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Episode 5: Jeffery Robinson on A Truthful Retelling of American History

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In this episode of Into the Mix, Ashley C. Ford talks to Jeffery Robinson, who has spent the last decade trying to correct the history books. Jeffery is a criminal defense lawyer and founder of the Who We Are Project, an effort that aims to uncover the hidden history of America’s anti-Black racism, the deep roots of white supremacy in our country, and how white supremacy still impacts so many aspects of our society today—from book banning in schools, to housing segregation, to who is allowed to enter the highest halls of our government. If you think you know your country’s history, think again — Jeffery wants you to know more about this country’s history, so we can better decide where we want to go from here.

Read Episode 5 Full Transcript Below


ASHLEY: I’m Ashley C Ford and this is Into the Mix, a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast about Joy and Justice, produced with Vox Creative. Let’s get into it.

JEFFERY: This is a critical time in American history. In my view, it is our last best chance to get this right. So if you’re looking for hope that this time it’s going to be different, hope doesn’t cause action. Action causes hope.

I’m Jeff Robinson and I am the founder of the Who We Are Project.

[Music comes in, soaring strings with a hip hop beat]

ASHLEY: For the last decade, Jeffery has been traveling around the country talking to people. He’s been reading and researching and consulting experts of American history. All part of a project with some pretty lofty goals. He is showing us how the legacy of slavery impacts every aspect of our society.

Jeffery is working to correct the history books. To fill in the gaps that those books either gloss over or completely leave out regarding something called the Black codes: laws—both written and unwritten—that built the foundation of this country.

And there is so much documentation and history that America, as a country, seems to prefer to hide. But Jeffery thinks this, right now, is a critical point to make a change. And if we have the courage, there is an opportunity not only to define our future, but to change it.

JEFFERY:

But it’s a process.

ASHLEY: Jeffery’s process started, in some ways, with a talk he gave a decade ago on Junteenth, the day marking the emancipation of enslaved people in this country.

Juneteenth doesn’t commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. That was on New Year’s Day in 1863. It acknowledges the day more than two and a half years later when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to free the people still enslaved there.

[Music comes in, slow beat, deep bass]

Juneteenth is a day celebrating end of institutional slavery—in the very last place in the South that still had it.

And June 19th became a federal holiday a long time ago… flipping through my calendar here… oh. No, it was actually 2021…

That should tell you a lot about the stories this country wants to tell, and the ones it doesn’t.

The Project developed from a talk that Robinson has been giving for the past 10 years, to crowds large and small, on the history of anti-Black racism and white supremacy in America. Centering on compelling and meticulously researched true accounts, these exchanges aimed to correct the false narratives about American History…. to paint a more candid picture of who we are as a nation.

Jeffery decided to turn his talk and research into a film. He kept pushing the conversation further.

Actually, as soon as Ben & Jerry’s caught wind of the film, they wanted to see how they could offer their support.

JEFFERY: I went to Vermont and I presented in the Cherry Garcia conference room. And they said, ‘We’d like to do a podcast of the exact same title as the film to help you promote the film.’ And so we did the podcast.

ASHLEY: Who We Are: a Chronicle of Racism in America.

JEFFERY: A Chronicle of racism in America. Not the Chronicle of racism in America. //

So, you know, it was a wonderful partnership and // you know, Ben and Jerry’s has always kind of walked their talk and tried to walk their talk. And I think this is another example of it.

ASHLEY: So look for the podcast Who We Are, if you want to hear more. But leave that for after we talk to Jeffery here, if you don’t mind. We’ve got a lot of work to do. So let’s start at the beginning.

[Music comes in, soaring strings with a hip hop beat]

ASHLEY: Jeffery Robinson grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. He saw many demonstrations growing up, some of which gained national attention. Like when local workers protested for higher pay in the late ‘60s.

And Jeffery’s home was a few miles away from the Lorraine Motel, which if you know... Well, I’ll let Jeffery tell it. This was 1968. Jeffery was 11. It was a Thursday night in early April and he was at home with his family.

JEFFERY: We were sitting down to dinner and the TV was on and there was a news report that came on, shots fired at the Lorraine motel. And everybody knew what that meant. We all knew who was staying there. And a couple of minutes later, there was a report.

