Will the Circle Be Unbroken? An Audio History of the Civil Rights Movement in Five Southern Communities and the Music of Those Times. Narrated by Vertamae Grosvenor. Written and Produced by George King; Senior Associate Producers Worth Long and Randall Williams. A Production of the Southern Regional Council, Atlanta, Georgia, 1997. http://unbrokencircle.org

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A bit over a decade ago Henry Hampton's Eyes on the Prize, the six hour series on the civil rights movement, set the standard for televised documentaries. Eyes on the Prize vividly charted the course of the civil rights movement from the murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi in 1955 to the battle of Selma, Alabama ten years later. The show 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 lofty goal. Like Eyes on the Prize, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? won instantaneous praise from reviewers. (The program originally aired on public radio stations.) Undoubtedly 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 Mississippi—the bulwark of white supremacy. In some instances, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? makes use of the audio portions of interviews utilized by the producers of Eyes on the Prize. While Eyes on the Prize had the advantage of riveting visual images, 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" [? find sound clip for here]descriptions of the past, to borrow the words of one New York Times writer. [1]

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 somewhat 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 decrees. In contrast, by explicitly linking the civil rights movement to struggles that took place in five particular communities, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? makes clear the most important lesson of the civil rights years, namely, that the civil rights movement was comprised of ordinary people who united to forge a mass movement committed to overcoming a 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."[2]

Will the Circle Be Unbroken? consists of 13 hours of oral history broken into 26 parts. Each part begins with the song, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, which listeners will find themselves unconsciously singing weeks after they have listened to the series. [Play theme: Tape 1, Side A, 12-22.] The entire production is divided into five distinct segments, each devoted to the development of the civil rights movement in a particular community and its 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 Will the Circle Be Unbroken? 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, like Rev. Joseph Albert DeLaine and Harry and Eliza Briggs, who sacrificed everything to challenge the racial status quo in the South. In addition, the episodes on Columbia, South Carolina 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 the NAACP's favor. He did so in spite of physical threats and attacks by the Ku Klux Klan—not to mention social ostracization 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 Martin Luther King, Jr.'s emergence as national leader subsequent to the leadership role he played in Montgomery. Various figures, from E.D. Nixon, the local leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who Parks called first upon her arrest, to Reverand Ralph Abernathy, who ministered at another Montgomery church, reflect on King's power while at the same time 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 front 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 if not for the heroic efforts of Assistant Attorney General John Doar might have turned into another Soweto, the infamous massacre of black South Africans following their protests against the system of apartheid. [Play clip: Tape 7, Side A, 340-360.]

The episodes on Atlanta, Georgia center on the city's somewhat 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 fully understand Atlanta's ability to avoid violent confrontation, the producers dig deep into Atlanta's past, particularly the emergence of a politically active black middle class beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century. By doing so, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" reinforces a finding increasingly emphasized by scholars, that the civil rights movement did not just begin in the 1950s. Rather, the protests of the 1950s and 1960s were part of a long history of black struggle,.

While focusing on five communities, the producers take a number of detours. In some instances, these detours are very interesting and memorable. One show, on the shooting of students at Jackson State University in 1970, for example, leaves listeners pondering why the Kent State shooting received so much more attention than those at Jackson State. In turn, this prompts one to consider the persistence of racism in the criminal justice system and mass 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 the depth. Nearly every discussion of the legacy of the movement is disjointed. The detour into the history of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and AFreedom Summer," 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 is thin.

Without a doubt, the availability of solid secondary sources and existent oral histories shaped the final product. In cases where the producers could draw on solid secondary 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. In cases where scholary studies are few and oral sources slim, the results are less fulfilling. Overall, however, the Southern Regional Council has developed a tremendous program. Most simply stated, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" should be heard by those familiar and unfamiliar with the history of the civil rights movement. Teachers of all grade levels can make fruitful use of it in the classroom. And libraries would be well-advised to add it to their audio-visual collections.

1.New York Times, April 26, 1997, p. B1.[Return]

2. 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 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]

Peter B. Levy
York College, York, PA

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