Two films coming to PBS look back at the history of race in the U.S. at a time when police shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement and incendiary rhetoric on the campaign trail are hot topics. In his documentary Jackie Robinson, Ken Burns looks at the baseball star who crossed the color line, while Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise examines black culture in the U.S. since the civil rights era.
Burns and Gates have teamed up for a multi-city speaking tour in which they shared their thoughts on race and insights that came from their projects. This is an edited transcript of their March 14 appearance at Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. Thanks to WETA for providing the transcript.
Ken Burns: Well, for the last several years … Sarah Burns and David McMahon and I have been producing and directing a two-part, four-hour film on the life of Jackie Robinson that will be broadcast next month, April 11 and 12. Like many of the films, it dives deeply into questions of race and history of race.
While we were wrapping up the editing, the tragedy in Charleston happened, and both Skip and I sort of reached out to then-Mayor Joe Riley to ask what we could do. And we felt that while it was, you know, hugely important that the government in South Carolina had moved the confederate flag off the State House grounds, symbols are hugely important, particularly hugely important in a democracy. They mean things. They affect people in good and bad ways, that this was a positive thing. But inevitably conversation stops right away. Oh good, now we don’t have to talk about this anymore. And we really wanted to figure out some way to advance the conversation, to continue to do that.
So we went down to Charleston at the end of the year and spoke at the Gaillard Auditorium, which was a couple thousand people a couple blocks from Mother Emanuel — very poignant, very moving day for both of us to try to share bits of our films but also try to advance the conversation so it doesn’t always just grind to a halt and we just sort of look at our shoes and pretend that this stuff isn’t happening daily in America. And we’ve taken it on the road to Pasadena. We’ve just come from Austin, Texas. We’re heading to Brooklyn in a couple of days, and it’s our attempt to try to make some meaning out of it.
And, you know, I made the film — we made the film on Jackie Robinson because he had been a central figure in our 1994 [Baseball] series, but we felt he deserved standalone [treatment], and his widow, Rachel, had been asking me over and over if we might not do something. And Sarah Burns and David McMahon and I had finished the film called The Central Park Five and felt we could just move right into Jackie, which we’ve done. And that was the genesis. I think without Rachel we wouldn’t have been able to make this film. She opened her heart as well as her archives and, you know, revealed not only the great triumphs of her husband and their family life but the tragedies as well.
Carlos Watson: And, Skip, before we begin to share with the audience some of the terrific clips both from Jackie Robinson and from your new film, tell us what motivated you to do this latest documentary.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Ken Chenault … [is] a good friend of both of ours. Ken Chenault is the CEO of American Express, an African American, a very dear friend of mine. And I was thinking about new black history projects to make for PBS. So I had a list of 10: black people in the Civil War, Reconstruction, blacks in sports, you know, whatever’s on the list. And he looked at the list and he said, “You need a number 11.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “The history of black people in our time.” And he and I are about the same age. I was born in 1950. He said the last 50 years of African American history have been so crucial to the shaping not only of a collective black identity but to the shaping and reshaping of the United States.
And I thought about it, and it was so obvious. I decided to do the great civilizations of Africa because … one of the worst parts of slavery was not only that it stole our personhood, but it stole our stories, and it stole the stories about the past, the noble African past, the great collective black past on the continent. So I’m filming that right now.
But I thought, what if Martin Luther King woke up? What if Malcolm woke up? Malcolm was killed in 1965. Martin was killed in 1968. What if they woke up and said, Carlos, what’s been going on, man, you know, the last 50 years? [laughter] And think about all that’s been going on since Malcolm X was killed, since the passing of the Voting Rights Act. So … what would I tell them in a four-hour film? And we decided to call it Black America After MLK: And Still I Rise.
[Audience sees clips from both films]
Watson: Skip … what surprised you the most as you filmed this, as you look back, as you went to speak to people in Mississippi and other parts?
Gates: What surprised me was how courageous regular black people were. I mean these were people who literally decided that enough was enough and they would rather be dead than continue to live as a slave or a neo-slave. That’s hard, man. It’s easy to sit around a bar or barber shop or beauty parlor and sell wolf tickets. It’s another thing to look down the barrel of a gun and to face the Ku Klux Klan [applause].
And I did not really appreciate at the time how courageous regular black people were. You know, we used to talk about Martin Luther King and Dr. King and them, you know, Dr. King and them. And “them” was the anonymous, regular African Americans who lived in this cesspool of segregation and they decided to stand up, and that was the biggest surprise for me.
Watson: Ken, what did you learn about how Jackie and his wife dealt with fear, not just frustration, not just disappointment, not just challenge, but to Skip’s point, fear?
Burns: Well, I think that we don’t fully appreciate what it was like to be African-American in that period. We seem to have made some progress. I mean it’s around us daily, but this post-Emancipation, pre–Civil Rights Act is something that is fraught with fear. Just the act of having your kids walk home from school, they could disappear. They could be killed just for play, for fun, and that kind of fear hung over. [Robinson’s family] moved from Southern Georgia where lynching was going on to Pasadena, [and] ran into their own version of Jim Crow there, a much more insidious and subtle one but less necessarily violent.