That King was on the way to the hospital. And, uh, very quickly after that, there was a report that he was dead.

REPORTER 1: We interrupt this regular program schedule to bring you the following special report. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed –

REPORTER 2: A sniper’s bullet cut down Dr. King–

REPORTER 1: Shot in the face, as he stood alone on the balcony of his hotel room–

REPORTER 3: Police have issued an all points bulletin for a well dressed young white man seen running from the scene.

REPORTER 2: At 7pm Eastern time.

[Sound of TV static gets louder and drowns out the reports.]

ASHLEY: Martin Luther King Jr. 39 years old. In his prime, with an enormous amount of power. Assassinated.

JEFFERY: The thing that I remember most. Is, uh, the look of fear and uncertainty in my parents’ eyes. I think, uh, loss of innocence sounds quaint or overused, but I definitely grew up a little bit, uh, that day.

Cause I looked at my parents and I saw they have no idea what just happened and they have no idea what’s coming next.

Seeing my father cry was, uh, you know, that was surprising. But the next day they were, you know, right back to who they were and we’re not changing anything and we’re not backing down.

ASHLEY: What I hear in that moment to be perfectly honest is that your parents let you see them in their full humanity. And then they modeled for you. This is what you do. This is how you react to these moments when you are horrified. And when you are afraid, you, you stand up. You reorganize, you reset, you keep moving forward and you figure it out.

JEFFERY: Yeah, it was, it was. It was memorable.

[Music comes in, jazzy piano with relaxed hip hop beat]

ASHLEY: Right before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, actually the reason King was in Memphis, was a sanitation worker’s strike.

Two employees had been killed by faulty equipment, and it wasn’t the first time. People were out demonstrating for better working conditions. Those demonstrators were being arrested left and right.

It was a reckoning: who had the right to protest? To demonstrate? Who decides?

And Jeffery had a front row seat to those inner workings of the law, sitting in court, with his dad.

JEFFERY: And I saw for the first time these people called ‘lawyer.’ And they were standing up and arguing about who would stay in jail and who wasn’t and the right to, uh, demonstrate. And I was amazed and, you know, I asked my father how, who are those guys?

From that moment. I knew I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer.

ASHLEY: Jeffery’s graduating law school class was 550 students. Only 10 of them, including Jeffery, became defense attorneys. He spent the next thirty years trying more than 200 criminal cases, from shoplifting to first degree murder. He worked as the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union—the ACLU—fighting for equity and justice.

But a few years ago, it became more personal.

In 2011, Jeffery’s sister in law’s son, Matthew, came to live with them after Matthew’s mom and grandmother passed away pretty unexpectedly.

JEFFERY: All of a sudden they were gone and we were his parents and he moved from New York to Seattle. And, we now had a 13 year old, uh, young black man, Taino Indian, Puerto Rican, and African-American, uh, darker than I am.

And, all of a sudden, all the stuff that I had been doing in my practice as a criminal defense lawyer, talking about, uh, racism in the criminal legal system but it’s different when there’s a kid in your house. That are going out the door and you’re thinking, what happens if the cops roll up on them tonight and trying to talk to him about that and hearing myself using words that were used by my father.

And that was a devastating to me. And I started looking for a help in like, how do you raise a black child in America.

ASHLEY: How to answer this question? Jeffery did what he does best: he turned to books. He’d read one thing, which led to two other things, which led to five more. Next thing you know, he’d gone back 200 years in American history, then forward 50. And it painted a picture.

JEFFERY: An unbroken timeline, from 1619 to today.

ASHLEY: 1619 is the year twenty to thirty people who were enslaved landed in Virginia from Africa. It was the start of American slavery. But many people don’t know a lot about this.

JEFFERY: It’s facts. And when you put these facts one right after the other, they tell a story that explains why America looks like it does today. When it comes to the gap between white America and Black America.

ASHLEY: There is so much missing from American history books, from school curriculum. From even just plain public discourse.

Like what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.

JEFFERY: The Tulsa massacre. There are still people in America who have never heard of it.

ASHLEY: The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa was one of the wealthiest Black communities in the country. People called it Black Wall Street.

[Low tone comes in here.]

Luxury shops. Jewelry stores. The town even reportedly had its own private jets. Six of them!

