Trump’s War on Civil Rights and Beyond: A Conversation with Acclaimed Political Analyst and Civil Rights Historian Juan WilliamsHistorians/History
tags: civil rights, African American history, oral history, Trump
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Billmoyers.com, Alternet, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: email@example.com.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump urged black voters to ditch the Democratic Party and “try Trump” at a campaign rally on August 19, 2016, in the predominantly white suburb of Dimondale, Michigan. He said of black Americans: "You're living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed.” Trump then asked, “What the hell do you have to lose?"
As it turned out, African Americans—among others—are losing a great deal under President Trump, as acclaimed commentator, journalist and historian Juan Williams argues in his timely and illuminating new book, “What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?”: Trump’s War on Civil Rights (Public Affairs).
Mr. Williams contends that Trump’s now infamous campaign speech and other statements on race have conveniently ignored African American history and progress in the decades since the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He denounces the president’s ingrained tendency to intentionally distorthistory to fuel racial tensions for his political advantage.
In “What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?” Mr. Williams deftly weaves the remarkable story of the struggle for civil rights into his account of how the Trump Administration has been bent on turning back the clock and undoing or threatening advances in voting rights, school integration, equal employment, and fair housing, and other areas. He describes the unprecedented threat to civil rights under Trump as he chronicles the president’s personal and family history ofdiscriminating against people based on race and his record of hostility to African Americans, including President Barack Obama.
In describing the losses for African Americans under Trump, Mr. Williams also provides glimpses from the struggles of heroic pioneers who fought for civil rights and for a better life for all Americans. He shares the stories of activists such as Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who braved the violent Jim Crow South to register African American voters; James Meredith, a US Air Force veteran, who became the first black student to enter the University of Mississippi in 1962 in the wake of bloody riots at “Ole Miss”; A. Philip Randolph, a union leader who made strides for equal employment rights in the Jim Crow era; and Robert Weaver who championed fair housing programs and became the first black cabinet secretary as the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Mr. Williams takes pains to explore the past in the belief that knowledge of history is the key to understanding the present and to shaping the future as he explains how the principles of equality, tolerance, and justice today are at stake for all citizens.
Mr. Williams is an award-winning journalist, political analyst and historianwho has covered American politics for four decades. He has written several other books, including Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965; Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary; This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience; My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience; and Enough. His articles have appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Time, Newsweek, Fortune, The Atlantic Monthly, Ebony, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, and The New Republic. Mr. Williams is currently a columnist for The Hill, and was a longtime correspondent for The Washington Post and NPR. He also cohosts the Fox News Channel’s debate show The Five, and appears on other Fox shows where he regularly challenges the orthodoxy of the network’s right-wing stalwarts.
Mr. Williams generously spoke by telephone about his new book, his work, and his commitment to sharing historical context when discussing current events. Following our conversation, he added this opening update for readers on his historical perspective and recent events.
Juan Williams:I want to thank Robin for the opportunity to talk to history lovers on the History News Network. When I wrote “What the Hell do you Have to Lose: Trump’s War on Civil Rights,” my goal was to answer the question that then presidential-candidate Donald Trump posed to Black America: ‘What do we have to lose from a president who doesn’t care about African Americans?’
My book dissects Trump’s unprecedented assault on everything America has achieved over the last half century to move forward on race relations--from voting rights to integrated schools to equal opportunity in employment and fair housing. These changes were achieved by people who made sacrifices, put themselves at risk of being expelled from school, losing jobs, losing their mortgages, constant threats of violence and some even faced death.
I tell stories of these courageous civil rights heroes so that we can better understand that progress came at great cost. Starting from that baseline helps the reader to understand how much the nation has gained, and how much we have to lose from Trump’s effort to return to the past or, in his infamous words, “Make America Great Again.”
Since I finished writing What the Hell do you have to Lose in 2018, very little has changed. The president continues to tell lies about blacks, Latinos, and immigrants. He makes racial minorities and immigrants out to be a threat to America; we become the enemy, all lumped together as barbarians who commit crimes, take advantage of social programs, and abuse affirmative action policies.
