Pulitzer Prize-winning historian discusses citizenship in the United States

History and hindsight | Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed encouraged students to learn from the past and participate in democracy. (Val Taranto/Daily Trojan)

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed spoke about the Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sanford and the challenges of United States citizenship at Doheny Library Thursday for a discussion titled, “Was Justice Taney Right? Fighting for Citizenship in the United States.”

The event, hosted by the Dornsife Center for Law, History and Culture, was moderated by Gould School of Law professor Ariela Gross and drew an audience of approximately 100 students, faculty and guests.

Gordon-Reed evaluated the 1857 Supreme Court decision that said African Americans were not citizens. At the time, Roger B. Taney was the Chief Justice and wrote the 7-2 decision.

Gordon-Reed, a professor at Harvard Law School, spoke as a part of the Dornsife Law and Humanities Distinguished Lecturer Series, a yearly program that invites law and history professors from other prestigious universities to speak on humanitarian issues.  

Gould School of Law vice dean for academic affairs Alex Capron introduced Gordon-Reed at the beginning of the event.

“Looking at legal issues through the lens of history, philosophy and literature adds so much,” Capron said in his introduction.

Gordon-Reed said Justice Taney’s controversial remarks reflected America’s mindset in the 1850s.

“He’s telling the truth … it’s not a truth we want to hear,” Gordon-Reed said. “We want to assume people had better thoughts. We like to think he was just a prejudiced man and that these things don’t have resonance, but they do have resonance.”

Gross agreed with her sentiments.

“I think the takeaway was a really shocking one,” Gross said. “Although Justice Taney might be wrong about the history, and maybe he wasn’t right about the law, he was right about the attitudes towards African Americans in the time he wrote.”

Gordon-Reed also spoke about her personal experiences facing discrimination in the United States.  

“I looked at the movie theater that was [in my hometown] that my brothers and I used to go to, and I sat in the balcony.” Gordon-Reed said. “It was where black people had to sit. Now, the law had just changed. The law said they couldn’t make us sit there, but the culture had not gotten to the point yet that they would allow that. If we had tried to sit any place else, there would have been a problem.”

Gordon-Reed said it is important to analyze the Constitution to contextualize the history of citizenship, race and discrimination in the United States.

“I think it took the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment to get rid of slavery,” Gordon-Reed said. “And there are provisions in the Constitution that we all know that support slavery, and there are things less obvious that support the institution of slavery.”

Gordon-Reed said she became fascinated with history and law due to her upbringing in Texas.  

“I knew that was a slave state, so the institution of slavery naturally interested me,” Gordon-Reed told the Daily Trojan. “There were people and my ancestors who were enslaved in Texas.”

Gordon-Reed ended her speech with a call to action — she encouraged members of the audience to engage in the democratic process.

“Pay attention to government. Pay attention. Participate in government,” she emphasized. “Vote. Volunteer. You’re a part of a democracy, and it doesn’t work if the people don’t make their feelings known and if they don’t participate in it.”

This story has been updated for clarity.