… What Rachel said is that they didn’t bring it home to each other. … Jackie knew that he could go home and somebody loved him and had his back and that they could make the home, as Rachel said, a sanctuary from the fear. She tried to go to as many games as possible, not just his spring training when he was trying out for the Royals — that was 1946 — but then when he was elevated to the Dodgers so that she could see what he experienced. She said that she used to sort of hear the abuse and she’d raise her body up just to shield him from it, but it meant that when they came home, they could be together.
And I think just as Skip says, you know, we inherit our history from a superficial kind of conventional wisdom … and we don’t understand the bravery of so‑called ordinary people. I think we don’t also understand the dimensions of these lives lived. And what we hoped in this film, Sarah Burns and David McMahon and I, was to communicate something of a very complicated, multigenerational African-American family, but also a great love story, not perfect. And you see all of its warts and angles, and that was important to convey something that looks familiar to us and not something that’s so smothered in mythology, as Jackie has unfortunately become, that we could get out the essence of what drove them, what impelled Mallie from rural Cairo, Georgia, what compels them to do the things they do on the honeymoon and all of the steps along the way as Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a grandson of a slave, is making changes and choices that are going to change America and give other Americans a choice.
You know, if you’re a racist Brooklyn Dodgers fan, you’ve got three choices, it seems to me. You can stop rooting for the Dodgers, but Jackie’s arrival means that probably other teams are going to do it. You can change baseball, but then you’re missing the greatest sport ever invented and other sports are going to integrate too, or you can change. And this is what I think Jackie permitted the space because of the courage, because of all of the forbearance.
The problem is all of that gets tamped down, and as Todd Boyd from USC says, we talk about Jackie crossing the color line, but we never talk about the color line. And I think both of these films are an attempt to … remove kind of the superficiality of the distance the past has seemingly created and make it available and contemporary, and you can feel it.
Gates: … Just watching the clip from your great show reminded me that race and racism really was about class and money. It was about access to the Benjamins. All along race has been a metaphor for economic privilege, economic discrimination, who was going to get a share of the pie. And that is a theme that will play itself out over and over again over the last 50 years of black history and in Jackie Robinson.
Gates: … Why did they want to keep black guys out of baseball? For a lot of reasons, but one was economic, you know. Who had access to the money?
Watson: … You know, with the benefit of the last 50 years to think about it, what do you think about that discussion, that disagreement, nonviolence as a strategy versus more aggressive maybe in some cases, maybe even violent confrontation? And this is obviously in the news as we speak today, but what do you think today as you — if you were briefing Dr. King, giving him a 50-years-later briefing, what would you say to him about nonviolence as a tool to be used to move the country forward?
Gates: Two things. It’s just interesting to me to sit here and watch and think about it outside the editing booth, right. One, I would say to him, the philosophy was genius. You know, how did you get that? … How did you come up with it? And I know the intellectual history. But secondly, how did you persuade American Negroes, as he would have said, to do this … to put your body on the line, put your head on the line, to allow people to beat you and to beat you to death in some cases in order to sacrifice your individual well-being for the collective good? Very few people do that. How many of us do that today? But he persuaded people to do it, and he stood — this was not the first time members of the black community said, are you crazy to let these guys beat us? No way. Stokely and the Black Panthers, we do it.
But I also say it had a shelf life, you know, that Dr. King — it wasn’t meant to be continued over a 50‑year period. You cannot base 50 years of social change on nonviolent transformation. They had a window. The Civil Rights Movement is 10 years really. The golden age of the Civil Rights Movement, what Peniel Joseph calls the classic ages from the Montgomery bus boycott to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and that’s exactly a 10-year period. And then Dr. King for three years after that experimented with different philosophies.
But the other thing that occurs to me — I remember my daughter, Liza, my younger daughter, coming to me and saying, “Wow, Daddy, back in the day you all were so united. You all spoke with one voice. It wasn’t like it is today when we have so many disagreements.” I go, “Back in what day? What day?” I missed that movie. [laughter] And it’s very important for me as an academic, for me as a professor, and for me, like Ken, as a storyteller, that the complexity of the African-American past, the complexity of the American past not be elided over, not be swept under the carpet, but talked about.
The fact that we disagreed about how to be black, we disagreed about what was efficacious in terms of making social change, it’s very important for people to understand because nobody has the solution to the problems of racism, the problems of homophobia, to the problems of anti-Semitism. There’s not one solution to that. The causes are complex, and how we combat them has to be equally complex, but we tend to reduce the past to a single narrative, which is almost like a fairy tale. Oh, Martin Luther King came along and everybody sang “We Shall Overcome” and jumped up and ba, da, da, da, da. That’s not the way it was. Martin Luther King was despised.
I have a scene in here where … Al Sharpton is saying that he was with [Harlem congressman] Adam Clayton Powell. Dr. King was in another room, and Adam Clayton Powell said that is the biggest Uncle Tom in the history of the Negro, you know. … So these kind of fractures and fissures are very, very important for us to talk about. …
Burns: It’s true, and I think we’re fighting all the time to make that history as complicated with all the undertow that it has — that something may be true, but at the same time the opposite might also be true. Which is very much like life, that we can sort of grapple today, but we assume somehow, [with] the past being safely gone, we impose an arrogance that we can then say it was this simple, with just Dr. King, everybody saying we shall overcome. And so all of the stuff we’re trying to do is to sort of complicate that past as it really was or just show it as it was.
