One in this documentary miniseries about the social and cultural history of African-Americans, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, his philosophy of nonviolence loses relevance in the African-American community. A wave of violent race riots spreads over the country as African-Americans adopt more confrontational methods of spreading their message, angry and despairing over the blow to their movement. The Black Panthers are formed in 1966 as a militant group to defend African-Americans in Oakland, California. By 1968 they turn their attention to advocating revolution, enjoying enormous support from many African-Americans disillusioned that civil rights had not brought about de facto equality. The Panthers start armed community patrols to discourage police arrests in the ghetto areas of Oakland. Their actions galvanize young people and further their aim of empowering African-American communities. They also organize community programs such as food drives and free health services in order to strengthen the infrastructure of African-American communities. The “black power” movement continues to grow and evolve, encompassing feminist ideas, the use of arts and music, and “cultural nationalism,” encouraging African-Americans to reconnect with their African origins. In 1966, Maulan Karenga invents the holiday Kwanzaa as a celebration of both African and African-American culture.

During this time the “black is beautiful” movement is created, counteracting racist imagery and ideologies with the notion of self-affirmation of the African-American in both an aesthetic and cultural sense. This movement shapes popular conceptions of African-Americans in popular media, most notably television. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Soul Train,” a syndicated television program and the first to be owned and produced entirely by African-Americans. Its producer and host, Don Cornelius, does much to perpetuate the “black is beautiful” idea and brings African-American music, culture, fashion, and dance to a wide audience. The show’s commercials also were used as tools to promote the new African-American lifestyle and subtly educate and improve the lives of African-American youths. At this time, economic opportunities become more readily available, creating legitimacy for the African-American middle class as they integrate into formerly all-white neighborhoods. This is made possible in part by Affirmative Action, encouraging hiring practices to counteract historical segregation policies. Gates recounts how in 1969 he drove to New Haven, Connecticut to be one of a few dozen African-American students at the time attending Yale University. He notes the significance of this gesture and the students’ efforts to break down racial barriers while in attendance, including the formation of an African-American student union and petitioning for classes about African-American subjects.

Meanwhile, the FBI launches a large investigation into the Black Panthers, fearful of what they perceive to be a threat to national security. They work to encourage misinformation and conflict amongst “black power” groups. In March 1972, over 8,000 African-American leaders and notable figures assemble in Gary, Indiana for the first National Black Political Assembly, intent on creating a unified political movement representing all African-Americans. However, opinions differ greatly on what shape this movement should take, but they come to a consensus about the vast economic inequality existing between African-Americans and the rest of the country. During this time economic forces move jobs out of the inner cities, and the middle class moves to the suburbs. Unemployment becomes a major crisis for the many poor African-American communities, leading to dangers such as drug trafficking and gang violence. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, African-American politicians rise to prominence, but most lament that they are unable to properly solve these deep issues.

The 1980’s also sees the beginning of the “War on Drugs,” a campaign to end drug trafficking in the United States. The true cause of the movement is not motivated by a concern for drug addicts but as a political move to appease white communities threatened by the gains of African-Americans. The campaign plays out in communities such as Harlem’s Wagner Houses, where police seizures and invasions become commonplace and strikes fear into the residents. The spread of crack cocaine in neighborhoods such as these proves to be devastating. The government seizes upon the opportunity to publicize reports of crack babies and cocaine dealers, and the efforts made to combat them. The fervor with which the War on Drugs focuses on crack neglects to discuss issues such as poverty and joblessness in African-American neighborhoods, the root causes of the spread of crack. Most arrests are made against African-Americans despite the fact that most crack users are white; the media circus surrounding crack paints it as a “black drug” and many young African-Americans are imprisoned in the frenzy. Legislators approve laws imposing increasingly harsh prison sentences for even minor drug offenses, thus crowding the nation’s prison system.

Young African-Americans search for ways to express themselves in this increasingly dark and unforgiving time. This gives rise to art forms such as hip-hop and rap, bearing distinctive cultures, music, dance, and styles. They are used as vehicles of expression for African-Americans longing for ways to vent their frustration at their predicaments. Songs such as “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy echo the sentiments of the Black Panthers and create a new way of spreading a message of equality. Poverty and police brutality are regular subjects of hip-hop, and their music videos offer widely-publicized portrayals of these problems. In 1991, a home video recording of the beating of African-American Rodney King by several Los Angeles police officers offers a stark portrayal of inner city police practices to the nation. On April 29th, 1992, the officers involved in the beating are acquitted of all charges, inciting outrage from the African-American community. This leads to a riot throughout the city of Los Angeles on the same night as the last episode of “The Cosby Show,” a sitcom portraying an affluent African-American family respectful of the traditions and history of African-Americans and serving as a mouthpiece for middle-class African-Americans.