A flourishing Black community in America – you can see where this story is going. There was a rumor that inflamed the white residents – a claim that a young Black man assaulted a white woman — but that alone doesn’t fully account for what happened next. It never does.

A mob of white residents tore through Greenwood. I mean, they truly rampaged, with with machine guns and make-shift bombs. After they were done, 35 city blocks lay in ruin. Some reports say as many as 300 dead. Many more families were traumatized, terrorized, displaced.

You might have seen a fictionalized version of this referenced in a recent Watchmen episode – that’s the award-winning dystopian HBO series.

The actual destruction was pretty dystopian.

In the doc, Jeffery describes how white residents rented airplanes and flew over Greenwood, dropping literal burning balls of turpentine on businesses and homes. Homemade bombs, essentially.

And then when Black residents fled those buildings, white people standing outside shot them.

Sometimes, what happened is referred to as a riot. The Tulsa Riot. But the history is clear.

ASHLEY: The community of Greenwood never recovered. There’s an expressway that carves through the neighborhood today. And there are barely any Black-owned buildings. Jeffery says the only one is a church.

JEFFERY: If you knew nothing about the Tulsa massacre you could look at that neighborhood and say, well, that’s just black people needing to work harder. And it’s just another example of how, you know, they need to do better for themselves. [ASHLEY: Mmm.]

But if you knew about the Tulsa massacre, if you knew about the destruction of the wealth there, if you knew about how white interest came in and bought up property there. And if you knew that at least part of the freeways ran through an area where they are fairly positive, that black bodies were pushed into mass graves.

And let’s be clear, the mass graves, at least the beginnings of those mass graves were discovered a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago.

And so that just gives you an example of how erasing history can lead you to a conclusion about the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa. That is completely false.

ASHLEY: Ooh. Okay. I want to tell you that I actually was in Tulsa in September, and my Uber driver asked me, um, as he was taking me to my hotel, which was, uh, about a block from the Greenwood district. He said, um, I’ll turn off the meter and I’ll drive you through the Greenwood district and tell you about everything I know about this area.

And I said, ‘Yes, please, please do that.’ And he did, he turned off the meter and he drove me through the neighborhood and he gave me the history. And I said, you know, ‘It must be wild to grow up here knowing about that history.’ And he said, ‘Oh no, we didn’t know. He said, we didn’t know.” He said, ‘Nobody told us,’ he said, he said ‘This school right here, that’s in the Greenwood district that is built right here. The people who went to this school, which was majority black, they didn’t know what happened on this land. And on this ground, they had no idea.’

JEFFERY: We spent, uh, two weeks in Tulsa, Oklahoma, uh, to make our film and we, uh, forged real relationships with some of them leading activists there. Descendants of people who survived the massacre, and these activists, they’re saying themselves, we didn’t know. We had to go back to our parents and our grandparents and say, whoa, why didn’t you tell us? And the answers they got were, ‘You could get killed for talking about that.’

[Low tone comes in, gets louder then dissipates]

ASHLEY: You’ve probably heard this saying: Ignorance is bliss.” And personally, I’ve always hated that saying. I don’t agree with it. And I have seen the damage that it causes when people really dig into that idea and can’t let it go.

JEFFERY: Ignorance is not bliss. The one requirement for a successful democracy, representative democracy is an educated public. If you have an ignorant public, then selling them a lie is so much easier.

Part of erasing history is erasing your complicity and responsibility in your involvement in a system that is now being exposed as, as really corrupt.

And, and, and you know, this isn’t to condemn anybody. This isn’t about making anybody feel guilty. If it’s like, if you want to start handing out responsibility for where we are in America today, it’s a long line. So get in line because there’s a whole lot of responsibility to be handed out everywhere. [Ashley: Mhmm]

What I’m interested in is accountability for our choices now and recognizing the reasons it looks like it does today have to do with us ignoring the truth about our past.

ASHLEY: Tulsa is just one example of Jeffery’s larger goals: to look more deeply at our past to better understand where we are today, and decide where we want to go in the future.

Because the Tulsa Massacre wasn’t the first time a Black community was brutalized by white residents. Two years before Tulsa, two hundred Black sharecroppers trying to unionize were killed in Arkansas. That’s just one example. But if you start to bring the whole picture into focus, you can better understand who we are today.