So, when Jackie arrives on the Dodgers, he turns the other cheek, and that’s all we know about Jackie. All the stories we tell are just, you know, Branch Rickey, white guy comes, reaches down, God touches his finger to Jackie. Jackie’s son comes up, turns the other cheek, and let’s not talk about what happened before or what happened afterwards. Well, what happened afterwards is that when he no longer had to turn the cheek, the real Jackie, the Jackie who had always been there, the Jackie that fought back as a little boy and threw stones at the neighbors who throw stones at him and who refused to get off that bus and nearly got killed and a thousand other things.
I mean, that’s happening more than a decade before Rosa Parks decides to do that. This is getting him in trouble. He starts doing that again, and his black teammates — the Dodgers had more than one black player, particularly Roy Campanella — were like please, please, don’t rock the boat, please don’t rock the boat. You know, “I was born in poverty. I’ve gotten here. I’m doing well. You’re jeopardizing it for everybody else.” And that really pissed Jackie off.
And in fact they had lived close to one another in Saint Albans, Queens, and had been very close, Rachel and Jackie and Ruthie and Roy, and they actually fell apart because Roy had wanted to accommodate and say, “It’s okay. We’ll just put up with it. Who cares if they give you a bad locker in the back of the room? Who cares if they don’t let you shower with the rest of the guys?” — as Newcombe and Campanella and Robinson had to do well into it.
So this is stuff that we need to examine, and I think that part of that arrogance that we impose on the past is a sense of them, they all think alike, whatever “them” is. And when you add race to that and racism to that, then you’ve got a real problem. And we hear it today in all the dog whistles that come out in our politics, which is the “they” and the “them,” we know exactly what you’re talking about. And what we are trying to do as a history isn’t as reductive, or as Skip was saying, we’re not eliding the complicated stuff because it doesn’t fit into the neat conventional wisdom.
Gates: And, you know, within the race, one belief was we can’t let the white man know that we have these disagreements, we have to present a united front. And that had some really pernicious effects. Think about the role of women. You know, the black men would say, “We ain’t got time for them women’s rights right now. We’re fighting for, you know, the Negroes’ rights.” And so the repression of women was justified by presenting a united front, the stifling of dissident voices, as it were, and the justification of the urgency of the time. So we will deal with these other things, but —
Burns: And this had been going on. In the 19th century, women were [told] — okay, put aside your vote, your work on suffrage, join us in emancipation, then when it’s all over, you’ll be okay. And so Emancipation comes, and the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments happen, and nothing’s done. And Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony confront their dear friend Frederick Douglass, and he’s going “Sorry. Sorry.” And they’re going, wait a second, and then they foment the most outrageous racism about, “You mean you were going to let a black man vote, and I still can’t vote.” …
Gates: Because I’m white.
Burns: Because I’m white.
Burns: And so … these kind of disturbances and reverberations are so much a part of our original sin in this country.
Watson: I know we’ve got to go on to the next subject, but before we do, we’re talking a lot about things that we’ve learned and discovered about black America, but what did both of you learn about white America doing these two films, understanding again that there’s not a monolith, but what did you learn? What surprised you?
Burns: You don’t make history in a vacuum, so you’re having a relationship with white America back when Jackie’s rising up and applying pressure to established norms, but you’re also doing it now in the age of Trump. So you’re realizing in the age of Obama and Trump in which you’ve got significant backlash. So Jackie Robinson at the end of that first year when he is turning the other cheek, he becomes a kind of media darling. He’s voted the second most popular man in America, you know, ahead of Frank Sinatra, Dwight Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt, only behind Bing Crosby. [laughter] … But the second he takes it off, then he’s uppity. And Jackie — those are Jackie’s words himself … he’s suddenly an angry black man and that, you know, all of these tropes, and so no longer is he the guy, the model of who you wanted to be.
So, white people are pretty fickle on this. They kind of like it. The Dodgers are doing well. We’re winning the pennant, but we sure wish Jackie would behave the way he’s supposed to behave, and he’s not going to do that ever again.
Gates: What I learned I think most striking … is that the invention of anti-black racism was used effectively to turn the eyes of exploited white people away from the nature of their exploitation so they would not rebel against their real oppressors and would rebel against black people. [applause]
Burns: Yeah. It’s absolutely true.
Gates: And it was genius.
Burns: Yeah. And people have been voting against their self-interest for decades now as a result of that. We were talking about this at lunch. And the possibility of people waking up to that is particularly poignant right now. …
Watson: Well, you know, Ken was on C-SPAN this morning, and the most interesting thing I’ve heard on race other than you two in the last couple years was a black woman who called in from the South who said let’s be honest, the first slaves were white.
Burns: White. Yeah, 1619. Yeah.
