Meet Jim Crow: Recovering a Missing Piece of US History
The idea for a film on the Jim Crow years had been lying dormant in the back of my mind since 1990. As a foot soldier in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, I came to realize first-hand that the Jim Crow era was a time of terror and oppression. But whenever I thought about making a film about this mostly forgotten era, I was concerned that such a film would depict black people as victims. The era was indeed about the subordination and repression of black rights, but it was also about the hope and aspirations born in the heady years of Emancipation. How blacks survived, struggled and eventually triumphed over that oppressive system—this was the story I wanted brought to the public eye in what would become The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a new four-part series that premieres nationally beginning October 1 on PBS.
The story of the Jim Crow era has been a missing piece of American history as far as television audiences are concerned, and, as I later discovered, a void in school and college curricula. What’s more, the window of opportunity to research this history is more crucial than ever, as the older generation of African-Americans who experienced the Jim Crow years are passing away.
As any independent filmmaker can surely understand, the most challenging part of this series was getting it made—a process that took seven years. As the project developed, I asked Bill Jersey of Quest Productions to co-produce this series. Bill is a long-time colleague and mentor, and we have worked together on a number of projects. We anticipated the need for a third producer, but we delayed that step until we had sufficient funding to hire one.
In 1994, we submitted our first proposal for research and development to the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH). We received our first grant in 1995. As part of the proposal we noted that the period of history we were dealing with--between 1865-1954--had never been presented to television audiences. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow fell into a niche between the series Africans in America, which was then in production, and Eyes on the Prize. We structured our series around four specific periods within the Jim Crow era. Each of these periods had its distinct characteristics, and we structured each episode around not just these periods but also the lives and actions of men and women who stood up during Jim Crow.
The first episode, Promises Betrayed, covers from the period of the end of the Civil War to 1896, a time of hope and betrayal, as blacks who gained their first post-war freedoms and land ownership saw them stripped away. The second episode, Fighting Back, deals with the most violent years of the Jim Crow era, 1896-1917, high with racial confrontations and lynchings but also black resistance. The third, Don’t Shout Too Soon, covering 1917-40, shows how organized resistance to Jim Crow developed in the classroom, courts, Congress and cotton fields during the 1920s. The final episode, Terror and Triumph, examines how the drives for voter registration and integrated education from 1940 to 1954 led the Supreme Court’s decision to declare segregation unconstitutional. We told these stories using archival images, recreations of events in symbolic rather than literal ways, and interviews with witnesses and scholars. We were also fortunate in finding photographs by hitherto unknown photographers of 19th century African-American life, whose images revealed the great dignity of the people whose stories we were telling.
Even as we were seeking support from NEH, I began to write proposals for additional funding from a number of Southern state humanities councils. Their reaction was encouraging; all but one came through with grants. We also received grants from two northern humanities councils and several foundations. Between 1995 and 1997, additional NEH script development grants enabled us to write all four programs. In 1998, we received our first production grant. We then asked Sam Pollard to be our third producer. We knew Sam had made a number of important civil rights-inspired films, from Eyes on the Prize I to Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls, and would make an important contribution to the project.
We started production at the end, filming what would become the series’ final episode to take advantage of a number of living witnesses to the Jim Crow era. The problem for the documentary filmmaker is that not every individual can convey his or her story with insight and energy. But we were extremely fortunate in this regard, and my most moving experience in creating The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow was meeting the men and women whom we interviewed. They were extremely courageous people who did not see themselves as particularly courageous—which made them all the more impressive.
We interviewed people about a variety of life experiences that would weave storylines and various perspectives of the era into our historical record. For the story of black veterans returning home after the war, we had Charles Evers (Medgar Evers’ brother) with his acerbic wit, and Hosea Williams, articulate and angry over the outrages of racism he suffered after the war. These were among a dozen men who told--with humor, understanding and pain--their personal stories. On the subject of Jim Crow violence, one of the unique individuals we interviewed was Clinton Adams, son of a white sharecropper who, at ten, accidentally witnessed the execution of two black men and women by a mob of white Klansmen. He overcame a reluctance to talk about this horrifying experience and told a riveting story that illuminated the violent world of the rural South. The search for another perspective led to one of our most shocking interviews—with Gordon Parks, a Klansman who attended his first lynching when he was nine. Our research about the educational rebellion of the time led us to Farmville, Virginia, where we heard the stories of men and women who, as teenagers in 1951, organized a strike at the segregated Robert Russa Moton High School to get adequate facilities. Their actions became one of the five cases that the US Supreme Court took up when it reviewed the issue of segregation and found it unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
For the rest of the series dealing with the time period of 1865-1939, we worked closely with scholars to bring the Jim Crow story to life. They guided us through the treacherous and often deceptive snares of history, illuminating the subjects we were dealing with both on camera and behind the scenes.
There is nothing more gratifying to filmmakers who are always struggling to find money than a television station that offers to become a partner. We had raised half our funding from NEH but had run out of ideas when Thirteen/WNET New York stepped in—specifically Tammy Robinson, vice president of programming, and Bill Grant, director of science, natural history and features programs. They presented the project to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which gave us the support we needed to complete the series. Additional funding came from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and New York Life Insurance Company.
One of the exciting elements of a series like this is its educational reach. Thirteen/WNET New York has created an exciting, interactive Web companion at www.pbs.org/jimcrow, which will enable visitors to learn more about the history of Jim Crow through streaming video clips, photos and text, original documents and firsthand accounts. Other contents will include geographical and historical maps, interactive games, episode synopses and an educational component for youth through Thirteen’s Teen Leadership Institute.
Thirteen is also developing a national outreach effort to spark discussions between adults who experienced the Jim Crow era and young people who have no firsthand knowledge of it. Outreach coordinators can use the film as a catalyst for discussion within their community to explore the effects of Jim Crow locally.
To further stimulate this conversation, Thirteen’s Educational Publishing Department has developed an illustrated, intergenerational discussion guide that is designed to encourage communication between generations on the topic of Jim Crow and include program descriptions, essays, personal accounts, anecdotes and questions for thought and discussion. Individuals and organizations can request free copies of the discussion guide by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additionally, public television stations across the country will work to maximize the awareness of the series and its educational themes by developing ancillary activities. From forums on voting, featuring Civil Rights Movement veterans, and university-based roundtable discussions among legal scholars, former activists and youth to series screenings and organized public discussions around the country, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow will serve as a catalyst of increased knowledge about this important part of US history.
What made this seven-year journey rewarding is our mission, the degree to which we accomplished it, the fellowship of those who shared a common endeavor and the good that we hope the film will achieve. We made this film because we feel that this is a story that America needs to know about its past if it is to come to terms with present day—and future— race relations. It is the story of the heroic actions of ordinary people in times of crisis that transcends race. The triumph of people over the adversity of Jim Crow teaches the rest of us how to live and be better people.
Richard Wormser of Videoline is series producer of The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.