About the same time that our attention was fastened on "The Winds of War," which few critics thought worth the $40 million ABC and Paramount spent on it, a small item in the TV columns noted that ex-Washingtonian Topper Carew and Henry Johnson of Rainbow Television Workshop in Los Angeles had been awarded a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant to produce the story of the coming of the civil rights movement to a Mississippi town as seen through the eyes of a girl of 12.
"The Winds of War" used the beginning of World War II as the backdrop to tell a human story, and I could not help reflecting on the contrast: How infrequently the civil rights movement had been used in this way. Unlike World War II--and, increasingly these days, Vietnam--the civil rights movement sadly has hardly ever found its way into the creative fabric of American life, particularly movies and television, the most broad-based media of popular culture.
This is not a call for expressing any particular ideology; that movement was many things to many people. Southern blacks and Southern whites felt the movement differently from their Northern counterparts. But the movement did happen. It was a cataclysmic experience in American life, caused great upheaval and irrevocably changed us all. Despite all this, many Americans treat it as a national blind spot.
The efforts television has made have been few and far between. In 1974, CBS garnered 12 Emmy nominations for "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," which ended at the dawn of the civil rights movement. "Roots" touched lightly on the subject when Alex Haley interviewed Malcolm X. NBC produced a six-hour, made-for-television movie about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1978, but the portrayal was criticized for its interpretation. Ex-King aide Hosea Williams, for instance, called it "garbage" when he was interviewed by a reporter. In 1981, CBS told the story of the integration of the high school in Little Rock from the viewpoint of a white teacher. This was valid, but some blacks wondered why the first dramatization of this compelling tale wasn't focused on the more obvious protaganists--the black children. Perhaps, in fact, producers have been made a bit gun-shy by criticism. But Vietnam vets protested their early portrayals, too.
It isn't as if there is any lack of material suited for dramatization. There's Alice Walker's "Meridian." Maya Angelou's latest book, "The Heart of a Woman," begins with the beginnings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There are biographies and autobiographies. PBS's recent airing of "In the Shadow of the Capitol," which looked at former civil rights activists now heading the District government, was noteworthy, and its recent "The File on Jill Hatch" used the movement as a fleeting backdrop, albeit a perfunctory one.
I asked Howell Raines, the New York Times reporter who wrote the highly acclaimed "My Soul Is Rested," an oral history of the civil rights movement, if he'd ever been approached by film or television producers about a dramatization. Raines said the only proposal he received was to do a stage play with six actors. He felt the subject matter "needed more scale," he said, so he turned it down.
One terrible effect of all this is that these momentous events simply are scrubbed from the public consciousness. To high school and college students and young adults who weren't born in 1957, it is history just as ancient as Hitler or World War II.
Some say the movement was too painful and heartbreaking; others think creative gestation is occurring and great literary expression about the movement eventually will come. I think the public fadeout has come because producers don't think of it, because it involved black people and a region of the country people are tired of hearing about, and because some might even like to see it forgotten.
But the movement was no less significant for our national life than Vietnam. During the recent Vietnam Veterans Memorial controversy, a veteran remarked that he could not begin to deal with his war experience until he saw "The Deer Hunter." Like Vietnam, the civil rights movement has to become part of the national dialogue. Pressure is needed to make visual media accomplish that end.