Watson: That they were called indentured servants. …
Burns: And she also wanted to point out that Africans were involved in the slave trade, which is hugely important. … But the very important point that we always gloss over is we make the white slave the evil person who robs people, but this was an incredibly lucrative enterprise for lots of Africans in Africa …
Gates: … Linda Heywood was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ mentor. If you look at page 54 [laughs] of Ta-Nehisi’s book, he talks about a black woman named Linda Heywood, who was his professor at Howard. And they estimate that 90 percent of the African slaves that ended up in the New World were bought by Africans from other Africans and then traded to white people along the coast. So slavery was a messy history.
But if you go back to the word, “slave” is from “Slav.” That etymologically is where it’s from, because they were this large group of slaves long before people were enslaving Africans en masse. But slavery is race and class … melded into one entity. You are a racialized commodity. And that economic aspect of discrimination has stayed with us continuously, but people were in denial about it because the worst nightmare in America was that anybody would have an economic analysis of the problems plaguing the average American. …
Watson: … It’s very interesting that we’ve been talking about whether authority can be subverted, what sort of tools. How important in your mind was culture in the transformation?
Gates: … It took a long time for us to figure out that you could own your own product. That’s why Don Cornelius is so important. The longest syndicated television show in history. He owned it, right. And very few people, very few black people owned their product. I remember my father — everybody colored in Piedmont, West Virginia, loved the Dodgers except my dad, who loved Willie Mays and the Giants, right. So in about 1960, ’61, I’m lying on the floor in our house reading Jet magazine. And it said Willie Mays — I’m making up this number. I have to do a fact check to figure out what the actual number was. But it was Jet, and you know how Jet works, it’s like Negroes making money, and they were going to tell you how big their car was. Sammy Davis Jr. had 15 Rolls-Royces, you know, the whole thing. And it said Willie Mays is making $124,000 a year. And I said to my daddy, wow, Willie Mays is making $124,000. You know what he said to me, ladies and gentlemen, he said, You want to be the white man who can pay Willie Mays $124,000. [laughter, applause]
And with culture that was very, very important. Carlos, I got in a taxi once a few years ago, and it was a black man, and he looked at me — this was 20 years ago — and he said did you ever hear a group — let’s say The Drifters, but that wasn’t what it was. And I said oh, yeah. And he goes, why, I was the third singer for that. Now he was driving a taxi. When I was growing up, you would see these guys on TV or hear them. I thought they were all millionaires. You know, I didn’t know that they were being exploited by white entrepreneurs and black entrepreneurs as it turned out.
So I think that we learned over a period of time — that’s why I’m so happy about Jay Z and the entrepreneurial hip-hop stars because they own their product. They own the fruits of their labor, and they’re not allowing themselves to be exploited in the way that so many of our people like black baseball players like Jackie Robinson who made white people millionaires on their labor, on their effort.
Burns: Well, you know, I think, just riffing off that, Jackie, you could argue — there’s been other things in the 20th century, other civil-rights leaders, you know, but this is the first real progress in civil rights since the Civil War, and it’s happening in baseball. That’s a huge culture. It meant something that an African American was going to suddenly play baseball. They had been excluded from the 1880s because of this so-called gentlemen’s agreement in what was the equivalent of the major leagues back then, but all of a sudden you were going to use baseball. That was the vehicle. … Why everyone in West Virginia was for the Brooklyn Dodgers was very obvious, because Jackie was there, and that it was the outlier who liked Willie Mays. Doug Wilder told us in the film that he still liked the Cardinals even though they were lily-white and racist and Enos Slaughter slid in and opened up Jackie Robinson’s leg with his spikes because Jackie Robinson was black.
At the same time, that culture giveth and taketh away. You know, one of our best comics, Chris Rock, speaks to mostly white college audiences and says, you know, I’m a multimillionaire, but you wouldn’t change positions with me for one second. And so there’s a kind of limitation. And then the class argument comes right up, bangs right up into the color, the race, the racism argument too. So it is class, it is all of those things. At the end of the day, Chris is saying, you wouldn’t change positions with me.
Watson: You know, stay on that for a second, Ken. I think the answer to that is that it’s true overwhelmingly in 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000. Do you think that answer for most white kids in the college class is still that definitively true?
Burns: … Look at minstrelsy. … As degrading as minstrelsy is, it’s actually a white curiosity at black life. Like, who are you? How do you dance? How do you make love? You know, all of the taboo questions. And so minstrelsy, so outwardly and obviously and most definitely degrading, is also this perverse, bizarre white curiosity at black life. And so I think the relationships between the races are not, you know, this one demarcation, this line, like a red-light district, but this kind of dance upwards and forwards sort of checking things out. So I think it ebbs and flows.
I think Chris Rock is ultimately right, but I think you have periods — I mean, when I was growing up in Ann Arbor just a few years behind Skip, we were 40 miles from Detroit. We idolized all the rhythm and blues and Motown and everything like that, and we weren’t color-blind, but we had felt we had gone much farther. And then my kids growing up in America are fairly color-blind and don’t make distinctions. When I do a description, I might say, “Then this black guy walked in, and he handed me this.” They don’t do that anymore. But it’s still there. There’s still going to be an ultimate line. And that’s where I think our conversation has to go, too, is to talk about what is that thing to get Dr. King’s moment of content of character rather than color of skin.
