The Former Community Organizer and Activist Who Became a Historian

Historians/History
tags: interview, Maurice Jackson



Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.


Maurice Jackson is an Associate Professor of History and African American Studies and Affiliated Professor of Music (Jazz) at Georgetown University. He is the author of Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism, co-editor with Jackie Bacon ofAfrican-Americans and the Haitian Revolution, co-editor with Susan Kozel of Quakers and their Allies in the Abolitionist Cause, 1754-1808and co-editor with Blair Ruble of DC JAZZ: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC.

What books are you reading now?

I just read my colleague Chandra Manning’s excellent book, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War, and it’s about contraband camps, many of them near Washington, DC. Whenever I have a few free days, I read sports books or music books. I read one by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court, which was about his 50-year friendship with the great John Wooden, the basketball coach at UCLA. They’re very different books but I enjoyed them both, and Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan by Elaine M. Hayes. I had a few days off for spring break and I took those with me to the Dominican Republic where I also gave a historical lecture at the University of Technology of Santiago, Recinto, Puerto Plata, on the Black condition in the United States.

For work, you have to read so many, and I try to read various things and they’re all very helpful to me. But as soon as I am done grading papers, I will read two new books by two outstanding African American women historians, Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar and The Price for Their Pound of Flesh by Daina Berry.

What is your favorite history book?

I would say it’s between C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880, because they both approach history based on where people are, about the divisions in society, but also about the great roads that people of African descent and African Americans who have struggled for freedom and have paved the way by making up their own history. 

I read both those books before I even started graduate school, and then I went back and read them again. Each time they gave me new meaning. I had discovered Du Bois as a very young man, reading The Souls of Black Folk, I collected his books all throughout my life. With Du Bois, at a very young age, I had joined what was called The Du Bois Clubs, so I grew up reading his work. 

C.L.R. James, the great Caribbean historian, was living here in Washington, D.C. at one point and time, and I would see him. I would go to his house — he was in an apartment on 16h St. and there would be a lot of Caribbean men and women who would talk about Pan-Africanism or Marxism or Hegelianism, and all those things. He was teaching at the old Federal City College where David Levering Lewis and Ira Berlin were also on the faculty. Can you imagine that?

So even though I was not in school, I attended some of their lectures. Over the years I have gotten to know Prof. Lewis and Prof. Berlin, who have both been generous with their time in aiding an aspiring historian.

Why did you choose history as your career?

Well, I had been a community organizer all my life; I had been one of the top leaders of the Communist Party of the United States. I joined when I was barely out of my teens, and I stayed some years, and at a certain point in my life, I knew I it was time to leave that organization. I had to give up politics as it wasn’t dealing with or solving the problems of the times. I was a supporter of perestroikaand glasnostand the party rejected it, so I left. When it supported the massacre in Tiananmen Square, I spoke out against it – but few others did, so I just left.

I’m from a very working class family, I grew up working in factories, on the longshore docks in my hometown, Newport News, Virginia. I was reading about a chap who was becoming a medical doctor, a bit later than most, and he said, “My father always told me that I should end up doing what I always wanted to do.” I had always wanted to be a teacher, a scholar, but I had never had an opportunity. It made me think.

One day, I’m walking my kids to school and I come across a scholar from Georgetown University, Dr. Judith Tucker, who is a world renowned professor there and a specialist of women and gender in the Middle East, and her children were in the same school. I just happened to say to her, “You know, I’m giving up politics, it’s very difficult for me to get a job because of different problems. I’d really like to go to school.” She said, “Well, why don’t you come meet some people at the university?” I went there and met two people who had a great influence on me. They still do. One of them was Marcus Rediker who is one of the great social historians of the day. He was writing about piracy and since then he has written books on slave ships, on the Amistad, and others. The other man was James B. Collins, who writes on early modern France. I went there and met those two gentlemen and applied to Georgetown and was fortunate enough to get in. It was really a great opportunity for me. Part of it was something I wanted to do and part of it was just sheer luck. I can’t say I’ve been in the right place at the right time many times in my life. I guess when I met my wife, and the time when I met those two great scholars. 

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

When I first started in graduate school, I didn’t really know what I wanted but I had an idea of going back and understanding the early period. Because of my politics and because I’ve pretty much been in the South or D.C. all my life, I knew a lot about the 20th century. My godparents James E. Jackson and Esther Cooper Jackson had been very active in the Civil and Human Rights movement. I learned from them and sort of grew up reading whatever I could. But then I read two very different books, one was called The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolutionby Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, and it was about African Americans in the early period and the fight for equality and freedom from slavery during the period of the American revolution. The other was a biography of a seventeenth century Venetian rabbi named Leon Modena, The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbithat was translated and edited by Marc Cohen. When I read both of those books, I saw their approach and I saw then this was the right path for me.

