EBONY Exclusive: Nikole Hannah-Jones on Her March on Washington Film Festival Award and the Nation’s Critical Race Theory Controversy

Image: Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival

Inspired by the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the March on Washington Film Festival is unique in that it comprises films and other programming in keeping with the civil rights tradition. Founded by Robert Raben, who served as Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice under former President Bill Clinton, this year’s festival titled “A Single Garment of Destiny,” with a focus on the impact of the climate crisis on communities of color, is a hybrid event merging the live and virtual experience that takes place in Washington, D.C. from September 30 to October 4, 2021.

In-person events, which are also available virtually, include the annual gala opening the festival on September 30. Hosted by Washington Post journalist and MSNBC The Sunday Show host Jonathan Capehart, the gala honors Rep. James Clyburn with the John Lewis Lifetime Legacy Award. Another highlight feature is the Vivian Malone Courage Award on Friday, October 1 featuring this year’s recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The recently announced EBONY Power 100 honoree spoke to EBONY about receiving the award named for Malone, who, along with James Hood, were the first Black students to integrate the University of Alabama in 1962, with Malone [Jones] later serving as Executive Director of the Voter Education Project, as well as the critical race theory controversy unfolding throughout the country.

 “I’ve made my career trying to highlight these histories so that we can understand the country in which we live,” she shared. “That’s what this organization does so I think continuing to document and keep these narratives at the forefront are really critical in our country.”

Receiving the Vivian Malone Courage Award is particularly apt for the investigative journalist who spearheaded the controversial 1619 Project, placing slavery at the center of this nation’s founding, and recently endured a tenure fight at her alma mater the University of North Carolina before choosing to teach at Howard University. “It’s surreal,” Hannah-Jones said of receiving the award. “I’ve spent years studying what she tried to do at the University of Alabama. I’ve written extensively about school segregation, and resegregation in Alabama, and really the fight there. She’s someone who I have long admired for the sacrifice that she was willing to make. So, it’s just an honor to be receiving an award in her name. My work has tried to uplift the stories of people like Vivian Malone and a lot of other people whose names we don’t even know who really fought to make this country a democracy and to integrate and democratize its public institutions.”

Speaking on the current critical race theory debates and challenges, Hannah-Jones told EBONY “I think we are in a period of backlash, which always happens when there seems to be some racial progress or racial reckoning . . . we’re certainly experiencing one of those. . .  culture wars, textbook wars, none of those things are new. But I will say that I think we are in a particularly dangerous and precarious time. I’ve been a journalist for 20 years. I’ve been writing about racial inequality for 20 years. I’ve never had states passing legislation to prohibit my journalism from being taught

“In more than two dozen states,” she continued, “they either have done that or are trying to ban what they call critical race theory but, of course, what they’re really banning is the teaching of a more accurate accounting of history that examines racism and the racial consequences in our country. And, so, these laws are really memory laws where they’re trying to shape our memory by erasing it. And it’s not coincidental that the laws are being passed in the same places that are also passing anti-voting laws, that are also passing laws to restrict women’s reproductive rights.”

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As for ultimately choosing Howard over the University of North Carolina, Jones said, “It was the best possible outcome of this situation. Howard is much more aligned with my personal values, with the work that I feel I’m on this earth to do.”

Catch Nikole Hannah-Jones in conversation at the March on Washington Film Festival on October 1 here.

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