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Television Review

Series Recalls Jim Crow's Ugly History

October 03, 2002|JOEL GREENBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PBS' new series "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow" is filled with the authoritative voices of historians and civil rights leaders and the gut-wrenching remembrances of those who lived through part of this sad era of "American apartheid."

But no so-called expert--not even the victims of the nearly century-long period of legally sanctioned segregation of African American citizens--conveys the horror of that period nearly as well as an elderly white man named Gordon Parks of Gainesville, Ga. Inserted in the four-part series so subtly that you might miss him, Parks is a living monument to the overt malice blacks faced from the Civil War until the 1950s. (The series stops with the Supreme Court desegregation decision in 1954.)

Parks, still a member of the Ku Klux Klan, recalls his "first lynching" of a black man with a chilling fondness, almost as if he were recounting his first baseball game. Speaking with an ignorance that suggests his mind has not developed much beyond what it was when he witnessed that atrocity as a 9-year-old, Parks gives credit to his grandpa--a Klan grand dragon--"and my daddy--he was a wizard." One man "took and cut [the victim] from ear to ear and then they put the rope around his neck and pulled him up in the tree, and we stayed there about an hour ... be sure he died 'fore they left."

Although relatively few white Americans fell into the same horrific league as Parks and his white-sheeted buddies, racism during this period was pervasive and suffocating throughout the country. It was fueled by the phenomenon known as Jim Crow, a series of "white supremacist laws and customs," the show says, instituted shortly after the freeing of 4 million slaves in 1865 and lasting until the Supreme Court overturned segregation in schools. (Jim Crow was also a vaudeville-like caricature of blacks conjured up to entertain white audiences.)

One of the few ways that blacks were permitted to serve in the same institution as whites was, of course, to fight in wars. And repeatedly, it was the aftermath of war that hammered home to the black soldier just how unwelcome he was in his own land.

Future civil rights leader Hosea Williams returned to Georgia after WWII and was beaten unconscious when he tried to get water at a bus station. An undertaker came to pick up Williams' body, discovered he was alive and took him to a hospital. "I laid there crying for eight weeks wishing Adolf Hitler had won the war," Williams says.

First-hand accounts like this--along with graphic photos, film and drawings--make "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow" a powerful window into what African Americans have been up against since the Civil War. The series is told with a methodical, measured tone that is the antithesis of fast-paced "reality"-tinged TV newsmagazines. At times it does feel a bit like going to school. But that may very well be what many of us need.

*

"The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow" airs on four successive Thursdays at 8 p.m. on KCET, starting tonight. It has been rated TVPG (may be inappropriate for young children).

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