Reviewer: Scott Weightman
The Sixties: A Long March To Freedom is an intensely moving two-hour documentary which chronicles the flashpoints, high and low, of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. The feature is the fifth instalment of a ten-part series, which covers the critical moments of the turbulent decade and has Tom Hanks as its executive producer. In the opening episode of the series, “Television Comes of Age,” Hanks, the star of the classic, yet controversial, 1960s film Forrest Gump, ruminates: “The TV was the centre of our house. I don’t remember a time without TV.” His reminiscence sets the tone for the series and A Long March To Freedom.
The show is comprised of contemporaneous television footage punctuated by present-day accounts taken from participants in the movement and the most prominent movement historians. Clips of southern white police forces setting dogs and powerful fire hoses on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, expose the horrifyingly violent realities of Jim Crow segregation. Recordings of Martin Luther King’s transcendental evangelising show first-hand how he assured the nation, so resolutely, of the righteousness of the struggle for equality. Coverage of the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and King in 1968 highlights the tragedy that suffused the movement. And, the dignity and restraint shown by the civil rights protesters in the face of such fervent hatred exemplifies the unequivocal courage of those willing to stand up and demand equal rights for African-Americans. The adept use of television clips, coupled with an affecting soundtrack and contextual supplements from historians and activists, constructs an emotional narrative that will rouse today’s audience, just as the raw footage moved viewers in the 1960s. Indeed, the documentary capably traces the vitality that television gave the movement in the 1960s and how protesters tactically harnessed the medium to serve their struggle.
Although “Great Men” feature prominently in the narrative, the film succeeds in highlighting some of the less well-known players in the black freedom struggle. Reverend James Lawson’s central role in teaching the principles of non-violence to activists preparing to take part in the 1960 Nashville, Tennessee, sit-ins, Diane Nash’s inspirational adherence to non-violence during the 1961 freedom rides, and the importance of Bayard Rustin in organising the 1963 March on Washington reminds viewers that the civil rights movement was much more than the isolated actions of King, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. However, whilst there is a refreshing reflection on the initial reluctance of Kennedy to engage with racial issues, the documentary makers choose to avoid commenting on the moral frailties of King and the occasional hesitancy of Johnson. Framing the Nashville sit-ins as the “incubator” of the non-violent movement in the 1960s also highlights that Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery were not the only significant stages of the movement. Moreover, the documentary offers powerful examples of how organised grassroots activism catalysed change across America and forced the hands of the American government. A particularly striking segment features a young girl stressing the importance of grassroots solidarity in the struggle for change.
A fundamental issue with the programme concerns its periodization. The show looks exclusively at the civil rights movement from 1960-1968. This is problematic because there is no mention, even in passing, of the activism and events that took place prior to 1960 which directly led to the mass protest shown in the documentary. Historians who study the social changes that occurred during the 1960s in the United States generally agree that any examination of the period should begin in the mid-1950s and end in the mid-1970s. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation Supreme Court ruling, Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the public outcry over the brutal murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 are but three examples of crucial events that must be considered in order to attain a full understanding of the civil rights movement.
Another drawback, due in part to the truncated periodization, is the presentation of the Black Power movement, which emerged in the late-1960s, as a fundamentally negative development. The narrative of A Long March To Freedom glorifies the non-violence championed by King and his followers, while vilifying and oversimplifying Black Power as a violent crusade. The documentary focuses on the violence in Los Angeles and Detroit and fails to engage with Black Power as cultural celebration of blackness, a community builder and an outlet for political education. Black Power, embodied by Stokely Carmichael in the documentary, is defined as a purely “militant faction” that fostered disunity and triggered the collapse of the movement. It is regrettable that Malcolm X is completely excluded from the programme. His inclusion might have dispelled the idea, peddled in the film, that there was no disunion prior to 1965 and may have belied the notion that black militancy only emerged after the movement moved beyond the South in 1965. Indeed, the northern struggle is misleadingly framed as one that was distinctly disconnected from the southern cause. Likewise, King is presented as decidedly opposed to Black Power. He is made “safe” by the documentary makers and the nuances of his, sometimes supportive, relationship to Black Power are not drawn out. King’s assassination in 1968 is marked as the end of the movement, a decision that affirms Great Man narratives, depreciates alternate and continued black activism, and, ultimately, upholds the New Right’s politically constructed narrative of the civil rights movement.
By uncritically celebrating the legislative gains made by African-Americans during the 1960s as clear-cut victories, the documentary does not fully appreciate the potent and, sometimes, sophisticated strategies pursued by segregationists, which curtailed the advances of the black freedom struggle and engendered the persistence of inequality. Although there is some mention of their proficient tactics, such as the orderly behaviour of Mississippi police in dealing with the freedom riders, white resistance is depicted as exclusively violent and as the actions of unsophisticated reactionaries. The clips of segregationists’ television appearances are not afforded the same attention by the show’s talking heads. Rather, they are used solely to illustrate the severity of the context within which civil rights activists were working. It is noted that the white power structure made use of the media resources at its disposal, with particular reference to the pro-segregation Jackson, Mississippi, television station WLBT. Yet, white resisters are not attributed any semblance of guile or strategy in their media operations. The producers only use a small clip of Martin Luther King’s televised debate with James J. Kilpatrick and miss an opportunity to address how Kilpatrick, an eloquent segregationist newspaper editor, outclassed King and presented a cogent argument for continued segregation. Still, avoiding an exploration of segregationists is understandable. The story of the black struggle for freedom is more compelling, more morally righteous, and more sellable than the story of the preservation of white supremacy. However, the moral fallibility of white resistors should not preclude an understanding of their significance. Recognizing their resourcefulness can enhance the appreciation of the achievements and shortcomings of the civil rights movement.
A Long March To Freedom offers a tight narrative that celebrates the activities of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the non-violent civil rights movement between 1960 and 1968. It emotively documents the skill, determination, and bravery of the non-violent civil rights activists in their struggle against oppression. Nevertheless, by adopting a narrow focus the documentary almost takes the form of a Hollywood feature film and offers up a neatly packaged story with few divergences. Viewing the decade in isolation does not allow for an appreciation of the wider story and, more importantly, it does not encourage an interrogation of how the issues raised in the film still resonate to this day. A Long March To Freedom misses the opportunity to explore some of the more difficult questions surrounding the civil rights movement and ends up producing a narrative that conforms to a somewhat conservative-friendly representation of the movement, in the same way that Forrest Gump affirms a conservative-friendly interpretation of the 1960s.
Scott Weightman is a Midlands3Cities AHRC funded History and American Studies PhD student based at the University of Leicester and the University of Nottingham. His research project assesses the use of mass media by segregationists in their effort to defend the continuation of segregation during the 1950s and 1960s. For more information see: http://bit.ly/1iTqPmJ