PBS – Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise
By Valerie Milano
Beverly Hills, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/16/16 – With eerie timing, PBS premiered its four part series PBS Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise on Tuesday night November 15, 2016. Current events cast a shadow that couldn’t be more ironic or scarifying. As Episode I (Out of The Shadows) airs, the nation’s first black president is suffering the indignity of turning over his office and legacy to a racist strongman who impugned his predecessor’s legitimacy as a leader and a man, who has been endorsed by the KKK, and who intends to install a virulent white supremacist as his most trusted and influential advisor.
With that context in place, “Out of the Shadows” chronicles the successes and struggles of the modern civil rights movement that began in the sixties. Henry Louis Gates (host) kicks starts the series with the Voting Rights Act of 1965; a cornerstone of Black America’s gradual ascension to the upper echelons of political power; a statute now hobbled by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that diluted its power to ensure equal access to the voting booth by citizens of color.
Archival footage is interspersed with interview segments featuring grizzled veterans of the movement. Cornell West, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Bell Hooks and others. However, the background players of the movement have stories to tell that are just as edifying. Phillis Ellison brings us back to the near forgotten struggle to integrate the Boston school district in 1974. That struggle made the word “busing” a hot button topic throughout the country. The threats of violence and the harassment of the kids at South Boston High School confirmed that racism and the spirit of Jim Crow was not the sole domain of the Deep South. Additionally, the dog whistle politics and policies of the Reagan years are examined and draw disturbing parallels to today’s discourse.
Whereas the first hour focused directly on ‘The Movement’ and its successes pursuant to Martin Luther King’s “dream”; the second hour “Moving On UP” and the third installment “Keep Your Head Up” (airing November 22), focus on the mainstreaming of black culture on TV and media. Sitcoms like The Jeffersons, and The Cosby Show gave us a peek into a new black middle class; while light entertainment like Soul Train greased the rails for an avalanche of black urban music in the decades to follow. A new black iconography jolted the sensibilities of white America. Mega-celebrities like James Brown, Muhammed Ali, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Prince…et al, presaged the great crossover effect seen in today’s rainbow celebrity culture, while (at the same time) alerting the world to the economic buying power of the black community. Moreover, unlike the majority of black celebrities from post-war America during the 50’s, these new stars were confrontational and provocative.
Gates stresses to point out that this mainstreaming is not indicative of a war won. Individual success stories (Barack Obama) can be dangerously conflated to argue that MLK’s dream has been achieved; when the reality is, the new black iconography is a pleasing façade obscuring the fact we are still a country divided, scarred and unequal – same as it ever was. Gates cites the new multicultural elite as a red flag to a new white underclass, decimated by globalism and technology. An underclass that believes the pendulum has swung too far, too fast, and needs to be forcibly reset to a time when white working men drove the economic engine of the industrial world.
The final episode will be devoted to modern American sea changes like Barack Obama, Hurricane Katrina and the Black Lives Matter movement. It will be compelling viewing no doubt. However, current events as they unfold will contribute a poignancy that may render it heartbreaking to watch.