Will the Circle Be Unbroken? An Audio History of the Civil Rights Movement in Five Southern Communities and the Music of Those Times. Vertamae Grosvenor, narrator; George King, writer and producer; Worth Long and Randall Williams, senior producers. Southern Regional Council, Atlanta, 1997. Distributed by Public Radio International (PRI). http://unbrokencircle.org/
Over a decade ago Henry Hampton's Eyes
on the Prize, the six-hour series on the civil rights movement, set
the standard for television documentaries. Eyes on the Prize vividly
charted the course of the civil rights movement from the 1955 murder of
Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi to the battle of Selma, Alabama ten
years later. The series won so much acclaim that Hampton easily secured
funding to produce eight additional one-hour episodes on the history of
the civil rights movement. In Will the Circle Be Unbroken? the
Southern Regional Council set out to do for radio what Eyes on the
Prize did for television. Making use of hundreds of oral histories,
taped interviews and memorable musical clips, the producers of Will
the Circle Be Unbroken? succeed in meeting their ambitious goal. Like
Eyes on the Prize, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (which originally
aired on public radio stations) won instantaneous praise from reviewers.
Without a doubt it will serve as a model for other radio productions in
years to come.
In many ways, the two series tell the same story.
Both chronicle the battle to desegregate schools, white resistance to
the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the rise of nonviolent
direct-action protest, the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. as a national
leader, and the broad-based effort to overcome Jim Crow in Mississippithe
bulwark of white supremacy.
| Decatur, Georgia high school students. |
In some instances, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? uses audio portions
of the interviews utilized by the producers of Eyes on the Prize.
While the latter has the advantage of riveting visual material, the producers
of Will the Circle Be Unbroken? draw on the
recollections of men and women steeped in a tradition of story telling,
many of whom deliver "chillingly vivid" descriptions of the past, to borrow
the words of one New York Times writer.
As good as Eyes on the Prize is, Will
the Circle Be Unbroken? is a better work of history. Eyes on the
Prize tends to reinforce the mistaken view that the civil rights movement
was primarily a national effort, orchestrated by national leaders who
aimed at attaining federal civil rights legislation and favorable judicial
In contrast, by explicitly linking the civil rights movement to struggles
that took place in five particular communities, Will the Circle Be
Unbroken? clarifies the most important lesson of the civil rights
years, namely, that it was ordinary people who united to forge a mass
movement committed to overcoming the deeply entrenched caste system that
was the American way of life. By examining the civil
rights movement from a community perspective, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
also shows, to borrow Robert Norrell's words, that "the narrative line"
of the civil rights movement was "exceedingly long, exhaustively crooked,
and extensively smudged."
|"Chillingly vivid" description of life in the segregated south.|
|28.8 | 56 | Cable/T1|
Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
consists of thirteen hours of oral (and aural) history divided into
twenty-six parts. (Each part begins with the song that gave the series
its title, which people will find themselves singing even weeks after
they have listened to the series.) It focuses on the development of
the civil rights movement in five particular communities and their environs:
Columbia, South Carolina; Montgomery, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas;
Jackson, Mississippi; and Atlanta, Georgia. Each community study explores
a different theme, with some overlap.
The episodes on Columbia, South Carolina examine the battle to desegregate
public education, which, as the series demonstrates,
stretched back to early equalization suits filed by the statewide NAACP
against Clarendon County, South Carolina. Indeed, the landmark Brown
decision should carry the title Briggs v. Elliot, since Briggs
was filed before the Brown suit and preceded it alphabetically.
(The Briggs case was one of five heard by the Supreme Court in
the case that came to be known as Brown v. Board of Education.)
More important, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? makes clear that
the Supreme Court decision to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson depended
on the perseverance of ordinary people, such as Rev. Joseph Albert DeLaine
and Harry and Eliza Briggs, in challenging the racial status quo in the South. The episodes on Columbia also remind listeners that the civil rights movement enjoyed
the support of a select number of white southerners. Most notably, U.S.
