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Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and other experts reflect on black America since MLK

Since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, how much of the promise of the civil rights movement has been realized, and what obstacles still stand in the way?

This question framed recent remarks from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, who visited Brookings to discuss his new PBS special, “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” and to set the stage for a panel discussion about the last five decades of African-American history and the challenges that remain for many black Americans.

What would MLK think about black America today?

While reflecting on what type of conversation he would have if Dr. King were to come back today, Gates noted that while he could proudly point to some major progress—such as the fact that the black middle class doubled and the black upper middle class quadrupled since 1970—he thinks Dr. King would be shocked by the lack of progress in others areas, such as childhood poverty.

A new civil rights movement

Gates also discussed the election of Donald Trump and pointed out that half a century after the apex of Dr. King’s civil rights movement, black America has arrived at a paradox: “At the same time that we elected a black president twice,” said Gates, “We [now] have to proclaim through a new civil rights movement that black lives matter. God only knows what’s going to happen over the next four years.”

Reflections on the past, present, and future of black America

Following Gates’ remarks and a screening of highlights from the new documentary, award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault led a panel of experts in a discussion about their own experiences following the civil rights movement, and the future of the African-American community — and our nation as a whole. Highlights from their discussion are below.

Dayna Bowen Matthew, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Center for Health Policy, pointed out that there are troubling parallels between past movements in African-American communities, and what’s occurring today:

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), reflected on her experiences as both a woman and an African-American during a time when both groups were participating in simultaneous—but largely independent—fights for equality:

James Patterson, the director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, warned that it’s important to be wary of the seductiveness of incremental progress and examples of exceptional success for African-Americans, and to not let either obscure the challenges that remain:

Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, added that while some thought that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 indicated that the nation had shifted to a “post-racial America,” the vote breakdown by race—and the daily reality for many black Americans—suggests otherwise:

Richard V. Reeves, a Brookings Economic Studies senior fellow, suggested that the results of the recent election and other racial unrest in the U.S. are likely linked to the idea that “equality always feels like a loss to people who were previously unfairly ahead.”

And towards the end of the event, Rep. Norton shared what she believes is the worst possible reaction to the new administration: hopelessness.

Watch the full event video here.

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Read more from the Brookings Race, Place and Mobility project.

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