Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise looks at the last five decades of African American history since the major civil rights victories through the eyes of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., exploring the tremendous gains and persistent challenges of these years. Drawing on eyewitness accounts, scholarly analysis and rare archival footage, the series illuminates our recent past and paints a complex and comprehensive portrait of black America since 1965, while raising urgent questions about the future of the African American community — and our nation as a whole.
Every aspect of the series — from its visual approach to its music, narrative scope and Gates’ intimate tone — has been crafted to stir deep reflection. How far have we come toward racial equality since the civil rights era? What does it mean to be black today? How have we, as a nation, elected a black President while events like those in Ferguson continue to occur? All Americans, whatever their race and whenever they were born, want to make sense of the last 50 years of our history. This series drives straight to the heart of those questions with uncompromising honesty, rejecting the conventional narrative of our times to make this history tangible, immediate and compelling.
The series begins at a point where the story we Americans tell about ourselves becomes complicated. Almost every schoolchild today learns about the civil rights movement — about how our nation moved itself forward, against the will of many, out of a shameful past. It’ s a story of great courage and sacrifice — of people who came together in struggle, willing to pay the ultimate price. It’ s also, ultimately, a story of great success: black Americans are no longer forced to the back of the bus, or strung up by lynch mobs. Yet what has happened since? This is where the story gets more complex — where we step out of the sanctified past, and into the raw, conflicted present.
Today, African Americans wield influence in every domain, from politics and business to academia and the arts. At the same time, black people are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites, and possess 13 times less wealth. Many of our schools and neighborhoods are more segregated than they were in 1965, and police killings of black citizens in places like Baltimore and Baton Rouge recur with tragic frequency — provoking radically different responses within black and white communities. How did we end up here, when half a century ago racial equality seemed imminent — even inevitable? Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise offers a fresh examination of key events and turning points of the last five decades — animated by viewpoints that have rarely been heard on television, ideas that are not often said out loud, and questions that many are afraid to ask. How much of the promise of the civil rights movement has been realized? What obstacles still stand in the way? How have African Americans themselves contributed to this trajectory? Did attempts to level the playing field for black people come at the expense of white people? And, as we turn from the past to the present moment: What are black interests today? Have we moved on from the ideas about race that once defined us? And if so, why does race still have the power to divide?
Premieres Tuesday, November 15, 2016 at 8 pm ET on PBS
HOUR ONE: OUT OF THE SHADOWS
The series begins at a crucial turning point in American history: the Selma marches that led to the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the urban rebellion that broke out in Watts just a few days later. Watts marked a new phase in the black struggle, revealing that our nation’ s racial issues were not confined to the Jim Crow South — and that true equality would not come through laws alone. African Americans wanted access to better jobs, housing and education, and an end to police brutality, and they felt emboldened to try new strategies for achieving those goals. Gates travels from Watts to rural Alabama, where he learns how Stokely Carmichael helped African Americans form their own political party — the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which ran an all-black ticket and sought political power in the face of white terror. In Chicago, activist Prexy Nesbitt tells Gates how Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired by the changing times, waged war on housing segregation and economic injustice in the urban north, meeting fierce resistance. In Oakland, Kathleen Cleaver reveals how radical groups like the Black Panthers, impatient with the nonviolent tactics of the past, confronted white authority with a new spirit of defiance. Reverend Jesse Jackson recounts the shocking assassination of Dr. King in 1968, which unleashed a massive wave of rage and mourning, raising fears that civil rights had suffered a lethal blow. The wheels of progress were already in motion, however. African Americans like Gates and his Yale classmate Sheila Jackson Lee discovered a widening field of opportunities thanks to affirmative action and the crumbling of racial barriers. Popular music, films, and television shows increased the visibility of African Americans, and conveyed a new message: Black is beautiful. At the same time, the rising call for Black Power inspired artists like Sonia Sanchez and athletes like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to redefine American culture, politics, and society — and to see themselves in a new way.