These lies are aimed at the ears of white America at a time when pollsters report that large numbers of older whites are anxious about the growing number black and brown people, and immigrants of all colors, in the USA.
Trump’s most frequent refrain is that life is better for minorities with him as president. He dismisses talk about increasing racism and anti-Semitism as overwrought. Even FBI reports on the increase in hate crimes since he has been president are waved away as liberal nonsense. Instead, he frequently tells interviewers, for example, that the black unemployment rate is currently “the lowest in the history of the country.”
This is a distortion.
First, black unemployment under Trump has never reached its lowest point in history. Though it did hit 5.9 percent last May, Labor Department data indicates that black unemployment dropped down to 4.5 percent in 1953. According to the Washington Post Fact-Checker, this distortion was worth giving Trump three out of four Pinocchio’s for his unfounded claim.
In addition, the president fails to mention that black unemployment has been increasing. As recently as February 2019 it reached 7 percent. And throughout, black unemployment has remained more than double white unemployment.
Unfortunately, these are the kinds of distractions from the truth about race relations that Americans--black and brown Americans in particular--have come to expect from our president.
He’s a man who couldn’t condemn the unique horrors of white supremacy that resulted in the death of a woman in Charlottesville last summer
Trump won’t talk about the white supremacy that led to the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, eleven Jews in Pittsburgh, and fifty Muslims in New Zealand. But he couldn’t be happier to talk about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, whose recent treatment by Trump and the Republican Party has less to do with condemning anti-Semitism than it is a political ploy to silence an immigrant, black and Muslim woman who dares to wear a Hijab in Congress and speak her mind about controversial subjects.
He’s a man who, hours after it came out that a white supremacist in New Zealand slaughtered fifty Muslims during their Friday Prayers, said that white nationalism was “not really” a major threat, even as the killer’s manifesto described Trump’s 2016 victory as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”
Indeed, even after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel condemned the courts for dropping the charges against disgraced actor Jussie Smollett, he slammed Trump for speaking on the issue, ordering him to “stay out” because “the only reason Jussie Smollett thought he could get away with this hoax is because of the environment President Trump created.”
Previous Republican Administrations made good faith efforts to improve relationships with African Americans.
Presidents Reagan and Bush made a point of speaking at the NAACP, seeking out advice from prominent black intellectuals, and appointing African Americans to the highest positions in government. And under President Obama black and white members of both parties were willing to start having the messy, yet necessary conversations about issues that continue to prevent us from moving forward on race as a nation.
On the other hand, President Trump has just one African American in his Cabinet. Despite agreeing to some criminal justice reform measures, Trump has failed to deal with issues of police brutality that have led to persistent tensions with black America and the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Instead, he ran a campaign, and now a government, fueled largely by white American fears that the country is being stolen from them by ungrateful African Americans, undocumented immigrants, and radical Muslim terrorists.
According to Trump, the problem is not the harsh, unfair reality of high levels of segregation in neighborhoods, schools, and jobs. The problem in his eyes is a football player, Colin Kaepernick, kneeling in protest during the playing of the national anthem.
Trump also is easy to anger when prominent black people challenge his policies. He will also go out of his way to tongue-lash black critics, including insulting LeBron James, Steph Curry, Jay-Z and other black celebrities. He regularly disparages black women in the Congress who disagree with his policies.
To get away from the day-to-day static around Trump’s mishandling of racial issues, the American people need to know about the civil rights heroes like Bob Moses, James Meredith, A. Philip Randolph, and so many others, because we need to understand how much blood, sweat, and tears it took to create the thriving Black America of today and protect us from those who, like President Trump, couldn’t care less.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Mr. Williams on your powerful new book on Trump’s war on civil rights. You take pains to weave history into your reporting, and you are a historian in your own right with your acclaimed books such as Eyes on the Prize, a study of the Civil Rights Movement, and your renowned biography of Justice Thurgood Marshall. In your new book you share the story of civil rights advances that are now threatened under Trump. Your efforts as a journalist and historian are refreshing in this era of fake news.
