Henry Louis Gates Jr. speaks to BYU students about the Reconstruction Era and racism

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Preston Crawley
Students pose with Henry Louis Gates Jr. following Tuesday, Nov. 19’s forum. (Preston Crawley)

“I love being in Utah because I love genealogy,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. said as he addressed BYU students in a Nov. 19 forum at the BYU Marriott Center. 

Gates is a lauded historian, filmmaker and cultural critic who runs a research lab in the department of African American studies at Harvard University. He has over 50 honorary degrees from various universities. He has also worked on several television shows, including “Finding Your Roots” and an upcoming documentary on black history in America with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Gates showed clips of both shows to students, and the segments included cameos from celebrities like Jordan Peele, Melissa McCarthy, John Legend and Jeff Goldblum.

Gates then showed a clip from a film he’s working on about the Reconstruction Era. Gates explained that the Reconstruction Era, which immediately followed the Civil War, is often not taught in school. The lack of education about the Reconstruction Era has led to many students’ questions and a general misunderstanding of the Civil Rights movement, he said.

According to Gates, the Reconstruction Era granted black Americans “a small measure” of freedom. They were allowed to vote, and some were even elected to political office. 

However, Gates said the Reconstruction Era was met with severe and often violent backlash. He told students about the discrimination black people faced, such as high voting fees and crimes like lynching. Gates explained that movements like white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan were born in response to the freedoms black men were given. 

According to Gates, America has not yet recovered from the Reconstruction Era’s backlash, noting that President Barack Obama’s election was met with similar racist responses. The time to change is now, Gates told students addressing the importance of recognizing biases.

“History repeats itself,” Gates said. “But only if we let it.”

The next devotional will take place on Dec. 3, and will be given by Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. 

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