When I was reading these books, I realized that I had what it takes. It takes patience, it takes the ability to sit and read and think; I would say the first thing is to realize when you’re wrong, to put your ego aside and your pre-set conditions and opinions. I had grown up in the South and I’d seen nothing but bigotry; then I became very active in politics, I saw the changes people in society made, so I had to be willing to change and to understand how to interpret things in a more straightforward way, then look at the ideas and come to a conclusion. When I read these books, I saw these historians’ patience, the ability to just go in the archives and love your work. I often tell students now, there’s a big difference when you go to the archives and you smell the old books and I worked in the 17th and 18th century. 

Benjamin Franklin wrote in a pamphlet in 1750, Observations on the Increase in Mankind, and he wrote something very interesting. He first wrote,“Almost every slave is by nature a thief.” I went through about 15 editions of this pamphlet of Franklin’s and I saw how he evolved, and in the end, he said, “Almost every slave is made by the nature, of slavery, thieves.” Now, if I hadn’t gone through every edition between 1750 and 1760, I wouldn’t have found that. To go through it diligently in the Library of Congress — this was maybe 15 years ago, I didn’t have a laptop, I’m writing everything by hand, but that’s patience. Of course he still had a ways to go—because if the slave stole food— it was food that he or she produced. It was their labor that was stolen. The “man-stealers” as Benezet called them were the real thieves. Then to understand that Franklin himself could grow, and to see that in people — that he later became the titular head of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society one has to always see that the topic is bigger than you.

If you’ve made yourself the topic, then you’ve somehow lost it right there, and you see it often when people write and they’re always trying to find something to prove their opinion instead of looking at the facts and then forming their opinion. As Toni Morrison said about Martin Luther King “he made us look beyond ourselves.” A good historian must do that.

It’s very interesting, because I wrote this book on Anthony Benezet, Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism, and when I wrote it, a colleague said to me, “How can you believe this? How can you think that this white person could be this anti-racist, this self sacrificing?” and so I looked at them and I said, “If there’s anybody, in America, who knows what a bigoted white person is and what a good one is, it’s me.” I’ve seen them all. I’ve seen every kind. I’ve seen prejudiced whites at the university, and everyone at the university is not forward thinking and every liberal is not anti-racist. In essence, I could look at this—whatever problems were and put the biases aside—my biases against a people who perpetuated racism all my life and see that there was a goodness in this man, and the Quakers and the people who fought for an end to slavery and for equality. One has to put that aside. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have opinions; I tell my students, “You can disagree with me about many things, and I don’t mind that. You don’t have to agree with everything the president would say, or agree with everything from Abraham Lincoln. You can do that. Now, if you tell me that Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were blood brothers then obviously you’re wrong — but with other things we can work towards the truth.

Which historical time period do you find to be the most fascinating?

I’m a historian of the late 17th and 18th century, the period we call the rise of the Atlantic revolutions. I would say the late 18th century was what I’ve become fascinated with. During this period of time, you have the great ideas coming out of the Scottish Enlightenment, the ideas of the moral philosophers, and you also see them in the French enlightenment, the French and Haitian Revolutions, the American Revolution… so these ideas fascinate me, and then looking at how enslaved Africans who became African Americans, who have been exposed to enlightenment ideas and added their own philosophical ideas about freedom; how they make revolutionary formations and work to end slavery. 

Who was your favorite history teacher?

It was a man named Richard Stites who was a historian of Russian culture at Georgetown. There were teachers there who knew they could ask for a teaching assistant, and he asked for me to be a teaching assistant. He was a masterful historian of 19th century Russia, and some of his students who were studying with him were quite upset, asking “How could you have this man who’s not a Russianist, be your teaching assistant?” Well, I had spent a lot of time in Russia, though I did not know the language, but he was a social historian and he was looking at the influence of ideas, especially of culture in movements on men and women in Russia and Europe, and so I worked with him for over a year. He wasn’t my teacher, per say, I was his teaching assistant. It was a fascinating experience.

In undergraduate school, there was a man named Jake Miller who was a political scientist, a very conservative man by black standards, but he’s the only person during my undergraduate years who I really had an affinity for because he really took the time to work with me. He wrote a book that I still have, The Black Presence in American Foreign Affairs.