Juan Williams: I love history. I find it eye-opening because it tells me so much about not only the present but it allows me a structure for thinking about the future. For me, history always been a revelation. Even when I was a child when I learned about the past, I thought, Oh, my goodness. Who knew?
Robin Lindley: Did you have training in history when you went to school or did history just naturally come into your writing when you were a reporter?
Juan Williams: No, my love of history is an extension of my interest in the news, a fascination I had from my days as an immigrant child in a city with close to a dozen newspapers, New York. I found newspapers and daily journalism on radio and television to be a reason to look into history. The rest of the story, the back story if you will, was the history of the characters and events, and the ideas that animated the politics of the day. I would see something that happened in a prior period in American life and I would go to the library in New York City, where I grew up, and I’d read a book to investigate the story and to understand how we came to the point where we were then and how that article that I was reading in fact was representative of a larger and longer vein of history.
Robin Lindley: There's a new twist in the news every day concerning our history, and particularly about race. Attorney and Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen called Trump a racist, a con man, and a cheat at a public Congressional hearing. I don't think that was news to many of us, including the Republicans on the committee. You certainly delve into the history of Mr. Trump's racial insensitivity as well as his lack of historical knowledge as he attempts to erase the past.
Juan Williams: I write of the reality of the sacrifices, even people giving their lives, to accomplish racial justice in this country. I'm not suggesting this book is a complete telling of the civil rights movement; I structured the book to include the history as an introduction to the background for young people and a reminder for people who may have forgotten the past. My premise is that we have a traveled such a distance on race going back to our origins as a nation with legal slavery and then legal, government enforced legal segregation that extended well into the 20th century.
I had written some of that story in my first book, Eyes on the Prize. More of it is in my second book, a biography of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
That brings me to this book and why I was offended by Trump telling white audiences that black people had nothing to lose by voting for him. The quote, "What the hell do you have to lose?" came from him during the 2016 election campaign. He argued to whites that these black people live in such bad neighborhoods in terms of the violence and crime, with bad schools and a lack of jobs. And, some white person driving through a troubled black neighborhood might say, "Well, it looks like he has a point."
There's so much missing context in terms of that distorted picture of black American life. First, no fake news, just the facts: The nation’s black population is doing better than ever before by so many measures in terms of income, education, business ownership, occupying political office, and the like. I could go on. But Trump doesn't seem to plug into that part of the story. Instead, he takes a perverse delight in poverty and crime among blacks, Latinos and immigrants. Again, this why I think the history is so important.
The history of progress for American minorities is needed to inform someone hearing Trump’s indictment so they are not fooled. With history in mind they will know what the hell striving minorities in this country have to overcome and a history lover knows how far minorities and immigrants have come despite those obstacles.
That indictment of black people by Trump is undermined by the history of all the struggle and sacrifices made to bring black people to this point. And also, it opens eyes to the idea that the African American community is not all poor and poorly educated. In fact, black America in 2019 is at historic heights in terms of income and education. Almost 40 percent of black people make between like $35,000 and $100,000 per year. Another 11 percent are earning between $100,000 and 200,000. So that's half of the black population living in the American middle class. And then you have the reality of black executives who have led very successful American companies like Time-Warner, Merrill Lynch, American Express, and Xerox.
Those stories of black achievement are not part of Trump telling whites that blacks have nothing to lose. An informed listener will know they are being misled by Trump because they know the history of black trailblazers, beating the odds to make new paths in American society, a society that not only enslaved black people but legally segregated them and still discriminates against them.
And once voters – including Trump voters – are aware of that history I think their attitude might shift from contempt to admiration. They might say, ‘Oh gosh, look at these previously disenfranchised people who have made their way.’ Wow,
We should celebrate these people who have remained loyal Americans and hardworking people who believe that they can make it in this society and that they can achieve the American dream. But to the contrary, they're vilified and made out to be a bunch of people with nothing to lose by the man who then becomes President Donald Trump.
