Monday, April 5, 2010

Remembering the Civil Rights Years

LIKE a lot of people, I knew the reputation of Eyes on the Prize, the famous documentary about the civil rights movement in the Deep South in the '50s and '60s. But watching all six hours of it was simultaneously spirit-rousing and soul-crushing as I watched the movement beaten back time and time again.

The documentary, which originally broadcast in 1987, has been out of circulation for decades, but is back on PBS and now available on DVD for the first time.

HERE is my LA Times piece on the program, which included interviews with some of the show's creators as well as a UCLA professor to put it in perspective.

I must say, as a white person, even one raised by anti-racist parents far enough after the events in the program, I found some of the "resistance" by segregationists almost painful to watch. I've never understood the impetus for black militancy so clearly as I do after seeing what well-armed white folk -- both police and "volunteer" racists -- did to non-violent marchers, many of them women and children.

Amazing to be reminded that Emmett Till's killers were never brought to justice despite admitting to having killed a 14-year-old boy and dumping his body in the river. Some of the politicians are incredible, when you compare the interviews they give years later to the footage of the '50s and '60s.

Sometimes the old and new footage comments on each other, as when Selma, Alabama mayor Joseph Smitherman, mocks the protesters as media-savvy phonies in a contemporary interview before a flashback to 1965 footage in which he refers to “Martin Luther Coon,” before apologizing.

My piece closes by wondering about the connection between the movement and the election of Barack Obama. New Yorker editor David Remnick has made that link quite explicit, apparently, in his new book, The Bridge.

The Southern resistance to "government meddling" and crowing about "state's rights" sure takes on a new context after you've reflected on the events of this period. 

Photos show Emmett Till and Rosa Parks with Martin Luther King.

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