Even when I dropped out of college, he kept up with me, because I guess he saw there was something in this young cat and so those two would have been my favorite teachers. Later on, I worked with scholars at the graduate school level at seminars and so forth. Dr. Dorothy Brown, a great historian of the New Deal of women activists, especially Catholic women like Dorothy Day.

I learned that to be a good seminar teacher and a good lecturer, they require different methods. I worked as both Dr. Brown’s and Dr. Rediker’s TA’s. Rediker’s seminars on the American Revolution, on European and American social history, theory and methods, studying everything from Marx to Foucault to E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill had a great influence on me. 

Going to graduate school, I expected the worst—that some may hold my political past, my working class background, my obvious blackness, and the fact that I was older, (though a few others were older) against me. But in this, I was wrong, as Professors Stites and Collins, Rediker and Brown were so very generous and supportive. I will never forget their kindness and as Gibran wrote, their “kindness touched my silent heart and made it sing.”

Who’s your favorite jazz teacher?

I’d have to say Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Ornette Coleman, Sarah Vaughn and John Coltrane. Pops was the greatest teacher. All American music begins and ends with Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby I believe said. Dizzy Gillespie said of Satchmo that “no you, no me.” Meaning that without Satchmo, there would have been no Dizzy, no Bird, no Trane. I read what Paul Robeson said about Pops when he criticized President Eisenhower for his inaction on Little Rock. That Satchmo’s “Heartfelt outburst” was given “in stronger terms that I ever have.” Now this from, in my modest opinion, the greatest scholar/athlete/activist/entertainer the world has ever known. Of course, the music of Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk started me to think about the many different approaches to both music and also to societal problems.

As far as reading and understanding music, when you read what Louis Armstrong and others have said, and I’ve read Robin Kelley’s great book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, you see how musicians work, how their ideas form, and how society affects them and reflects their ideas in music. Just as all history professors and all academics are not by nature good or nice people, all musicians are not either, but they could produce good music. You can produce good music and be an awful human being. You can produce good books and not be a great person, and so you have to separate that part. When I was able to see the creative abilities of both musicians and writers and historians, then things started to click. 

It’s interesting watching the history profession because I consider myself probably the most radical individual or historian that I know, but I’ve learned just as much from where I worked with conservative historians and the way they work. While there is a level of conservatism, there’s also a level of decency. Sometimes, when one is younger and considers him or herself liberal, they lack the human touch, will do anything to get ahead. I remember once asking a younger scholar than me who I had tried to be of aid to if they would do something to aid another and they said “what’s in it for me?” I was floored but it taught me a lesson. Sort of like Terence the playwright during the Roman Republic wrote, ”I am human, and I think nothing which is human is alien to me.” You have to learn about that and to change and grow and you accept people for who they are. 

What are your hopes for world and social history as a discipline?

I’ll give you an example, I’m finishing up a book on Washington D.C., Halfway to Freedom: The Struggles and Strivings of the African American People in Washington, DC and I want it to be a different book, because I want to show people how African Americans have struggled for justice and how doing so can make life better in many ways. However, all these years that people have been struggling for equality in Washington D.C. and for living in a better place, now African Americans are being forced out of the city. And it seems as if the political leaders of the city just do not care. Justice doesn’t always work fairly — you’re fighting for equality and for democratic rights, and then economically, you’re forced out of the city. 

I often tell my students, “Name one thing in American society that has aided black people that hasn’t done just as much for white people,” and then they will say something like Affirmative Action, and I’d say, “Well, okay, I’ll just use five words,” and they’ll say “what is that?” and I’ll say, “ask a sincere white person.” If you look at the question of the rights of women—especially white women, Title 9—it’s also based on the struggles of the rights of African Americans. If you look at the question of the rights to public education, how much of that came out of the struggle for reconstruction, the building of public schools and public hospitals, what aided blacks also aided the nation more. If you look at the struggles for those with disabilities, on the rights of all minorities, on Gay and Lesbian and LGBTQ rights, the struggles for the rights of African Americans through slavery and emancipation with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments... the struggles for justice are linked.

People should look at the contributions that regular working people have made in the struggle for Medicaid, Medicare, for workman’s comp, Social Security, and for just health systems, for fairness in the marketplace. In a city like Washington, there is redlining, no stores in poor communities; recent studies that have shown the very high mortality rate for Black women, and the same with infant mortality and Black life expectancy. That ought not be.