Robin Lindley: It seems too that old stereotypes have re-emerged under Trump. By old, I mean before the Civil War, such as the recent controversy about the governor and attorney general of Virginia appearing in blackface as young men. How do you see this issue of political leaders who engaged in this racist mockery?
Juan Williams: Part of "Make America Great Again," Trump's campaign slogan, was to create nostalgia for some time before the civil rights movement, before the women’s movement, before America became more diverse, an earlier social hierarchy in which white people, especially white men, were at the top and people of color were below them. Black people fit into that picture as happy go lucky people, singing, dancing, and even white people feeling free to put on blackface and mock black Americans with minstrel shows. Apparently, we are to believe racial minorities were happy before all these northern agitators came down here. This is a modern version of segregationists telling each other that “Our black folks are happy folks.”
That was delusional thinking on the part of racists who didn't want to hear anything about equal rights or civil rights. So, when you look at this generation of white leadership in Virginia, which held the capitol of the Confederacy in Richmond, you see that they were in school [after the Civil Rights Movement]. You look at Governor Northam, and he was [wearing blackface] in the 1980s and then you look at the attorney general, and again, that was also the eighties. So even educated white men in the 1980s felt free to join in the mockery of their fellow Americans.
For young white men in Virginia and in fraternities, it was just acceptable behavior to replicate old Jim Crow dancing happily, making themselves fools for the entertainment of other whites. Blacks were portrayed as less intelligent, less hard working, less trustworthy liars and cheats-- people that you wouldn't want to be around, except to laugh at as fools. Certainly, not anybody you would trust as an employee or as a public official.
So here you have in modern America of 21st century a reminder of how even the best educated whites were also party to this longstanding dehumanization of black people by putting on blackface. It speaks again to the power of history to inform our understanding of who we are and who we elect today. Remember, both of those Virginia officials won the black vote in Virginia. What's curious about this is that Gov. Northam has continued to receive support from black Virginians who say“that's the just way it is, and let's look at his policies now,” and hope, in fact, that this might raise the race issue to the point where he and others feel as if they have some responsibility to make amends.
Robin Lindley: I can't help but think too that this ties also to the eugenics movement in early twentieth century America and white supremacy. Attorney Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and the Legacy Museum in Alabama, said that he believes that the worst legacy of slavery isn’t involuntary servitude, but it is the legacy of white supremacy that has echoed through time.
Juan Williams: That's my point. So, I say amen to Mr. Stevenson because this extends not to just to what you describe as the legacy of white supremacy in terms of our political institutions. It extends also into our assumptions about what we accept as normal in America. And I wrote this new book to open our eyes to see discrimination and inequality across the years so we can better understand it in the current context.
You think about the contemporary American standards of success, standards of beauty, the exercise of power, the standards of intellectual achievements. President Trump, without any sense of history, acts as if black people are not contributing to the country, not up to these standards.
Even if Trump wants to focus on higher level of poverty among blacks today, he can’t fool people who know their history. They can say to themselves, “Hey, wait a minute. Black people were kept out of our institutions beginning with schools. Black people were kept from buying real estate in neighborhoods that would have allowed them to amass wealth through the value of homes and property. Black people were kept out of American business and had no access to bank capital. Black people were kept out of the American military. Black people were kept out of our sports.”
For a young person today, you have to think about all these things when you hear someone like Trump putting down black people. He is appealing to what Mr. Stevenson said is the legacy of white supremacy.
Robin Lindley: I don't know if it matters whether we call Trump a racist, but he is a person who has a personal and family history of discriminating against people based on their race, which you document in your book.
Juan Williams: Yes, I think it's very important for people to know Trump’s personal history. You can inform people about the power of American history, but when you talk about it in terms of individual history you see the roots of his kind of leadership; the basis of so much of a person’s thinking as they grow to adulthood and then into power. That is a very revealing and illuminating backdrop for readers of American history. I think that's why biography, by the way, is such an important branch of American history.