Gates: My daddy used to say white people wanted to be black on Saturday night, but by Monday morning they had come to their senses. [laughter, applause] I have never met a white person who really wanted to become black. Never. You know, like take a little trip down, you know, the black lane and sleep of blackness and —
Burns: Passing is a one-way street.
Gates: Yeah, man. But no, not really. All the white people, please raise their hand, you know. [laughter]
Watson: All right. Different question for you. What would surprise Dr. King the most, do you think, when you gave him the briefing?
Gates: That would be — and it’s something that’s very subtle and very complex — that 50 years later it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. He’d say, “Carlos, how’s the Negro doing?” He said well, Dr. King, since 1970, two years after you were so brutally assassinated, the black upper–middle-class has quadrupled. The percentage of black people making over $100,000 a year had quadrupled since 1970. The percentage of black people making over $75,000 has doubled. But at the same time, in 1970 just over 40 percent of all black children were living in poverty. And according to the 2010 census, that figure was 38 percent.
So in other words, the poverty level has stayed — as measured by that one index, has stayed fairly constant. Now, overall the percentage of black people living in poverty has fallen a few percentage points, but not as much as it has for white people.
But the upside has been phenomenal, and that’s because of affirmative action. I went to Yale in 1969, one of 96 black kids. The class of ’66 at Yale had six. What, was there a genetic blip in the race and all of a sudden there were — no, of course not. We all got in because of affirmative action. And there were phenomenal people there. Kurt Schmoke, the first black mayor of Baltimore; Sheila Jackson Lee, congresswoman from Houston; soon-to-be future Dr. Benjamin Carson — is that right? It was in my class, the class of ’73. … And Clarence Thomas. It gets worse. [laughter, applause]
Burns: You did okay.
Gates: Clarence, Bill Clinton and Hillary were over in the law school. The point is, [laughter] we were there. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell’s point in Outliers. Because of our age, we were the crossover generation. And you look all these years later, you know, many of us, you know, have prominent positions in American society and we’re doing very well, and it’s because of where we were poised and we were positioned. So, the black upper–middle-class went like this. But starting with Allen Bakke’s case, right, within 10 years someone — imagine class in America as an escalator and someone hit that stop button.
… Ken is about to bring out [what] one executive at PBS said is the most brilliant documentary ever done on the history of the Vietnam War. And the reason that’s relevant is affirmative action was introduced when we were fighting the Vietnam War and the war on poverty. We had zero unemployment effectively. And so it’s easy to be generous with class distribution if you think that you have infinite resources, but as soon as the resources start to shake, you go whoa, whoa, you know. Enough of you all in here, you know. God damn, how many black people can come to Yale? [laughter] That’s it.
Watson: Ken, if you were briefing Dr. King, what would surprise him the most? A lot has happened in the nearly 50 years, but what do you suspect — smart guy, thoughtful guy, loved history, loved philosophy, loved thinking about trajectories, but what do you think would catch him off guard and surprise him?
Burns: And a person for whom words mattered. You know, we have a moment, several moments in the film where the President of the United States and the first lady are talking about, you know, not only their trajectory but also Jackie and Rachel’s, and you realize that though they’re separated by many decades, there’s an extraordinary commonality. Jackie’s going through a door, the first person to do so. He probably doesn’t do it without Rachel. I would say most definitely she provides him that kind of a backstop. The president speaks in the same way that when you’re being questioned just for holding the office that you do hold, it’s nice to go home to somebody who loves you and has your back.
I think that Martin Luther King, the thing that I would point out to him is that, you know, in November of 2008 we elected something that most of us thought would never happen before. … People have been giving me grief all along for bringing up race too much, and I said oh, no, no, no, this is the center of American life, and it’s been there since Thomas Jefferson said all men are created equal and oops, owned more than a hundred human beings and didn’t see the contradiction or the hypocrisy and more importantly didn’t see fit in his lifetime to free any one of them and set in motion an American narrative both figuratively and literally that is on that fault line of race — that to have that moment happen despite all the stuff that’s accumulated in the eight years since has been an extraordinary thing, and that Dr. King could look at him and find in his demeanor and his words and his devotion to rhetoric and his understanding of the power of the words something from which he could take great sustenance and I think great pleasure.
I think he’d probably also not be surprised at the reaction. You know, we always assume that when we deal with slavery that everybody’s good, oh, that was a bad period; aren’t you glad we’re done with it and that the better angels of our nature … have obtained. Well, they have for a lot of people, and I would say a majority of Americans, but as we know from this contemporary campaign, a lot of Americans go the other way and take the old guilts, as Robert Penn Warren called it, of slavery and permit them to metastasize into anger and resentment and all of the things that we’re witnessing today and have witnessed since the end of the Civil War.
I mean, it just didn’t happen, and it isn’t happening overnight. And so I think you’d have to sort of think that he would be both comforted but understand the destabilizing dynamic that electing an African American represented.
Watson: … Skip, what, if anything, do you think the Million Man March had to do with Barack Obama’s ultimate opportunity and success in 2008? Disconnected? Connected meaningfully?