History matters. The stories we tell ourselves about our past matters.

JEFFERY: George Orwell said it best: who controls the past controls the future.

ASHLEY: More, when we come back.

[Upbeat music comes in, with a shaker keeping the beat]

MIDROLL AD BREAK

[Energetic, deep bass beat music comes in]

ASHLEY: If you want to know about America’s most sensitive unhealed wounds, you might start with what books people want to ban in classrooms.

School board officials, lawmakers and parents in Texas, Florida, Tennessee & Virginia have been pretty busy. They’ve all launched attempts to ban books in 2021... books on the Holocaust, queer identity, and increasingly... critical race theory.

And it’s exactly the kind of effort that reinforces the gaps in our collective history. Deepens it.

Like, let’s even just say what Critical Race Theory is here. Critics claim it blames all white people for being oppressors, and classifies all Black people as oppressed victims.

But really, it’s a holistic way of looking at our history. Not holistic like pilates or wheatgrass smoothies. But like the whole-system. It looks at the way so many, probably all, of our systems—criminal justice, education, housing, healthcare—are built by rules, regulations and laws that are frankly, racist. Like having house deeds literally say in the fine print that no Black people can buy those homes.

Jeffery’s parents had to have white friends buy their home for them and transfer the deed, because no one would sell to a Black family.

[Low beats come in in the background]

[Relaxed piano comes in]

JEFFERY: This is a history that’s been stolen from all of us. This isn’t Black history. This is American history, and it’s on all of us, Black Americans, white Americans, all Americans to reckon with this history to recover it and to use it going forward, to inform ourselves so that we can break out of these chains that have held us back as a community and as a nation for, really, the entire time of our existence.

It takes an educated populace to have a democracy.

[Upbeat music comes in with a quicker beat]

ASHLEY: And it starts at home. With how we educate ourselves, yes. But also how we talk about these things with our children. Many Black families have “the talk,” about how to stay safe in America. The talk Jeffery’s grandfather gave his dad, and his dad gave him. But white families have work to do, too.

Some people worry that children, even teenagers, are too young to talk about race. That white children are too fragile to hear about these things. But, Black children have to talk about them. It’s a life or death conversation.

When white children think racism doesn’t exist because they never talked about it with the adults in their lives – they miss an opportunity to break its patterns. They also risk causing harm they don’t even know they’re causing.

Plus, kids can handle talking about just about any topic, as long as it is presented in an age-appropriate way.

Jeffery agrees.

JEFFERY: If you’re, if you’re not talking to your kid about race, by the time they’re like three years old, you’re going to have some work to do catching up because if you think they’re not being taught, oh yes, they are being taught. They’re being taught by our society, by everything they see and hear.

So the concept that they are not being taught something is just a fallacy.

ASHLEY: And when you don’t say anything, that says something, too.

JEFFERY: So what you’re telling your children by denying them this education, what you are saying to your children is everything is fine. There is no racism that you need to worry about. You’re not racist, we’re not racist. That’s all we need to worry about. So the way the world looks is because some people work hard and some people don’t, that’s the message you’re giving to your children.

By erasing this history, you are perpetuating the very things that brought us to this place. And I don’t think people understand that enough. It’s like this, isn’t a neutral position. This is a position where you are telling your kids, if you hear something about racism out there, it’s a lie.

ASHLEY: A lie that some people want to perpetuate by banning books. By keeping our history, the truth of our history, hidden.

[Jazzy music comes in here with upright bass]

What are people actually saying when they fight to ban books? What are they really trying to protect? Because it’s not their children. It’s the status quo. It’s protecting white supremacy.

JEFFERY: You see parents screaming at school boards and let’s be clear. They’re trying to erase this history and they’re trying to do that because they’re afraid of what will happen if the truth comes out.

And that’s something that I think everybody should give a long, hard thought about.

So for me, if we were really at a point where America was about to go in a different direction, what do you think it would look like?

Do you think the folks that want the status quo would just be saying, ‘Oh, it’s a pity. Our time has gone.’ Oh, hell no. They’re going to be out there. Desperate, out there doing radical things.

ASHLEY: Like storming the capitol on January 6. Or trying to ban books in schools. Of course, this is mostly the noisy few. But they are getting more vocal. And they do have enough power they are desperate to hold on to.

