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Dr. Elizabeth Hinton, photographed by Jancarlo Cortez in the Miller Jacket

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“I look at myself as a champion for justice” says Dr. Elizabeth Hinton, award winning professor of History and African American studies at Yale University. “This motivates my research, writing, and advocacy. I ask how can we use history to obtain justice.” 

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As a preeminent scholar in mass incarceration, Dr. Hinton has spent much of her career writing about racial inequality and the criminal justice system. Her work has been lauded by the New York Times as “groundbreaking” and “brilliant.”  

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To commemorate MLK, we spoke with Dr. Hinton about America’s painful racial history and the enduring impact of Dr. King’s advocacy. Dr. Hinton emphasizes that “History is a guide for how we can move forward and build toward a culture that values racial and social equity. Simply put, history is living and it lives through us.”

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Q&A

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#MAKEITHAPPEN

Dr. Elizabeth Hinton, Historian & Professor of African American Studies

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What inspired you to become a historian?
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been set on trying to understand my place in the world. Our beings are the stories of our ancestors. As I got older, I reflected on my identity through the lens of being a Black woman. I became more acutely aware of my own family history’s relation to the Jim Crow South, living there when racial segregation was legalized.

My identity inspired me to think about how we can use history to achieve justice. History is a guide for how we can move forward and build toward a culture that values racial and social equity. Simply put, history is living and it lives through us.

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"We should see Dr. King not as a Black American icon, but as an American icon."

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As a scholar in African American studies, how would you describe the commemorative significance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
Our nation is rooted in a shameful history of racially motivated oppression. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. strived to create a more just and equitable society. When we think about the civil rights movement and the hard-fought advocacy that was focused on dismantling Jim Crow it helps us to understand how MLK’s legacy actualizes and symbolizes the dissolution of this particular era in American history.

We should see Dr. King not as a Black American icon, but as an American icon. Black America and Black history are not separate from America or American history. The triumph of the “Long Black Freedom Struggle” is a recognition of how far we’ve come, but also how far we have to go.

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Can you explain more about the Jim Crow South?
Jim Crow was a regime of racial apartheid that lasted in the southern states from 1880s-1960s. The Jim Crow system made Black people second-class citizens in the southern states. They could not attend the same public schools or use the same drinking fountains.

It legalized the second-class citizenship of Black people. Although it was concentrated in the south, we did see the same types of segregation in other places—even if it was not enforced in the same way.

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Could you talk about the women activists who worked tirelessly to fight for racial justice and equality?
Yes, this is in large part how I teach MLK to my students. Great people are backed up by a strong network. In this case, the real backbone of the movement was the women who were doing the organizing.

During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which launched the civil rights movement in 1955, there was a yearslong boycott of the buses. They were highly segregated and the Black women who rode the buses were domestic workers who were humiliated, harassed, abused, and assaulted by fellow passengers as part of the Jim Crow status quo. 
MLK and other pastors were encouraging people to fight for change, but the people who sustained the boycott were the thousands of women who were brave enough to walk to work and organize carpools. Rosa Parks, of course, was at the center of that. And these are the narratives that more often get left out. The women who do a lot of the work, especially Black women, get left out of the stories.

Their collective advocacy led to monumental social legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and it is the women of the movement who made Dr. King’s work possible.

Dr. Elizabeth Hinton, photographed by Jancarlo Cortez in the Miller Jacket

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What is your favorite MLK quote and why?
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I look at myself as a champion of justice. It’s what really drives my research, writing and advocacy—thinking about how we can use history to achieve justice.

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This gets to the heart of my work as a historian. And emphasizes that we are all in this together—if anyone is facing inequality or injustice, it affects all of us. If we can recognize how much we have in common as a collective humanity, then our society and our world will be better. That was MLK’s dream: to have a world where we all free from oppression and injustice. 

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MLK Day is federally recognized as our National Day of Service. What does it mean to you to be in service of others today?
MLK Day is about being in communities—and with communities—that are underserved and underresourced. Volunteering and serving others is an important way of reminding us that we are all in community with each other.

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What’s one key lesson from the civil rights movement that we can apply today?
One key lesson is that you can turn a failure into a success. When you fail to achieve a goal, it just creates other opportunities. When you’re doing movement work, it takes sustained engagement to create real change. You’re in it for the long game. The movement models for us that when we fail, we’re reminded that we have to keep going in order to persevere. 

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Do you have any books you recommend that we can use to continue to learn more about this important figure and time in our history?
Yes! Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America by Marcia Chatelain; The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis; and To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry.

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