Gates: No. A step along the road. I think that the biggest surprise to me even just sitting here and watching the clip is that nobody did anything, but it was amazing to get a million black men from all walks of life to converge on Washington, D.C., and Farrakhan, you know, called them. But there was no agenda, there was no plan, you know, there was no systematic analysis. I think one of the most squandered moments in the history of black people in the United States was Farrakhan’s speech, which turned — remember the number 19, you know. He tripped out into the mystical — I think it was the number 19 … into numerology, and it was like white people had this secret, you know. It’s like what? Whoa. Farrakhan, what you — what you been smoking, Farrakhan? [laughter] I thought Muslims didn’t do that. [laughter]
There wasn’t okay, what next, you know, what next, and there was no what next. But I think that it showed the consciousness that black people were very aware of each other, that we were united across class lines, that we wanted things to get better, that we were in a malaise, that there was a crisis, but no one quite figured out what to do next. And the next big thing that happened was electing Barack.
Watson: What do you think would happen today, given all that’s been going on over the last 24 months in particular, if something similar was gathered or put together?
Gates: You mean would people come together?
Watson: If you assumed that people would, if you assumed that you could get a million, maybe two million people together, what do you think would come of it? Could it be helpful? Would it engender the backlash or further the backlash that Ken was talking about earlier? What would happen if we had a Million Man March in 2016?
Gates: Well, right now what I’m most worried about is the fact that Donald Trump has — well, it’s complicated. I said this earlier, that unlike my friends at Harvard, you know, we’re sitting around watching CNN, you know, and talking trash, people laughed at Donald Trump. I never did. I said Donald Trump’s a smart guy, he’s very articulate, he’s got a lot of charisma, and he figured out how to tap into the fears and anxieties of a significant segment of the American people. And you can’t put them down for being afraid, but you could, you know, hope that someone like Hillary or Bernie or that someone can do a similar analysis but assuage their fears, right.
And what I’m worried about is that Trump is — he can smell victory and rather than attenuate, rather than pull back, he seems to be getting worse. You know, he seems to be making the contradictions in American society his meal ticket, you know, the way that he is ascending the political ladder. And that’s demagoguery, and that is dangerous, and when we see this violence at his rallies, I’m afraid that that’s going to spread. It’s like the fact that a black man came to the White House drove some people in America totally and completely out of their minds and — [applause]
Burns: I had a friend who went to Glenn Beck’s rally, the Tea Party rally that took place on the same day as Dr. King’s march on Washington on August 28, and this friend of mine, she’s a photographer, and she said that she was talking to two men and they looked over at the White House and said “Every time that nigger takes off in Air Force One it drives me crazy.” … And this is, you know, Tea Party respectable. And that — I mean, I’ve heard the N-word more in the last eight years.
Gates: You know what, I go fishing, bone fishing — it’s like fly fishing — with this group of guys and I’m the black guy, you know, in the group. [laughter] They’re all my friends. And one guy lives out west. That’s all I’ll say. And so, you know, we’re all sort of drinking and, you know, you can be really honest. We don’t have enough honest conversations across the color line in this country where people can speak without fear of recrimination, black or white. And I asked him, I said what do you think the principal effect of Barack Obama’s election — and he goes I have heard the N-word spoken, you know, within the white community —
Burns: More than ever.
Gates: … He said “I was shocked. I didn’t even know that they would say it, but they have.” And what’s happened is that Obama has become the focal point for other kind of anxieties, like you have ISIS and, you know, you have terror, you have all these disastrous consequences of the invasion of Iraq. You have economic scarcity. You have the economy in the tank. You have the rise of a small class of billionaires and then the movement of jobs south of the border and then to India and China. All these things going on and one focal point, not the only focal point, but one becomes this guy in the White House.
Burns: Well, you know, it’s what I’ve been saying ad nauseam since you and I’ve been talking about this. I mean one of the things about the impotence of a Million Man March is that it doesn’t go anywhere.
Burns: It’s potential. The next time there are that many people, it’s two million people and it’s celebrating the inauguration, but nobody’s got a plan that takes the conversation beyond it. And I always go back to The Onion, you know, when he was inaugurated, it said “Black Man Given Worst Job in World.” And, you know, [laughter] Rubio just blamed Barack Obama for the violence at Trump rallies.
Gates: But you know what, I think that President Obama also thought that his election augured a new era of race relations. You know, I think that he had drunk the Kool-Aid too. And I think that he is shocked that — I mean, I don’t know. I’ve never asked him. But I would imagine that he is shocked at the vehement reaction at the other end of the ideological pole to his election. And you’ve seen all these headlines lately. I mean, I saw a couple today, all these articles, did Obama create Trump? I mean, not that literally, but did the fact that a black man was elected president, you know, drive people sufficiently out of their minds so that they would actually vote for Donald Trump for President, you know? [laughter]
Watson: So, Ken, Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier, and it’s not a given that the door has to stay wide open or even open up further, but in fact that’s what happened. And so I ask you an analogous question with President Obama. You know, he opened up the door. Do you expect the door to have more Roy Campanellas and Willie Mayses and other come behind him or are we seeing, you know, the second reconstruction?
