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Tom Cotton under fire after calling slavery a ‘necessary evil’ in interview with Arkansas paper

Senator Tom Cotton.
Senator Tom Cotton.Tasos Katopodis/Getty

Senator Tom Cotton is under fire after calling slavery a “necessary evil” in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat Gazette as he advocated for legislation that would ban schools from teaching the New York Times’ 1619 Project in their curriculum.

The 1619 Project, which argues in a 2019 series of essays, poems, and art that slavery was the very foundation upon which the United States was created, won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary and has been adapted into a curriculum for use in schools. Cotton has introduced a measure that would prevent schools that use the curriculum from receiving certain federal funding, calling it “neo-Marxist propaganda.”


In an interview with the Democrat Gazette, Cotton said slavery and the views of the Founding Fathers must be studied.

“We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction,” Cotton told the paper in a story that ran on Sunday.

The remark immediately sparked criticism from many, including from the project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who said Cotton was agreeing with the sentiment that slavery was a “necessary evil.”

Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, responded to the criticism by complaining of “fake news,” and said he was merely repeating the Founding Fathers’ view of slavery.

Ironically, as Hannah-Jones pointed out in a tweet, Cotton’s argument that slavery must be studied because it was “foundational” to the country’s creation is exactly the argument made in the 1619 Project.

More broadly, she criticized Cotton’s legislation as being about who controls the “national narrative.”


“The fight here is about who gets to control the national narrative, and therefore, the nation’s shared memory of itself. One group has monopolized this for too long in order to create this myth of exceptionalism. If their version is true, what do they have to fear of 1619?” she tweeted.

Cotton has frequently made The New York Times a target of his ire. After penning a controversial op-ed in which he advocated for the use of federal forces to quell protests in American cities, he bashed the paper for adding an editor’s note that said the op-ed shouldn’t have been published. The op-ed drew fierce pushback from Times journalists, and the Times opinion editor resigned after acknowledging he had not read the piece before its publication.

“The @nytimes is now run by the woke mob,” Cotton said in one of many tweets on the subject.

Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.