National Press Club

Trump supporters are scared, Gates tells Press Club Luncheon

March 16, 2016 | By Heather Forsgren Weaver |

Ken Burns and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have a conversation about race in America at a March 14, 2016 NPC luncheon event. Club member Michael Fletcher moderates.

Ken Burns and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have a conversation about race in America at a March 14, 2016 NPC luncheon event. Club member Michael Fletcher moderates.

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is speaking to a “deep set of fear within a large segment of the American community,” but Trump opponents shouldn’t mock his supporters, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. told a sold-out National Press Club Luncheon on March 14.

“We have all been frightened,” Gates said. “You can’t mock the people who are frightened.”

In an unusual luncheon format, Gates participated in a conversation about race with documentary-filmmaker and NPC member Ken Burns. The discussion was moderated by NPC member Michael Fletcher, a reporter for ESPN’s Undefeated – a digital site launching soon that plans to provide in-depth reporting, commentary and insight on race and culture through the lens of sports.

Burns agreed with Gates that mocking Trump supporters is not helpful. Both said that calling them “trailer trash” is offensive.

That is not to say that racism does not exist. Burns called the current mood in the country “a retrograde moment.” He noted that comments posted online about the trailer for his upcoming documentary on Jackie Robinson, which includes President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama talking about marriage, were reminiscent of stuff you would read in the 1880’s about lynching.

“The vitriol just for the fact that there is a black man who is president talking about marriage is so instructive,” Burns said. “It helps to show you what lies beneath the mob.”

The film about Jackie Robinson, which is set to air on PBS April 11 and 12, is an attempt to peel away the tropes that have surrounded the man that broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Burns said.

“In some ways, Jackie has been burdened, has been smothered, by the barnacles of the sentimentality and nostalgia. He has been made into a two-dimensional narrative, almost Christ-like figure. It doesn’t reflect the whole person. What we found was we could liberate him,” Burns said.

One of the myths surrounding Robinson, that Burns admits he continued in his 1994 film on baseball, is that PeeWee Reese crossed over the field in Cincinnati to put his arm around Robinson in a moment of solidarity. It never happened.

“There is no mention in Jackie’s autobiography. There is no mention in the white press. More importantly, there is no mention in the black press, which would have done 20 related stories if that had happened. Baseball etiquette suggests that you don’t do that. That first season, Jackie is at first base, PeeWee is at shortstop. You don’t walk across the diamond to do that for any reason,” Burns said.

The myth was created because white folks wanted to prove they had supported Robinson. It was validated by a picture that was probably taken after Robinson was playing second base. Reese and Robinson “made a play together or told each other a joke and they ended up with their arms around each other and [the myth] it migrated.”