So, when I talk about Trump, I start with his father and his father was arrested at a Klan rally. We don't know if he was a Klan member, but we know he was arrested at a Klan rally in New York in the early part of the 20th century.
And then you come forward to the Trump family business agreeing to a deal with the US government that had charged them with housing discrimination in New York City in their housing units. In fact, in this book, I write about Woody Guthrie and others who were writing songs about the rank discrimination at Trump properties in New York City in mid-20th century.
Once people have an understanding of Trump's upbringing and experience with race, they then might also come to understand why he's the guy who, when the five black and Latino boys are charged with beating and raping a white woman in Central Park, Trump leapt to assume their guilt. Subsequently, when they were found not guilty of this crime on the basis of DNA evidence, Trump did not recant or apologize for having run a full-page newspaper ad calling for the death penalty for these boys. He said nothing.
And Trump of course engaged in the whole birther argument against President Obama, trying to diminish the first black president by making him an illegitimate president. Some people might say, well, you know, what's the big deal, where is the birth certificate?—without understanding that it fits into this ongoing pattern in Trump’s life of appealing to racist sentiments that vilify people of color as strange, alien, foreign, dangerous, and coming to take your job or to disrupt your neighborhood. This is part of who Trump is and it's part of American history.
Robin Lindley: Trump's efforts to destroy any of the legacy of President Obama seems pathological. He and his party have tried to erase everything that President Obama accomplished. What's your sense of this obsession?
Juan Williams: A lot of the anger at President Obama again comes back to the idea that Obama was the first black president and did not rise to success through established white business, military or even political hierarchy.
The argument, especially from a lot of the Trump people is, who is this guy? How did he get here? Who were his patrons? They derided him as a “community activist.” And even more, they expressed fear that Obama was going to take a special interest in caring for black Americans—that he was going to be the black president and neglect white America or even get revenge on whites.
That is a very interesting twist on reality. Historically it was black people who were excluded by white politicians from programs like the GI Bill, the programs to get people into schools and to help them buy housing. Even parts of the New Deal were not open to workers in unskilled, non-union jobs dominated by black people. This is the history of the country. Yet now we are told to focus on white, working class fear that the blacks are being given something for nothing. This is ridiculous if you know history.
Of course, President Obama's response to this psychological twisting by some people was interesting too because he was always on guard against the notion that he was only the president of the black people – not the president of all the people. Black activists on the far left often criticized him for not doing enough for black folks. It was kind of a Catch-22 in my mind.
But back to the Trump perspective. Again, it's the idea that if you undo Obama policies, what you are doing is making America great again by reorienting all the policies back to big business, and taking them away from trying to make amends for prior discrimination or high levels of inequality in American society. It's less about raising up those who have been left behind and more about rewarding those who are in power or who are at the top of the economic ladder.
To me, it has as much to do with symbolism as it has to do the actual undoing of the policy. If you think about things like reversing environmental regulation or refusing to put in place consent decrees to deal with police accused of being brutal in their treatment of blacks, it is unbelievable. It is striking that Trump is able to convey to political base of support that, in order to make America great again, you don't want to lift up those who have been left behind, especially people of color.
We haven't mentioned this, but I think it's very important to include immigrants, people of all colors but especially immigrants of color that Trump infamously described as coming from “Shithole” countries. Right from the start of his campaign, he demonized immigrants and specifically Mexicans as rapists and criminals. And again, the idea is these people are coming and taking advantage of the USA, when in reality these people are often times working in industries that can't find workers. And these are people who are trying and striving so hard to achieve their American dream.
Robin Lindley: The hate speech has been deafening. The events in Charlottesville had to be shocking to you. I never thought that I would see Nazi and KKK rallies in 21st century America, and you now have a president and a political party, the Republican Party, silent about this sort of racism and violence.
Juan Williams: Yes. Let me just say when Trump talks about fine people on both sides, the most forgiving interpretation you can give to him is to say that he sees these self-identified white supremacists as fine people who are simply standing up for Confederate statues and monuments to soldiers who fought to break up the United States. The phrase “fine people” assumes that these neo-Nazis were generally good Americans, just with different points of view about historical markers. In fact, they were celebrating racists and traitors to the American flag.
