Henry Louis Gates Jr. on 50 Years of Black Progress and the Perils That Still Exist

We sat down with The Root chairman to discuss his most recent documentary series, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise.

Series writer and Executive Producer Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of The Root
Series writer and Executive Producer Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of The Root Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

“I now know what Frederick Douglass felt like in 1876 when Reconstruction came to an end,” says Henry Louis Gates Jr., referring to the recent election and the end of the Obama presidency. He continues, “This clearly for some people is the end of the Second Reconstruction.”

The renowned professor and documentarian (and chairman of The Root) is drawing parallels to what followed Reconstruction: the Jim Crow era, a troubling period in America’s history punctuated by segregation (under the guise of facilities being “separate but equal”), public lynching and racist images of black people—all efforts to suppress and quash blacks, and their few rights, in America. This period demeaned African Americans and their progress in America after slaves were granted freedom.

Today Gates believes that the past five decades in America have been another Reconstruction—tremendous progress of black Americans—which, he hopes, will not be followed by a storm of sorts.

“This period, 1965-2015, I was thinking of it as the Second Reconstruction,” says Gates. “This specific period is one between the Voting Rights Act and the re-election of the first black man to occupy the White House.”

Gates refers to this 50-year period as one of “unparalleled advances for black people,” which he explores in a two-part series: Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, which begins Tuesday on PBS.

Gates, having lived through a portion of the Jim Crow era, first voted in the 1968 election. He thoughtfully chronicles the advances of African Americans, from his own perspective and the perspective of many trailblazing African Americans, including Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay, Nas, Eric Holder and DeRay Mckesson.

Despite the many advances in the African-American community, racial injustice exists and is rampant.

“The picture is quite complicated. On one hand, the black middle class has doubled. The black upper-middle class has quadrupled. We have more black people elected to state office than ever before,” Gates continues. “These things were scarcely imaginable the terrible day in April in 1968 when Dr. King was killed.”

Still, modern-day slavery (read: mass incarceration) is menacing: One in 3 black men are likely to be imprisoned, compared with 1 in 17 white men. According to Gates, the percentage of black children living at or beneath the poverty line in 1970 was just over 41 percent, whereas the percentage of children living at or beneath the poverty line in 2010 was 38.2 percent. “Effectively, that [poverty statistic] didn’t change,” says Gates. “That is the conundrum that I wanted to address.”

Gates says that he hopes his four-hour series will serve as a wake-up call to the black elite: “There is a huge swath of black people for whom this is the worst of times. It is incumbent upon us to see that the federal government and private industry address this wealth gap.”

And with the recent presidential election, the headway that African Americans have accomplished in the past five decades could be in jeopardy.

“Barack Obama’s legacy is now up for grabs,” says Gates. “Many of the gains that we just discussed will be under dire threat … now there are forces in America that want to see all of our gains rolled back. And they think that our gains have been because of their lack of gains.”

Throughout the two-part series, Gates hopes to inform and illuminate. “I hope that everybody watches it. Everybody black understands how far we’ve come and the onslaught that appears to be on the horizon, which is intent (at least from some people) to take away what we’ve gained.”

Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, a two-part series, premieres Tuesday, Nov. 15, and continues Tuesday, Nov. 22, at 8 p.m. ET  on PBS.

Felice León is multimedia editor at The Root.

Comments