And add to these things conditions where people are being forced out because of the simple color of their skin. A study came out in the New York Times the other day about African Americans who are at the very top of the economic level, and the study showed that their sons will be no better off than a white man with a third or fourth grade education. Now how can that be? 

Today, the nation is going through perilous times and so you want to know that your work can inspire people to have faith and a better life, a better future, always. It makes you proud today and as a scholar when you see young people who have taken such initiative. I saw one young person the other day say, “When young people lead and older people follow, the nation is in bad shape,” and that may be true for the moment, but one day, these young people who are playing such a great role.... Now, one problem is that they can’t stop. Just keep at it, keep at it, and develop a philosophy of life and a philosophy of struggle. To do that, one has to read history. 

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I do own quite a few. I gave away many to Georgetown, a collection of very rare socialist, radical, Marxist pamphlets going back a hundred years. I had started collecting them when I was maybe 18 or 19. The reason I collected them is because I would go travel around the cities and I’d speak, and people would have these pamphlets, and they knew that I’d collected them and they would just give them to me. Where many burned these books and pamphlets during the dark McCarthy years, others hid them. They could be pamphlets on the Scottsboro Boys, who were nine African American teenagers, ages 13 to 19, falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women on a train in 1931. I had pamphlets of the Spanish Civil War, and a couple of thousand of them in the house, so I donated those to Georgetown library. I kept about 300 on the Black experience and one of the most beautiful ones was of Joe Louis in his Army uniform. I gave over 300 to the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of African American History and Culture and as you go into that museum, there’s 3,000 items, and about 8 or 9 of them are on display that say, “from Maurice Jackson,” and family. I’m quite proud of that.

Two books that I value very much are ones by Paul Laurence Dunbar which were written in 1896. The first edition, When Malindy Sings, is a book of poetry by the great Dunbar. I also have a first- and signed editions of Du Bois’s book John Brown and another, The Negro Caravan, which was the first compilation of great African American literature and it was put together by Arthur P. Davis, Ulysses Lee and Sterling A. Brown. Professor Davis and Brown signed my copy. One day, I hope that I can place them in an African American historical library or at a Historical Black College or University (HBCU).

In terms of artifacts, I used to travel all over the world. When you go, let’s say, to Vietnam, Russia, Grenada, Cuba — I never had money for great art, so what I would do is collect dolls. I have dolls from over sixty countries; I have given many away, but have kept my pride and joy. My favorite is Claudia, given to me by a Cuban family with a young daughter named Claudia. People have often come in the house and automatically think that they’re my wife’s. Well, they’re mine...and hers too. They’re mainly folk art, or art from regular people. I also have collected jazz records; I love jazz. 

I grew up in Newport News,Virginia but spent a few years in a small town, Grove Hill, Alabama, in the Piney Woods just outside the Black Belt, and books for blacks were few, so whenever I had a chance, I would just buy my own. I have an edition of Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folks; I must have bought it when I was 16 or 17. The same thing with Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. They’re all raggedy and coming apart, but I have them in a plastic Ziplock bag. Sometime, I’ll take them to class and show them, as many read the books on the internet. I have a pair of chains from slavery times, and I also have a pair of police handcuffs. I bought the slave chains at a flea market in Virginia years ago so I’ll go to class and I’ll take these things from slavery and I will take a pair of police handcuffs, that I found laying on the DC streets after a demonstration. And I will say “Yes, we are free, and we live in a democratic society but the sides aren’t equal and so many of our young brothers and sisters are in jail, incarcerated for the least of crimes.” So many, like a young man in Sacramento, Stephon Clark, who recently was shot down wantonly, unarmed in his grandmother's backyard. These are to show kids that they can’t just live for themselves, they have to read and study to try and produce for their fellow men and women. 

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I have several. One is from W.E.B. Du Bois and he says, “I may not know a lot about music but I know a lot about men.” Today, he might say, “I may not know a lot about music but I know a lot about men and women, about human beings.” Well, Du Bois was wrong about that, he knew a lot about music and history, but what he meant was that he understands human nature and human development. Karl Marx once wrote in the introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, “It is not the consciousness of human beings that make their conditions, it is the conditions that make their consciousness,.” Like Du Bois, he was saying that he understands people because he understood what made them and the conditions that made them and the ideas that they formed. 

The other is by the great José Martí, “All the glory of the world can be put in a kernel of corn.” No matter what we do, no matter how great, it’s small when it comes down to the reality of it all. Do the best you can with everything you do, and be genuine about it, and as that old saying goes, “to thine own self be true.” 

