, of 1619, is not to tell us something, many things that we didn't know, but to say, there is a connection to this that is continuing.
You don't get rid of hundreds of years of slavery in a century or so. I mean, we really don't get going as legally full citizens until 1965, the
passage of the Voting Rights Act. That's not -- in the history, that's a blink of an eye. It's not even a total blink of an eye in history.
And thinking that this stuff is all in the past has been the problem. And that's -- I think that's what the project was trying to do, was to say, no,
this isn't over.
MEACHAM: I was struck, I believe it was the remarks at the signing of the Civil Rights Act in July, July 2, 1964.
Lyndon Johnson grounds his remark at the bill signing not on Philadelphia, but on Jamestown, and which I was struck by.
GORDON-REED: Yes. Talk about a complicated figure.
MEACHAM: Yes, there you go.
MEACHAM: Well, we're -- the Democratic nominee for president is a 77-year- old white man who was the vice president of the first African-American president, incredibly loyal, and eulogized Thurmond and Eastland.
So, if you're looking for simplicity, if you're looking for straightforward figures, good luck. I don't know who they would be.
I think what Annette just said is absolutely essential. I have a theory -- I have bored Walter with this, I think, privately.
MEACHAM: Actually that we're only a 60-year-old nation, right? The country we have right now, the polity we have, which is soon going to be majority
diversity, whatever phrase it is, was really created in 1964-'65, not only with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but with the
Immigration Act, which totally changed the nature of the country.
MEACHAM: And so no wonder this is so hard. No wonder we're having such a ferocious white reaction.
This is kind of the 1830s in a way. And so it's not to excuse it, but I do think it explains it a little bit. And this idea of progress -- and I know
it sounds tinny to people. And, look, if you look like me, you can talk about progress, right? I'm a boringly heterosexual white Southern
Episcopalian, right? I mean, things tend to work out for me in America.
So, I stipulate that. But, but it's simply the lesson of history that we are, in fact, a better country than we were yesterday. Doesn't mean we're
perfect. Doesn't mean we stop, but are enough of us devoted to doing all we can as citizens and as leaders to try to create a country that more of us
can be proud of?
MEACHAM: And if we are, then let's get to it.
GORDON-REED: Yes. And I would throw in women, the changing role of women from the 1960s.
And this is -- that's a good point. I wouldn't -- I agree with 60 years, again, a short time in history where everything -- where everybody's sort
of in place. It's like Ken Burns said, that he found it difficult to call - - talk about the golden age of baseball.
GORDON-REED: And there were no black players in the Major League. How do you do that?
And this is a similar situation, where you have blacks legally allowed to vote, and those rights are protected. I mean, there's issues with voter
suppression, but sort of, on paper, equality is there. And it's hard. It's wrenching for people who have had power, who were used to a certain
hierarchy, a certain way things are -- were, or they think about their grandparents, the good old days.
It's hard to get used to all of that. And so you're right. There's no wonder that there's a people upheaval.
ISAACSON: Annette Gordon-Reed, Jon Meacham, thank you all for joining us.
GORDON-REED: Good to be here.
AMANPOUR: Fascinating, indeed.
And, finally, some good news in a country that is suffering a dual crisis fueled by coronavirus and conflict. Over 30,000 cases have been reported in
Afghanistan, putting its already weak health care system at risk of collapse.
In Kabul, the capital, a city struggling with both a health and water crisis, a new project to stimulate the economy will help the unemployed and
the environment; 40,000 jobless workers will be employed by the government to rehabilitate the city's groundwater supplies.
Planned to run for at least a year, the project will pay Afghan workers to dig 150,000 trenches to capture rainwater and snowmelt. The second phase of
the project will also see 13 million trees planted. And that is something we can celebrate.
And that's it for now. You can always catch us online, on our podcast, and across social media.
Thank you for watching, and goodbye from London.