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HOWARD ROSENBERG

RECONNOITERING THE TERRAIN OF UNFINISHED WARS----HERE AND ABROAD : 'Eyes on the Prize: Civil Rights Years'

January 21, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

August, 1955.

Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth from the North, is visiting his elderly uncle, Mose Wright, in Money, Miss., where he addresses a white woman as "babe." Later, Emmett's body is found in the river.

Two white men tried for the murder are identified in court by the courageous Wright as the ones who took Emmett away the night he disappeared. However, they are acquitted by an all-white jury.

Later, one of the men admits he shot Emmett Till in the head.

Vietnam was not America's first "living room war," the first war that TV delivered to our homes like the evening newspaper, the first war we could dine with while watching the network news.

First came the Civil Rights Wars of the 1950s and 1960s, whose TV record of America's own grisly apartheid battles in the streets and schools of the South helped shame a nation that didn't shame easily. (National concern for MIAs in America's South--where "uppity" blacks could disappear without a trace--seldom matched the concern later shown for American MIAs in Southeast Asia.)

The period's film legacy is one of the things that impresses you most about "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965," an exhaustive six-part documentary of record that shouldn't be missed.

This prize premieres at 9 tonight on KCET Channel 28, two days after much of America celebrated the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while the media huffed and puffed with pronouncements of civil rights glory or gloom.

Watching these six one-hour programs from black-owned Blackside Inc., you're struck by how civil rights leaders depended on their bigoted antagonists to perform for the cameras, and how shrewdly the anti-segregationists played this dangerous and necessary game.

Forget about Shirley MacLaine. Blacks were the ones who were out on a limb, meeting violence with nonviolence.

They needed Jim Clark, the helmeted, strutting Dallas County, Ala., sheriff, and he came through on cue--raging in front of the cameras, jabbing his nightstick at blacks trying to register to vote, one day losing control and striking one of them in the head.

They needed Bull Connor, the Birmingham public safety commissioner, whose reply to youthful black marchers was police dogs and fire hoses that shot water with such force that bark was ripped from trees and children were knocked over like bowling pins. Connor filled newscasts and newspapers, a tailor-made heavy that the movement could exploit.

You watch this program and you swear you are watching another planet.

Did that happen here ? Does that happen here? Hello, all-white Forsyth County, Ga., where 90 marchers celebrating King recently were attacked by about 400 counterdemonstrators, including Ku Klux Klan members.

There's KKK of the cloth, but also KKK of the heart. Which is why many civil rights leaders insist that America's racism is increasing today and that there have been only cosmetic changes in the status of blacks since the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s.

That movement is traced here in conventional documentary style, old black-and-white footage supported by current interviews of participants on both sides of the struggle.

Narrator Julian Bond's soft voice and background protest music (an important element in the civil rights fight) are an effective contrast to the brutality on the screen.

Tonight's premiere begins with the aching sadness of Emmett Till, whose mother insisted that he have an open-casket funeral to show the world what happened. "We never have any trouble," the Money, Miss., sheriff says, "till some of our Southern niggers go up North and the NAACP talks to 'em and they come back home."

The integration movement's familiar signposts are here, from the Rosa Parks-inspired Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56--which dominates the first hour--to President Johnson's signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In the second segment, Arkansas Gov. Orville Faubus summons the National Guard to block nine black students from integrating Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. President Eisenhower sends in federal troops to end the crisis, just as federal troops are needed in 1962 to enroll James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.

This Meredith section is supported by a remarkable voice tape of secret negotiations between segregationist Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett and President Kennedy, who wanted to resolve the dilemma without offending Southerners whose political support he sought. These awkward phone chats indicate that Kennedy did a lot of foot-dragging here.

And on it goes through the series: the lunch-counter sit-ins, a sheriff outmaneuvering King in Albany, Ga., the rousing Lincoln Memorial speech, the freedom riders from the North, the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, the struggle for control of the movement, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the triumphant march from Selma to Montgomery, and the Watts riots.

Too many injustices. Too many bigots. Too many corrupt Southern governors and hypocritical Northerners. Too many funerals. Too many beatings. Too many sad songs.

How easy to watch this and feel snug and smug about 1987. But the media have been busy this year too, in Howard Beach, N.Y., where five white youths chased a black man to his death recently, and busy recording the ugliness of Forsyth County, Ga.

You wonder about Forsyth. Do they watch TV there? Do they watch America's favorite series, "The Cosby Show," and if so, do they laugh or do they curse, the way whites cursed Emmett Till many years ago?

Echoes of the past.

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