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Black America Since MLK: Many a Mile Traveled, Many Rivers Still to Cross

15Nov

The good news about the civil rights struggle, suggests a new PBS special, is that we’re winning it. The less good news is that it will never be won

The good news about the civil rights struggle, suggests a new PBS special, is that we’re winning it.

The less good news is that it will never be won.

The price of human dignity remains eternal vigilance.

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Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, a two-part, four-hour production that starts this Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET and finishes the following Tuesday, uses a wide range of commentators and perspectives to deliver that mixed message.

“We are making progress,” says Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the long-time journalist who is one of the commentators. “There’s just a lot still to be done.”

If that sounds amorphous, it’s the only conclusion the show could reach, says the man who put it together, Dr. Henry Louis Gates.

“Our premise,” says Gates, “was that if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came back and said, ‘What’s happened over the last 50 years?’, what would you tell him?”

On the encouraging side, says Gates, “The black middle class has quadrupled since 1970. In 1966, Yale’s graduating class had six black males. In my class (1973), there were 96.

“On the other side, the child poverty rate today is about the same as it was in 1968. Almost half of black children live in poverty.

“So if you made it to the middle class, these are the best of times. If you’re in poverty, it’s still the worst of times.”

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That situation in turn has created another new twist for in black America, the show suggests.

“In the ‘good old days’ of segregation,” says Gates, “black janitors and doctors lived in the same community. Now there are two black Americas.”

The larger challenge with And Still I Rise, then, says Gates, was “how you write a narrative that’s not all negative or not all pie in the sky.”

Hunter-Gault says the best way to get perspective is to return to the premise Dr. King famously laid out in his 1963 March on Washington speech.

“The ultimate aim is what Dr. King said there,” says Hunter-Gault. “That we be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin.”

She says she sees some of that these days. More of that. Just not enough.

Part of the reason, she says, remains institutional.

“We’re seeing a resegregation of the schools,” she says. “That’s troubling. And something like 85% of the teachers are white and don’t always understand the history of the black experience in America.”

Just as important, though, she says, are the unspoken barriers between individuals, even friends.

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Hunter-Gault (above) recounts being picked up for a speaking engagement at the University of Mississippi by a local black high school student. He told her about having a white friend who was riding with him one night and when the conversation turned to race, the white friend said, “Let me out.”

“The white friend later came back and started talking about it,” she says. “The point is that we all have to get past the difficult parts.”

Sadly, suggests Hunter-Gault, that wasn’t an isolated incident.

“I went to a party on Martha’s Vineyard,” she says. “It was an integrated party. But the white and black people there didn’t know each other. It’s just our way of living. We don’t always have areas of mutual interest.

“Is that ever going to end? I doubt it. But it will get better. We have to make the effort. In order to become better citizens, sometimes we have to be willing to be uncomfortable.”

As the Mississippi-and-Massachusetts examples suggest, Hunter-Gault also looks on race relations as a national concern, not the relatively isolated regional issue some wanted to make it back in the 1950s and 1960s.

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“It’s not just the South,” she says, noting that incidents like police shootings over the last couple of years have happened in the North as well. “What’s happening now is that the lid has come off the entire country.”

And further fueled our unfinished conversation.

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Black America Since MLK: Many a Mile Traveled, Many Rivers Still to Cross

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