Burns: When I fantasized about the election of a black president, I assumed it would be a Republican. I assumed that the American people would only tolerate a conservative moderate Republican. And so Barack Obama took me completely by surprise, but I think the answer unfortunately to your question is because of the disturbances this caused not in a majority of Americans, those people who actually sort of hew to the notion of the better angels of our nature but those who are disturbed by this and are, as Skip says, driven crazy by it, have ensured that it will probably be an awfully long time.
I made a film on Jack Johnson called Unforgiveable Blackness. So when they couldn’t beat him in the ring, they applied ex post facto a law, the Mann Act, to him and … we sent him to jail. He jumped bail, went to Canada and Europe and came back, and in 120-degree heat in Havana got beaten by a much younger guy who wasn’t a very good boxer, but there was not going to be another African-American boxer unless a few conditions were made. One, he wasn’t going to be dark-skinned like Jack Johnson. He’s going to be light-skinned. Two, he was never going to be photographed with a white woman, and he never was. And three, he wasn’t going to smile at his victories, he was going to maintain a kind of sort of reserved posture. His name was Joe Louis. And those were the conditions. There was not even going to be the opportunity for the door to open again in that regard because he had walked through it.
Now our political system is — nothing’s analogous. People like to think that history repeats itself or we’re condemned to repeat what we don’t remember. That’s George Santayana. It’s wonderful, and it’s bunk. The Bible’s better, Ecclesiastes — what has been will be again; what has been done will be done again. There’s nothing new under the sun. That means that human nature remains the same as it does, and it superimposes itself over the seemingly random chaos of events, and if you’re careful, you can perceive themes and patterns.
Mark Twain is supposed to have said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Our job is to listen to those rhymes, right? And you do feel that there are rhymes sometimes, and I think that particularly in this discussion of race and the way human beings, white and black, respond to it, that we can be slightly predictive, but at the same time I’d rather be reactive. That is to say, to try to digest what’s gone before so that I am in a better position to understand what’s happening now so that I might have an inkling of what’s ahead. That’s the great beauty of history. It’s not some dead subject that has no relevance. It’s in fact, you know, Harry Truman said the only thing that’s really new is the history you don’t know. And that’s going to help you through the darkest of times.
I hope what I said is not true, but I fear that the reaction is going to be so great. It’s like ah, whew, we’re done with that, just like we were happy to be — stop talking about, you know, South Carolina and Charleston and why we’ve tried to open up the door again. Oh good, you know. There was a period when people declared jazz was dead, and it was like after bebop came up that oh, finally we can say that this Negro music is gone. Thank you very much. It’s over, you know. Whew. Done with that.
Gates: Yeah. And then they got hip-hop. [laughter]
Watson: … Ken, what do you make of Black Lives Matter, both how do you contextualize what it is and how do you think about the opportunity going forward?
Burns: I think as we struggle to tell stories, to develop these complex narratives as we — I hope we’ve been able to talk a little bit tonight, you’re also aware of a kind of parallel universe of counter‑narratives, you know. Certainly that’s true as we discuss the administration of Barack Obama and almost everything. There’s also this kind of backwash that you feel when you realize back in 1954, ’55, the Confederate flag mattered to Jackie Robinson. What are we dealing with? Where did we start off this evening, was at the Confederate flag being removed from Charleston, and there’s this sense of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Certainly the things that are happening in Ferguson and in Staten Island and in North Charleston as well as Charleston and Oakland and too many cities, you know, where a black man has been killed by police, I think, 297 times last year. That’s almost one a day. You know, it’s tough.
I think what happens is that the Black Lives Matter is an incredibly organic movement and yet it’s also, now because of the overlay of our media, which has the attention span of a gnat, it’s also been corrupted by the counter-narrative that has radicalized it to a degree that it’s not radicalized — has pushed it over as if, you know, black lives don’t matter, that those people who are bringing it up are just entitlement welfare people with only violence on their mind, and it plays into the fears of the demagogues and the strong men, as The National Review called Donald Trump.
So I think that, you know, again it goes back to me to original intent. What is it that we’re doing here tonight? Our original intent was to try to figure out whether it was possible to move a discussion of race beyond what we normally do. Oh, that was so sad. Those nine people were murdered by this kid. And let’s remember what happened. There’s a prayer meeting. He comes in. He’s there for an hour. They know something’s wrong. And they’re there in their faith, not the faith that their ancestors were born to, but the faith that was imposed on them and that they embraced, wholeheartedly sat there and tolerated, and then he murdered in cold blood nine people. And that was enough to shock Nikki Haley who ran for re-election on the idea of perpetuating the Confederate flag, now suddenly reversed gears and got it out, to her credit.
But let’s also remember that the discussion stopped there. And now the argument is, you see in the New York Times today that there are nearly 1,200 monuments to the Confederacy, and people are one by one trying to ask some important questions, and the traction is missing there. And so for me, it’s how do you take a Million Man March and have developed a plan of action after the Million Man March? Once you celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama, how then do you perhaps lose the naivete that it’s all going to be, you know, not drink the Kool-Aid but understand it’s going to be really even tougher than before to advance those things? What will we do?