History can help you to stop and look through the fog of words from the president and you will see the history and tradition being celebrated is one of the Confederate Army attempting to secede from the United States and to break apart our country, and second, to defend slavery and impose that kind of oppression of human beings in the United States of America, a country based on the proposition that all men are created equal.
And again, only history can inform you of this distortion, which might fly by your ears while listening to the president of the United States. Fine people on both sides. Well, no. These are people who are celebrating monuments that are in fact intended as reminders of that legacy of white supremacy. Even if you were to say, and in many cases I can understand someone saying, the Confederacy is part of American history, like it or don't like it, and it's important that we know about it for better or worse.
Absolutely. It's also true that in Germany they do not celebrate with markers and monuments to the Third Reich.
Robin Lindley: I was thinking about the German example too. Trump and the Republican Party support the rollback of the Voting Rights Act and the undermining of democracy with voter suppression, trumped-up investigations of voter fraud, and gerrymandering. How do you see these efforts and why are Republicans virtually unwilling to contest Trump's racism and other faults?
Juan Williams: I expect it's a matter of pure politics in a contemporary context to understand the president and his support from self-identified Republican voters in the country. Any Republican who would challenge Trump's racist rhetoric and his other flaws would lose the Republican base. It has become the case that the Republican Party of 2019 is truly better described as the Party of Trump.
And, when it comes to issues like race, I think Republicans don't see that much benefit to stand up and speak honestly about Trump's racial attitudes despite the fact that 49 percent of Americans think the president of the United States is a racist, according to a Quinnipiac poll last year. It's incredible that nearly half of us would make that statement to a pollster. But that's repeatedly been the case. The same poll has 22 percent of Republicans saying this president has incited white supremacist behavior and actions in the country.
I'm very disappointed in where we are in terms of our nation’s civic morality and commitment to the historical premise of our country, equal opportunity for all. Somehow tribal political allegiances are failing to hold to those values. We seem to be going in the other direction, intent on exclusion instead of inclusion. You can't not see it if you open your eyes, but [Republicans] choose to ignore it, and in some cases to use it.
You mentioned Michael Cohen’s testimony in which he called the president a racist in front of the Congress and the nation. And there was a congressman who then introduced a black person who was a friend of the Trump family and then promoted into a position in government by Trump. And he had this person stand up, like her presence was evidence that Trump is not racist. Well, again, this requires that you lose not only Trump's personal history, but our nation's history. Trump appeals to elements with a grievance against the minorities and uses that to elevate himself into power. So you'd have to ignore all of that. But again, using somebody as a prop to excuse it may be worse even than ignoring it.
Robin Lindley: That was a chilling moment, wasn't it? As that Republican member of Congress displayed this young black woman, it reminded me of antebellum images depicting slaves displayed on auction blocks.
Juan Williams: I hadn't thought of that one. Gosh.
Robin Lindley: If Trump has done anything positive, it seems he has sparked a conversation on slavery, cruel Jim Crows laws, racism, mass incarceration and more, and you have added to the dialogue. I may be in a bubble, but I've heard much more about this history in the past couple of years.
Juan Williams: I think so and we even see with the candidates campaigning for president on the Democratic side. They were in Selma, Alabama [observing the 54th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday, Selma March for voting rights], looking at America and the civil rights era and how we've come out of it. Again, the history informs our understandings about what's going on now and why there's such concern about white nationalism and negative racial attitudes flourishing under Trump.
Robin Lindley: You provide context in your book by weaving the civil rights history into your discussion of rollback of programs in the past two years. You focus on activists such as Bob Moses who risked his life to register black voters in the brutal Jim Crow South.
Juan Williams: I have respect for people who stand up for principle, but to sacrifice their lives is unbelievable. People don't understand the kind of courage it took to go up against segregationists who had guns and the authority to put you in jail or beat you without consequence if you said that all Americans should have the right to vote. It almost sounds ridiculous that you would have to fight for such a thing.