HOUR TWO: Move On Up
The second hour dramatizes the diverging paths for African Americans that emerged in the 1970s and early ‘ 80s, as well as the outbursts of white backlash that marked these years. We see how the civil rights era propelled a growing portion of black America into true upward mobility, allowing them to join the middle class and move to affluent suburbs — like the Oliver family, who Gates visits in Laurelton, New York. On a parallel path, black politicians began to enjoy success not seen since Reconstruction. Gates relives with Vernon Jordan the moment when his childhood friend, Maynard Jackson, Jr., was elected the first black mayor of Atlanta — part of a wave of change that gave African Americans a real voice within the system at last. In these years of mounting opportunity, feminist authors like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison shed light on the experience of African American women, and even television sitcoms like The Jeffersons and Good Times depicted the diversity of black life. But at the same time, white America’ s tolerance for black success was starting to wear thin. Hank Aaron’ s shattering of Babe Ruth’ s home-run record provoked a racist backlash, and affirmative action faced serious challenges in the U.S. Supreme Court. Even school integration hit roadblocks in the North: Phyllis Ellison Feaster, who started high school in 1974, shares with Gates her painful memories of the Boston busing crisis. By the late 1970s, the tide seemed to be turning. As the global economy took a turn for the worse, white resentment of black success sharpened, and Ronald Reagan evoked a new, racially-tinged bogeyman: the “ welfare queen.” But black America refused to surrender. Meeting with a diverse array of witnesses to the time —from political consultant and current Interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee Donna Brazile to rapper Nas— Gates explores how, as inner cities fell into disrepair, African Americans found new sources of hope, from the creation of a newly-minted culture — hip-hop — to the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson.
Premieres Tuesday, November 22, 2016 at 8 pm ET on PBS
HOUR THREE: KEEP YOUR HEAD UP
The third hour reveals profound fissures within the country — and within black America — that deepened through the 1980s and ‘ 90s, just as African Americans were becoming more visible than ever. Gates visits his old friends Oprah Winfrey and Bob Johnson, who blazed astonishing trails during this era, reaching levels of success that Dr. King would never have imagined possible. Yet he also talks with Reverend Al Sharpton, who recalls the desperate fight mounted within poor black communities against a terrifying new scourge that was tearing lives and families apart: crack cocaine. Gates learns from Ronald Day, who grew up in the South Bronx, how hard it was to resist the profits of the crack business — a livelihood that eventually sent Day to prison, and fueled the spread of ever-harsher crime laws and policing tactics all over the country. Meeting with former Attorney General Eric Holder, Gates dissects the tragedy of America’ s War on Drugs, mapping out the dire consequences of an unprecedented prison-building boom set against the dismantling of the country’ s social safety net — a deadly combination that devastated many of the poorest and most vulnerable black communities. At the same time, Gates shows how many Americans, dazzled by the prominence of black superstars from Bill Cosby to Michael Jackson, and surrounded by compelling evidence of a well-established black middle class, were becoming convinced that racial inequality had been vanquished for good. The era’ s racial flashpoints called this view into serious doubt, however. The controversial Rodney King and O.J. Simpson verdicts, and the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas— which Gates revisits with eyewitnesses like LAPD officer Stephany Powell and Thomas protégé Armstrong Williams— attested to the persistence of the color line in American society, despite the increasing diversity of the black community.
HOUR FOUR: TOUCH THE SKY
The final hour brings the story up to the present day. As the 21st Century dawned, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina came as a wake-up call, revealing that the black poor were still grappling with issues that the civil rights movement set out to resolve decades earlier. After this sobering revelation, Senator Barack Obama’ s announcement that he would run for President sparked a wave of hope that the country might at last be ready for real change. Voters of all races carried Obama to victory in 2008, setting off excited speculation that America had finally become a “ post-racial” nation — even if nobody was quite sure what that meant. Former Attorney General Eric Holder gives Gates an inside view on the challenges of the Obama Presidency. While the symbolic importance of a black family in the White House was enormous, once Obama took office, he had to confront two foreign wars and a massive financial crisis —along with partisan attempts to block his political agenda that took on a distinctly racial tone. Moreover, as Gates carefully shows, America’ s old problems did not disappear with the election of a black president. At a Boston public school, teacher Marcus Walker shows Gates the new face of racial and economic segregation. Ronald Day, who became a criminal justice advocate after prison, returns to illuminate the harsh reality of mass incarceration: a staggering number of black men still behind bars, and daunting challenges awaiting them on the outside. As incidents of lethal police brutality continued to occur, a new movement began taking shape, with young activists like DeRay Mckesson and Alicia Garza and high-profile entertainers and artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar rallying around a starkly simple new slogan: Black Lives Matter. The series ends where it began: on the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, with Gates raising questions about the past and future of black America: Why does racial equality still elude us? What would it take to realize the goals of the civil rights movement? And what lies ahead in the years to come? Just one thing is certain: with the determination and strength wrought by years of struggle, African Americans will find a way forward.