You know, I really felt that for me at the end of the Jackie Robinson project that he had forced me back on myself. And I’m sure this is true of Sarah Burns and David McMahon, that this was an existential moment for me as it was for him, that he didn’t just talk the talk as we’re doing, but he walked the walk. And he got up every day and decided he would try from almost the moment that he was approached by the Dodgers that he would try to make the lives of other people better.
And the only way you could actually have a continuous conversation or a conversation that actually rises, you know, where history is a rising road, where our story, our narrative, is a history of a rising road and acknowledges too that you take a couple steps forward and a couple back maybe, maybe three steps back, maybe a couple. You know, whatever it is, it’s not continuous, that we are obligated ourselves to figure out how we translate words, which are so powerful, and most importantly their dangerous progeny, ideas, into something that actually materializes into action.
So for me, I’m disappointed that Black Lives Matter has been blunted by the inevitable insidiousness of counter‑narrative, the metastasis of, in this case, the counter-narrative. And I just hope that we have the fortitude as a republic but also as individuals to fall back on those resources that permit us to go forward. [applause]
Gates: What I like about Black Lives Matter when I — as Ken was talking … and I was thinking about your question, the phrase the least among us, the least among us arose. And the fact that so many of the creators of Black Lives Matter, middle- and upper–middle-class kids, college-educated kids … Du Bois wrote this essay in 1948, and he worried about the creation of a black middle class, an upper middle class that would segment itself off from the larger black community, that would say I’m out of here. I am going to identify with the mainstream and forget all you people — “you people” as they used to say — left behind.
Burns: They still say.
Gates: Yeah. And if you think about those statistics that we discussed in terms of the rise of the black middle class and the upper middle class, it would be very easy for many, and unfortunately far too many people, black and white, have succumbed to this, but very easy to accept the temptation of forgetting about the least among us, forgetting about the people that you’ve left behind, forgetting about the people that the system has left behind. And what they did was focus our attention on the black male incarceration rate, the prison industrial complex, the school-to-prison pipeline, the brutality of the police, the racism of police departments, the fact that we can make a difference, you know, by collective action, that they stood up and said no, we’re not going to accept our class position, our secure status. We are going to risk our lives and put our necks on the line to defend the least among us. What better tribute can you think of to Martin Luther King than Black Lives Matter? [applause]
Watson: Ken, as we wrap up, there’s so much that I still want to ask you about Jackie, including some of those contradictions that we saw there, but maybe I will ask you finally, to steal from one of Dr. King’s many good books, where do we go from here? If you were briefing Jackie or you were briefing Dr. King, and they said don’t just catch me up, help me look ahead, where do we go from here?
Burns: I think a lot of it was in my last statement, that I think that this is really a call to action as well as to words and ideas and thoughts. And I’ve really enjoyed and, you know, I’m going to really miss our conversation, Skip, as much as I know you want to get off the road, but we’ve been really helping ourselves as well as we hope having a conversation that people do, and I really loved it. And you know what, I think for us it’s how do you translate some of these things into some kind of actionable plan. And it doesn’t have to be, you know, that on Thursday we’re going to show up here and we’re going to do this. Those movements are underway, and they will ebb and flow, as things do.
I mean, I feel that understanding the past, which is our business, helps you understand where we’re going, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that I miss that Tamir Rice is not alive or that Trayvon Martin is not alive. That makes me incredibly sad for my republic. And I’m — you know, we know that if a 12‑year-old white kid was playing in the Cleveland Park and a cop came up, that within three seconds he wouldn’t be dead. [applause] We know that if Trayvon Martin had been white and was wearing a hoodie and walking through this thing, George Zimmerman wouldn’t have killed him. So, you know, these stories — and this has been going on.
I mean, I have all my friends who said, would you stop talking about race? And now finally they’ve stopped telling me about this, you know, because it’s like every day. And it’s only because we have these cameras that are, you know, these phones that are cameras and movie cameras and they record all this stuff, but this stuff has been going on from the very beginning. …
You know, the film that Sarah and Dave and I made before this called The Central Park Five, it was asked to be at the Cannes Film Festival. And so we went there in May of 2012 and the French said, you know, oh, America is racist. I said yeah, yeah. And they said could this happen again? And I said oh, it just did. … He said oh, Americans are racist. I said wait a second. We have an African-American president. When you have an Algerian, a West African or a Turkish president, you come and tell me about who’s racist and who’s not. And they said oh, well, we took in all your jazz players and Josephine Baker. Yes, and you — and she walked down the Champs-Élysées with a leash with a leopard on the end of it. You wondered which was the more wild beast, you know. So you’re fascination is a mile wide and an inch deep. [applause]
Watson: … Skip, you get the final word, thoughts. You guys have had a wonderful set of conversations across Pasadena, Austin, other parts of the country. What would you leave the audience with?
Gates: I think that the most important thing that we could do is address the economic inequalities and inequities in this society that allow anti-black racism to grow. And until we do that, we’ll be having the same damn conversations about race for the next 50 years, and I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of it, and that’s my final word. [applause]