Bob Moses is still alive and living out a kind of second chapter of his life and his legacy as a civil rights pioneer. Now he's involved with something called the ‘Algebra Project.’ It teaches math skills to young people of color, giving them a chance to gain equality in terms of preparation for this high-tech economy. I wanted to focus on his work in Mississippi and in the South in general on voting rights because there were people, even civil rights heroes, who would not have been as courageous as Bob Moses in going down and directly challenging the Southern white segregationist power structure for failing to allow black people to vote. And it wasn't just challenging the white power structure. He had to challenge black people in a way that they had to put themselves on the line to stand up against that power structure. They faced the risk of violence, risk of jailing, and risk of loss of their jobs and mortgages, and all the rest, in order to take part in what Bob Moses was promoting. There's a lot of people who deserve similar credit for leading that effort and that movement.
But when we come to today and the Republican Party, you start to see that they view minority voting, and especially black voting, as a threat. Then you come to understand the historical roots and you start to look at what is identified often as voter suppression efforts by today's Republican Party, and you say we've lived through this as a country before in a different form in terms of outright denial of the vote. But now we come to efforts to push people off the voting rolls, limit the polling places available in minority neighborhoods, and limit the time available to vote at those polls, And you're reminded of things like literacy tests for the right to vote and limited time to register to vote for blacks. There were crazy tests [in Jim Crow states] about how many bubbles are in a bar of soap, or how many marbles are in a jar. These tests were all intended to deny black people the right to vote in earlier African American history.
Robin Lindley: Under President Trump, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was curtailing enforcement of civil rights laws.
Juan Williams: This is such an interesting history. Now of course, that goes beyond Jeff Sessions, who is gone as Attorney General.
Sessions didn’t want to enter into consent decrees with local police departments that encouraged making peace between local black communities, the Black Lives Matter movement, and police departments that were finding themselves charged with racism on the basis of either young men being shot and killed or police brutality and, of course, high rates of incarceration, and all that. On all of these counts, the idea was that the federal government under Obama tried to have a healing, salutary effect. Then, in comes the Trump administration with Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, and they say, “No, we're not interested in that.” What kind of signals does that send? To me, that's a pernicious signal. It's saying, "Trump supporters, Republicans, are not interested in that."
In fact, they doubled down by giving police more military-style equipment. Again, this was a real signal of their antipathy towards racial peace in the country, in my mind.
Robin Lindley: You also comment on the Administration’s undermining of public education. You recount the history of civil rights and education with your story of James Meredith who enrolled as the first African American student at the University of Mississippi in 1962. You capture the extremely violent atmosphere at that time, and the story may surprise many younger readers in particular.
Juan Williams: Instead of simply being a polemic aimed at how Trump has enabled racist sentiments to rise up, I think it's important to tell people exactly what we have to lose again in reference to Trump's statement: "What the hell do you have to lose?" Part of that speaks directly to the idea of James Meredith, the US Air Force veteran who enrolled at the segregated University of Mississippi, and wanting people to understand that it took the federal government to go down there and defend this one person who simply wanted to go to school--this one person again, an Air Force veteran who had served his country. And this one person was the target of such animus that there were riots and people were killed.
It's hard to tell this story without explaining the level of violence that was mounted, and mounted with the encouragement of the governor at the time, Ross Barnett, with the intent of building political support for the white segregationists who would stop a black person from attending a state-funded university.
And federal troops were sent into Oxford, Mississippi, so James Meredith could enroll. There was a pitched battle. Segregationists attacked US troops. Some people didn't make it through the night. Some people did not survive. Even a reporter was killed. And again, for so many people today, it would be hard to understand.
And recently, at the University of Mississippi, some of the basketball players knelt during the national anthem because there was a show of support for a rally by white supremacists coming to the campus.
Robin Lindley: I didn't know about that recent racial incident. That’s heartbreaking. You also detail cutbacks in funds for low income and fair housing and how these housing programs are now imperiled under Trump. And you share the story of Robert Weaver, a pioneering advocate for fair housing and the Secretary of Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Juan Williams: The HUD building here is named for Robert Weaver and lots of times I point this out when I have guests in town and they say they had no idea.
