From the Journal of Multimedia History, Volume 3 (2000)
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)
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 Mississippi—the bulwark of white supremacy.
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.
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."
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 Montgomery, Alabama, retell the story of the Montgomery bus boycott. Sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks, 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 figures—from 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 church—reflect on King's power while reminding listeners of the broad-based nature of the movement in Montgomery.
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.
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 is thin.
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 sources 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 tremulously 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