When documentary filmmaker Ken Burns learned of the June 17 Emanuel AME Church shooting, he picked up the phone and called Mayor Joe Riley. “How can I help?” he asked.
Then he called his friend and PBS colleague Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor who has enjoyed a parallel career making documentaries about race in America, genealogy and history.
The two men agreed to come to Charleston for a special program called “American Fault Line,” which filled the Gaillard Center performance hall Wednesday evening. Earlier in the day, they taped TV interviews, met with students at a downtown school and visited Mother Emanuel.
At the Gaillard event, a fundraiser for the International African American Museum, Burns said he and Gates were there because of Riley, to show support for the museum project and because of the June 17 church attack.
Charleston, he said, is the Ellis Island of the African-American experience minus the Statue of Liberty and her torch of freedom. There is no better place, therefore, to open a museum devoted to that difficult history.
“We’ve had some victories coming out of June 17, but I really think we have to have a conversation,” Burns said, referring to the inevitable confrontations with race that any deep dive into history produces.
Gates said he said he was proud to be part of the advisory board of the $3.5 million Pinckney Fund, which will provide education scholarships to low-income students, and specifically the children and grandchildren of the victims of the shooting.
Previews of two forthcoming PBS documentaries — “Jackie Robinson” by Burns and “And Still I Rise: Black American Since MLK” by Gates — were screened, followed by a Q&A segment moderated by Barbara Kelley Duncan, CEO of the Carolina Youth Development Center.
Gates spoke of the complexity of the black experience in the U.S., especially since 1968. He said it is marked by “achievement and divergence,” the growth of the black middle and upper classes and the economic stagnation of nearly 40 percent of African Americans who are at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“It’s the best of times and the worst of times for African Americans,” he said. “It depends on where one is standing and where one comes from.”
Today, Gates said, the challenge no longer is integration, it’s achieving genuine economic equality. “It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than to guarantee an annual income,” he said.
When economic injustices are remedied, racism is alleviated, he said, referring to the persistence of negative stereotypes and the ongoing demonization of black people, including President Barack Obama.
Burns said removing divisive symbols and having conversations is a good first step, but hardly enough.
“We will overcome this original sin of ours (slavery) when we move past symbolic gestures and change the way we think,” he said. To do that, we must embrace African-American history and integrate it into an enlarged American narrative. “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t possibly know where you’re going.”
He said he subscribes to the passage in Ecclesiastes that states, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
History reveals patterns, not cycles, he said. Partisanship, racism, intolerance, xenophobia — none of it is unique to our times. But knowing our shared history can save us.
Both men insisted that the key to quelling bigotry is education.
“The only way to eliminate racism is to revolutionize the curriculum,” making it more inclusive, Gates said.
Burns agreed, adding that “the biggest thing is to recommit ourselves individually to strive for a better world.”
Gates likened strains of anti- Semitism, racism against blacks and, now, Islamophobia to “streams running under the floorboards.”
“The strength of those streams depends on the force of the economy above,” he said.
Riley concluded the evening with an impassioned argument in support of the $75 million museum project.
“It’s desperately needed because it has been missing,” he said, referring to a complete telling of American’s shared history. “We can’t understand who we are as a people if we don’t understand the experience of African-Americans who were brought here against their will.”
So the stories must be told, and they must be told to young people, he said.
Charleston’s finest hour came in the aftermath of the shooting, when the community came together in solidarity. When the museum opens its doors in late 2018, “that, with your help, will be another of our finest hours,” Riley said.
Reach Adam Parker at (843) 937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.