If American history was a song, 1965 was a break. Since the close of the Civil War a hundred years before, Jim Crow had been calling the tune from the deepest parts of the South to the halls of Congress, silencing ex-slaves and their descendants through the denial of their most basic constitutional rights. That tune changed in the summer of 1965, and not because I was about to turn fifteen in my little corner of Piedmont, West Virginia. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, following the long and bloody march out of Selma, the federal government took a direct role in guaranteeing African Americans the right to participate in – and shape – our democracy in the most fundamental way. In doing so, we transformed America in ways none among us could have imagined, including electing a black man to the White House within our lifetimes – and then re-electing him for a second term, so that, as history sometimes rhymes, he would be President when it came time to return to Selma to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the law that made his rise, and ours, possible.
And Still I Rise: Black America since MLK represents my attempt to trace the ark of this history over the past fifty years. It is, in short, the story of my generation – a generation that came of age in the 1950s and 60s, when the color line in America was not only a fact of life but a law in the land; a generation that went to college as the first beneficiaries of affirmative action programs targeting historical discrimination and that integrated historically white institutions in significant numbers; a generation that reached unimaginable heights, from the top of the charts to prime time to the corner office to the Oval Office; a generation who could tell our children and grandchildren they could be whatever they wished to be, and believe it.
Yet, as these plates have shifted in America, breaking the nation away from a painful, often violent past, other cracks have appeared, or widened, within and beyond African American culture and society. As much as the story since 1965 is one of seeing successful African Americans rise in virtually every facet of American life, defining its face and its voice to the world, it also is a story in which too many black lives, especially children, are trapped in unhopeful, and impoverished, circumstances; in which structural inequalities have worked against families trying to “make a way out of no way” in a de-industrializing age; in which trust has broken down between African American communities and those sworn to protect them; in which our politics have become increasingly polarized along class and racial lines; in which too many of our young see their prospects dimmed by a justice system that has had an easier time issuing sentences than deriving solutions; in which our public schools are re-segregating after a peak of integration in the late 1980s; and in which the very law that has meant the most to our rise, the Voting Rights Act, is being eroded. Why, many among ask, do we still have to march to protect our rights?
In many ways, it might be said we are living through the best of times and the worst of times, to borrow from Dickens. And in exploring the personal and shared stories of the 42 million who make up black America today, And Still I Rise grapples with both, while making sense of the extraordinary journey we have made since heroes like John Lewis and Amelia Boynton crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
Looking back at the last half-century and ahead to the one that will follow, I have, in working on this film, asked myself and others whom I have met: what would Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, the shepherding change-agents at the beginning of this journey, each martyred too soon, like Medgar Evers and others, think of the progress we have made as a people, and as a country, if somehow they could come back to life and survey 1965 to 2016 from the mountaintops above time and space? What would they say about the unity and divergence they see? How would our history measure up to the power of their dreams? Which bridges have we crossed for good and which remain before us?
I could not possibly have sought answers to these questions without the support of Bank of America. Your belief in And Still I Rise, and in the stories it tells for the viewers of PBS (another noble institution born in the 60s), fill me both with pride and hope for the future that opened up before us in 1965.
You have my deepest thanks for your ongoing commitment to filmmakers like me who yearn to understand and share the American story.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.