He's a figure who was obviously not lost to history, but I think he's not valued or celebrated in the way that he should be, now especially given Trump's background as a real estate developer. It's an interesting point of contact that there was a civil rights pioneer in just that area who insisted on equal housing rights in a country that had not only practiced housing segregation but also engaged in legal tactics to exclude blacks, Jews and other minorities from owning property in certain neighborhoods.
Robin Lindley: I did want to ask about your role on Fox News. We have cheap cable, so we don't get Fox News or CNN or MSNBC. I wondered how you decided to appear on Fox News after your work on PBS and your work as a journalist. I'm heartened to learn that you present a counterpoint to the right-wing zealots who dominate Fox News.
Juan Williams: Fox News is the number one cable network in the country. They don't tell me what to say and they don't censor me.
For me, what's important is that I speak to an audience that otherwise wouldn't hear a different perspective. They wouldn't hear the historical background that I bring to discussions of contemporary events. The current politics in America is so partisan and so polarized and I offer people trapped in their own ideological bubble a breath of a different kind of air.
I think of myself as a foil to some of Fox’s leading hard right personalities, but it can be very difficult for me. And even with this book that we're discussing, What the Hell Do You Have to Lose: Trump's War on Civil Rights, you have people on the far right who immediately attacked the book, even before it was published. Their aim was to undercut its value and its attractiveness to readers. I find that just so alarming that you can't even have an honest discussion, an honest debate, or people will try to silence you. Anyway, I'm up against in many ways, but I think this is, for my time, the most important fight to be in.
Robin Lindley: That’s an act of courage now. I saw your Twitter feed and was stunned by the barrage of hateful and racist remarks you receive.
Juan Williams: Yes. That's what happens. You have these trolls and then the bots pick up and they never stop. They try to bury you alive in terms of American history. Can you believe that?
Robin Lindley: I’m sorry you’re the target of these vicious attacks.
Juan Williams: I just think that's an important point for you and for the History News Network to be aware of. In the current political climate, there are people who don't want to hear and will kill off any attempts to raise up American history, to help us better understand who we are and where we are today. I think that's what happened in terms of what you saw on that Twitter feed with this book.
Robin Lindley: Were there efforts kill the book?
Juan Williams: No. They couldn't stop me from writing the book and they couldn't stop the publisher from publishing the book, but what I'm saying is, when you see those remarks that you described on Twitter and the like, some of those came before the book was published. And then you see this onslaught of people who say they were reviewing it and they didn't even have the book. But they are so harshly critical because they don't want that message to be given any attention. They want to dismiss it out of hand or, as I was saying earlier, they want to kill it in the cradle. And that hasn't stopped. I just know that the bots or the trolls have been intent in trying to undercut this discussion of Trump and his policies on race.
Robin Lindley: I regret that I haven't seen your commentaries on Fox News. Are you able to talk about the war on civil rights and share your opinions on Trump and his administration?
Juan Williams: Typically, the racial issues come up time and again in American society. Recently, we talked about the blackface issue. We also talked about Jussie Smollett, the actor in Chicago who claimed that he was attacked by people wearing MAGA hats. And we talk about the spike in hate crimes since Trump has been in office, including the incident in Charlottesville.
My historical bent informs the comments that I make about these news events. But again, it's one voice and oftentimes people don't want to hear what I have to say and it becomes contentious. But, I'm in there and I'm trying to do my best.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate your unique perspective and your efforts to provide historical background in your work. Congratulations on your timely and informative book on the rollback of civil rights progress under Trump.
Juan Williams: I am so grateful that you guys [at HNN] love history as much as I do. It doesn't have to be about race. On any subject, I think that the more people are aware of our history, the more they'll love this country and the more they’ll understand the true purpose of this country, which is opening doors, building bridges. We have a great country but we have to protect the ideals aggressively.
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