JEFFERY: These are the acts of people that see their time crumbling. And so I’m not saying it’s a done deal. It’s far from a done deal, uh, because this is exactly what it could look like. If we’re about to roll back in the opposite direction. What I’m saying is this is a time where we are engaging in this conversation. Like we never have before.

We should tell the truth about our history.

[Upbeat piano comes in with sparkly flourishes from percussion]

ASHLEY: What does it look like to tell the truth about our history? It’s reading. It’s conversations. It’s not looking away from - or banning - difficult truths.

Jeffery wants to make clear the connections between today’s issues we’re working through, and our history. Take policing as an example. Let’s look at the murder of George Floyd. Some people might think that you just need to pass a law that says officer’s can’t use a choke hold or kneel on someone’s neck.

JEFFERY: Some people will say, oh, okay, well that solves the George Floyd problem. That won’t happen again. And I just, you know, if I could laugh about it, I would chuckle because I’d be saying, it just shows how the erasure of the history of policing in America impacts how we make policy decisions today.

There were slave patrols in colonial America where people would wear badges and carry guns. And their job was to make sure that Black people couldn’t get free.

And so policing from its colonial time into its constitutional time has been based largely on the control of the Black community. This is the job that the police were given. And so policing from its colonial time into its constitutional time has been based largely on the control of the Black community. This is the job that the police were given. And when you’re given these jobs, you start to see a community in the light of criminality.

We are dangerous. We need to be controlled. We have to be kept under the thumb. So the history of policing, uh, has this continual element of control of the Black community with violence.

So when we look at the institutions and what they were designed to do, we can start saying. Why are these laws like this? These are the things we’re going to have to start asking questions about.

ASHLEY: Makes sense. Um, and I hope that we are asking ourselves those questions, um, not just individually and personally, but together and in community. And in some cases, obviously publicly.

JEFFERY:

And so I want to continue that action and have everyone think about what can I be doing to push this forward. Because I don’t think we have another chance, but I think this chance is all that we’ll need.

[Upbeat jazz piano comes in]

ASHLEY: First of all, I want to say thank you so much, Mr. Robinson for having the conversation. Secondly, um, just to get slightly personal um, you know, I’m, my dad was in prison for 30 years. And I’m 35 years old.

And I grew up thinking nobody was talking about these things and nobody was having these conversations and nobody cared about us and nobody wanted to help. So what you are doing, I don’t think you understand, is not just going to in a lot of ways, light a path for the future. It is also going to, I believe, heal what some people believe is barren ground for themselves, that they believe they were abandoned. They believe that nobody cared. And they’re going to realize that, you know, that’s not true and that they still have something they can do.

JEFFERY: Oh my God. Uh, uh, thank you. Thank you so much for those words. That is if there was a level at which if, if we did nothing else, but to resolve that for generations of people in my community, I take that and go home right now.

But we got more to do.

ASHLEY: We have so much more to do, and I’m excited to do more work, as I know you are. Thank you again for your work. Thank you again for your words and your time here today, Mr. Robinson.

JEFFERY: Thank you.

[Upbeat piano returns]

ASHLEY: Thank you again to Jeffery for sitting down with me to talk about his work. If you do want to see his documentary—“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”—definitely check it out at digital retailers like Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay, VUDU, and others. It’ll change your sense of who we really are in this country, and it’ll inspire you to get to work. It did for me.


Into the Mix is a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast produced by Vox Creative and ABF Creative.

This episode was written by Jessica Glazer with production help from Ken Miles and Gary Swaby.

The Vox Creative team includes Executive Producer Annu Subramanian, Lead Producer Jessica Glazer, Production Coordinator Veronica Guity and Production Manager Taylor Henry. The team also includes associate director of client success, Ryan Phelan.

The team from ABF Creative includes Head of Production Wanda Reynolds, Executive Producer Anthony Frasier and Producer Mike Bisceglia. Sound design, mixing and mastering by Chris Mann. Original music by Israel Tutson. Fact checking by Girl Friday Productions.

The Ben & Jerry’s team includes Jay Tandon, Jay Curley, Emily D’Alessandro and Chris Miller.

The Audio Clips from “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” appear courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Inc.

I’m Ashley C Ford. Thank you for listening.

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