District Court Judge Waties Waring, a scion of South Carolina society,
repeatedly ruled in favor of the NAACP. He did so in spite of physical
threats and attacks by the Ku Klux Klanas well as ostracism by his peers.
The episodes on Montgomery, Alabama,
retell the story of the Montgomery bus boycott. Sparked by the arrest
of Rosa Park, the boycott lasted for nearly a year and signaled a new
stage in the civil rights movement. Much like Eyes on the Prize,
Will the Circle Be Unbroken discusses the emergence of Martin
Luther King Jr. as a national leader following the role he played in
Montgomery. Various figuresfrom E.D. Nixon, local leader of the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, whom Parks first called first upon her
arrest, to Rev. Ralph Abernathy, minister at another Montgomery
churchreflect on King's power while reminding listeners
of the broad-based nature of the movement in Montgomery.
The programs on Jackson, Mississippi, focus
on the key role played by Medgar Evers in the early years of the direct-action
phase of the civil rights movement and the dangers faced by those who
led the fight. Evers was assassinated on his doorstep by Byron de la Beckwith,
a self-acclaimed white supremacist who went unpunished for over thirty
years. One of the most gripping segments describes Evers' funeral, which,
had it not been for the heroic efforts of Assistant Attorney General John
Doar, could have turned into another Soweto, the infamous massacre of
black South Africans following their protests against the system of apartheid.
The episodes on Atlanta, Georgia, center
on the city's unique history. Wanting to build and maintain a reputation
as a progressive community, white and black leaders steered Atlanta
on a relatively peaceful and less confrontational course than that experienced
by many other southern communities. To understand fully how Atlanta
was able to avoid violent confrontation, the producers dig deep into
the city's past, particularly the emergence of a politically active
black middle class in the early decades of the twentieth century. By
doing so, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? reinforces a view increasingly
accepted by scholars, that the civil rights movement did not begin in
the 1950s, but rather was part of a long history of black struggle,.
| A December 1960 picket |
of Riches Department
Store, Atlanta Georgia.
While focusing on five communities,
the producers take a number of detours, some of which are interesting
and memorable. One show, on the shooting of students at Jackson State
University in 1970, for example, leaves listeners wondering why the
Kent State shootings received so much more attention in the mainstream
media than those at Jackson State. In turn, this prompts one to consider
the persistence of racism in the criminal justice system and media coverage
of crime. The segment on the rise of black political power in Atlanta,
similarly, leaves the listener with a concrete sense of one of the main
achievements of the civil rights movement, black political power, and
the limitations that black leaders in urban areas face due to white
flight to suburbia and deindustrialization. Too often, however, these
detours are episodic and lack depth. Nearly every discussion of the
legacy of the movement is disjointed. The detour into the history of
the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and "Freedom Summer" (1964),
is rushed and moves away from the community-based focus of the rest
of the program. Likewise, the segment on Montgomery after the bus boycott
Without a doubt, the existence of solid
secondary sources and oral histories has shaped the final product. Where
the producers could draw on works such as Richard Kluger's masterful
examination of the battle to desegregate public education, Simple
Justice, and oral histories of lesser-known civil rights activists,
such as Rev. Albert DeLaine and Modjeska Simkins, the results are wonderful.
Where scholarly studies and oral sourcess are few, the results are less
fulfilling. On the whole, however, teachers of all grade levels could
make fruitful use of the series; libraries would be well advised to
add it to their audio-visual collections. In Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
the Southern Regional Council has produced a tremendouly impressive
program that should be heard both by those familiar and unfamiliar with
the history of the civil rights movement.
Peter B. Levy
York College, York, PA
The New York
Times, April 26, 1997, p. B1. [Return]
- Robert J. Norrell, "One
Thing We Did Right: Reflections on the Movement," in New Directions
in Civil Rights Studies, Armstead L. Robinson and Patricia Sullivan,
eds., (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991). On the advantages
of a community-based approach to the study of the civil rights movement
see also, Clayborne Carson, "The Black Freedom Struggle," in
The Civil Rights Movement in America, Charles Eagles, ed. (Jackson:
University of Mississippi Press, 1986). [Return]
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