The last one is from my grandmother; it was a very simple one: “Right is right and right don’t wrong nobody.” So just do what is right, write what you think is right, always try to write the truth — never to just put yourself above the subject but to try to come up with ideas and hopefully they can do something that can benefit society. You hope that when you finish a project that it can have an influence on people’s lives. 

In terms of my own sayings, I have many, and they’re not always related to history, they’re related to raising children. One that I’ve always said and is based on something Ma Pearl told me is, “In life, somebody’s always going to be better looking than you, somebody’s always going to have more money, somebody’s always going to be smarter, but nobody has to be more decent and nobody has to work harder.” The other truism is that “Everybody in the shower thinks they can sing” but once you get over all those things, you’ll be okay. 

What are you doing next?

I have been involved in a few important initiatives at Georgetown. I directed a report where I worked with two cohorts of graduate public policy students, titled “An Analysis: African American Employment, Populations & Housing Trends in Washington, D.C.” as my final act as the inaugural Chair of the D.C. Commission on African American Affairs (2013-2016). The Commission was established on the initiative of then city council member, the late Marian Barry, and then Mayor Vincent Gray appointed me to head it. The key role was to analyze why D.C. was losing so much of its African American population and to offer recommendations to halt the flow. The report has been received beyond my own expectations. 

When I reported on the finding at the John Wilson Building, (D.C.’s City Hall) many of the Council members spoke glowingly of it. Then Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted the report to all of her cabinet, government workers, and community leaders. I was very moved by that. A few months before, in conjunction with the GU School of Nursing and Health Studies, we issued a report, “The Health of the African American Community in the District of Columbia: Disparities and Recommendations.” It may seem a bit odd that the reports were both conducted at GU instead of by the Commission itself. The fact is, the city officials offered little to no assistance in this work, so I reached out to my colleagues at the University, who aided me in this research. 

GU President Jack DeGioia also appointed me a member of Georgetown’s Slavery Working Group. Its task was to issue a report to President DeGioia and the Board of Directors of the University. By now, most know of the report’s findings and of the school’s efforts to come to grips with its ownership of slaves and its work with the descendants of the GU 272, the enslaved Africans sold to traders in Louisiana. We offered a long list of recommendations — some that can easily be met and others relating to what we must do that will take a longer time.

I was also a member of a body appointed by President DeGioia called the Racial Justice Initiative that is working to establish an institute at the school to study and mainly work on issues related to racial inequality in our nation. In the near period, GU will establish both an Institute of Slavery and a Racial Justice Institute composed of scholars already at the college and at the Law and Medical Schools and will also bring in others.

The GU president asked me to give him some 10 names of cutting-edge scholars and innovators who might be invited to speak at the school. Knowing that he had also asked others, I gave him only one name. That person is the pianist, composer, and MacArthur Genius Award winner, Jason Moran, who is also the Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, the same position that the legendary Dr. Billy Taylor held before he died. In the fall of 2017, Moran became Distinguished Artist in Residence at GU, giving two public lectures a semester. This semester, he joined in with the recently appointed head of the Mellon Foundation and Columbia University professor, Dr. Elizabeth Alexander. Through poetry and music, they conversed about the sounds and art of Washington D.C., of her youth, and of his time in Houston, Texas. Moran also performed on April 4th at Georgetown University’s tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th Anniversary of his assassination. 

The new co-edited book with Blair Ruble, DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC on music and jazz in Washington D.C., which shows how the music has drawn people together and helped them struggle for equality and justice, comes out soon. How did music help desegregate the city? These are the things I want my work to have influence on. 

Once I finish this D.C. book, Halfway to Freedom: The Struggles and Strivings of the African American People in Washington, DC, the next project is to look at the many ways that African Americans have fought for freedom.  I want to look at how music, sports, philosophy, theater, dance, have all been such an important part in forming this nation, but also the African American people. I guess I’m about a third or halfway through that. I’ve written about the great bass player, Charlie Haden, and doing that, I was able to see how music—from the Negro spirituals to jazz—has had a great impact on people’s ideas, and on this marvelous man who grew up in the Ozarks and became such a social activist. Charlie was a very dear friend for many years. I could just list the names of song after song up until the present time influencing how people respond, giving people faith during dark times. I also want to do an autobiographical journey, not just about me, but about growing up Black and poor in the South, working through school, working at a shipyard, studying philosophy and these ideas and seeing the world change; how these philosophies and ideas have helped shape people.


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