African-American celebrities reach levels of popularity ensuring that they are liked by audiences regardless of racial identity. However, these few successful African-Americans distort the larger picture of the majority, still languishing under intense societal and economic obstacles. On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina strikes the city of New Orleans, causing massive flooding. Hundreds die and many thousands lose their homes; African-Americans are left especially vulnerable as police crack down on them for potential looting, and rescue efforts prove to be inadequate to assist them. African-American members of the community attempt to assist each other during the flooding when external aid arrives too slowly. The aftermath raises questions about racial tensions and equality again, particularly when it becomes perceived that the government does not care about the suffering of the impoverished African-American residents of New Orleans. In the days following the floods, a government delegation visits the many refugees taking shelter in the Houston Astrodome. Among them is Barack Obama, then an Illinois senator and the only African-American member of the senate. He speaks out about the injustice of the situation and about the societal factors plaguing the people of New Orleans even before the hurricane.

Not long afterward, Obama announces his candidacy for President of the United States. This proves to be an unprecedented and revolutionary move in United States politics. Many African-American voters support him but are unsure if he can convince white voters to elect him. His campaign gains traction and support, but others criticize him as being only significant because of his race and decry him for belonging to the church of Jeremiah Wright, a Chicago pastor accused of spreading racist sermons against whites. The media attention surrounding this issue forces Obama to confront the issue of his race for the first time during the campaign, painting himself as a figure recognizing the issues surrounding both African-Americans and white people. Obama ends up winning the election, becoming the first African-American President of the United States, representing a milestone in American history. Some commentators ponder if Obama’s election signals the beginning of a “post-racial” United States, and although personal attitudes about race improve, they is not sufficient to change the deep-seated issues surrounding African-Americans such as unusually high unemployment and mass incarceration. The prevailing attitude still exists that African-Americans are a “problem,” exemplified by recurring reports of African-American youths gunned down by police officers. Obama avoids discussing race during his first term in office, but in his second term he is forced to confront the issue when Florida teenager Trayvon Martin is shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who is subsequently acquitted of all charges. He speaks out about it, famously remarking that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” In modern times, African-Americans still work to overcome the hatred and systematic discrimination against them, such as community programs to aid children separated from their parents due to incarceration.


  • DATE: 8:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 0:56:06
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 121907
  • GENRE: Public affairs/Documentaries
  • SUBJECT HEADING: African-American Collection - News/Talk
  • SERIES RUN: PBS - TV miniseries, 2013


  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. … Executive Producer, Writer
  • Peter Kunhardt … Executive Producer
  • Dyllan McGee … Executive Producer
  • Julie Anderson … Executive Producer
  • Stephanie Carter … Coordinating Producer
  • Rachel Dretzin … Senior Producer
  • Leslie Asako Gladsjo … Senior Story Producer, Producer, Director
  • Rebecca Brillheart … Supervising Producer
  • Timothy Messler … Supervising Producer
  • Jamila Wignot … Producer, Director
  • Leah R. Williams … Co-Producer
  • George Kunhardt … Co-Producer
  • Teddy Kunhardt … Co-Producer
  • Jaime Sukonnik … Associate Producer
  • Stef Gordon … Line Producer
  • Stephen Robinson … Researcher
  • Donald Yacovone … Researcher
  • Marial Iglesias Yutset … Researcher
  • Omar Dairanieh … Researcher
  • Jill Cowan … Researcher
  • Paul Taylor … Writer
  • Paul Brill … Music by
  • Elizabeth Ziman … Music by
  • Neil Cleary … Music by
  • 5 Alarm … Music by
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. … Host, Narrator
  • Kathleen Neal Cleary … Interviewee
  • Vincent Brown … Interviewee
  • Peniel E. Joseph … Interviewee
  • Maulana Karenga … Interviewee
  • Tricia Rose … Interviewee
  • Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson … Interviewee
  • William Julius Wilson … Interviewee
  • Kurt Schmoke … Interviewee
  • Robin D.G. Kelley … Interviewee
  • Vernon E. Jordan Jr. … Interviewee
  • Angela Glover Blackwell … Interviewee
  • Michelle Alexander … Interviewee
  • Terrence Stevens … Interviewee
  • Chuck D … Interviewee
  • Jelani Cobb … Interviewee
  • Paul Sylvester Jr. … Interviewee
  • Roland Doucette Sr. … Interviewee
  • W. Kamau Bell … Interviewee
  • Colin L. Powell … Interviewee
  • Don Cornelius
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Rodney King
  • Trayvon Martin
  • Barack Obama
  • Jeremiah Wright
  • George Zimmerman
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