Henry Louis Gates previews new series, says MLK would be confused by uneven progress

Friday night, the Africana Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania and WHYY presented a conversation with Dr. Henry Louis Gates about the economic and cultural gains and pitfalls of African-Americans since the civil rights era. 

Sitting down with Dr. James Peterson (host of WHYY’s podcast The Remix) to a packed house at the Penn Museum of Archaeology, Gates described how confused Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. might be if he tried to understand the contemporary African-American experience.

For instance, since 1970, African Americans have seen many economic and political gains. The black middle class has doubled and the black upper class has quadrupled.

“I imagine Dr. MLK would say ‘Wow there was a revolution, that means that we wiped out poverty. The campaign for poor people worked,’” said Gates. He continued, “But then you’d say ‘No, I’m sorry Dr. King.’ And he’d say ‘What do you mean?’ Then you’d say, ‘Well when you died, 41 percent of children lived at or beneath the poverty line. Today, it’s 38.2 percent, so [there’s been] virtually no change.”

Though his latest documentary series “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” has a very specific focus, Gates would like to see African-American history integrated into mainstream American history, rather than as a specialized niche.

“I want black history integrated, woven into the fabric of education. Because, in the end, there is no American history without black people and black history and that is what we have to fight for,” he said.

This mission led him to documentary filmmaking as a way to effectively reach large audiences. Citing his partnership with PBS to produce”‘Many Rivers to Cross,” a comprehensive series of African-American history, Gates said,  “Who else is going to let you do six hours on 500 years of black history? You go to CBS, NBC, and they’re like ‘What are you talking about?’”

Dr. Salamisah Tillet is a scholar, activist, and media critic. For her, the documentary was a chance to reflect on her upbringing as part of the hip-hop generation. Comparing her peers to those of the Black Lives Matter generation Tillet said, “I kind of feel like ‘Oh my God why weren’t we as political as this generation?’ But it was nice to have this moment of nostalgia and remember that we were providing a cultural underpinning.”

“Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” premiers on WHYY-TV November 15th at 8 p.m.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.