Yes, Racism Is Rampant In 'The Sixties'—But We Shouldn't Pretend It's All In the Past
This week marked the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and efforts to keep minorities from going to the polls have reemerged across the nation. Yet so many Americans have either forgotten—or are unaware of—the historic efforts to win that right to vote. As Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s why producers Mark Herzog, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman set out to tell the story of the 1960s, the decade that changed the United States.
What they created is a stunning 10-part CNN series, The Sixties, that succinctly documents the social, political, and cultural changes of the time. Though there has been no shortage of documentaries on the period, executive producer Herzog says the filmmakers “mined, sifted, and looked for moments that no one has seen since the 1960s” in an effort to expose younger folks to our country’s turbulent history.
The series shows rarely viewed footage from the decade that saw the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Robert F. Kennedy. During those 10 years there were riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark, and Chicago, and our involvement in the Vietnam War expanded. The era also saw the fall of de jure segregation in the South and the the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The fifth installment of the series, “A Long March to Freedom,” which aired this week, takes a look at the struggle for civil rights. While many assume the movement focused solely on securing equality for African Americans, Herzog says it became a catalyst for several types of change. Women were one group that benefited greatly from the efforts of the civil rights movement.
Mothers, daughters, and sisters “became emboldened by the seeds of change,” Herzog says. “A lot of the women from the civil rights movement went on to the women’s liberation movement in the late ‘60s,” he says. “So their actions spurred everything.”
“A Long March to Freedom” opens with the story of the lunch counter sit-ins organized by the Nashville Student Movement and the Nashville Christian Leadership Council in February 1960. “We look at their impact on the rest of the decade and the other movements that followed,” says Herzog. After three months of nonviolent protests, protesters in Nashville were able to desegregate diners in the city, which was a first for the South. This small victory paved the way for the Birmingham bus boycotts, Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, integration, and the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham.
While icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis are front and center in The Sixties, other lesser-known but equally integral figures, such as James Lawson, Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Diane Nash also appear. “Without [Lawson, Vivian, and Nash], the Freedom Riders movement dies. Without them injecting the energy, that wouldn’t have happened,” Herzog says.
One of the most horrifying incidents the episode covers is the brutality a group of nonviolent protesters led by Congressman Lewis encountered on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Ala. The group expected to be arrested for crossing the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, but the shocking mayhem they were confronted with ended up being televised. That opened the eyes of the average American to the violence civil rights activists were facing.
“The images that came out of there completely changed the mind-set of most of America that didn’t know this was happening,” Herzog says. The nonviolent group was viciously beaten with electric cattle prods and billy clubs as Selma police and deputized white residents attempted to put an end to the march. Their plan backfired. “Because of those images, thousands of people flooded into Alabama to volunteer,” says Herzog.
Herzog believes it’s important to view and discuss films and TV series like The Sixties so we do not forget the price that has been paid for equality. We can’t simply look at racism and inequality as vestiges of the past.
There’s no doubt that America has made great strides toward equality and justice since the bad old days of slavery and Jim Crow. Yet vast inequalities still remain, in nearly every system. Our schools are still racially segregated, too many companies lack diversity, and 22 states have passed new voting restrictions since the 2010 election.
As Malcolm X said in 1964, “You can’t drive a knife into a man’s back nine inches, pull it out six inches and call it progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made.” For that recovery to happen, you have to know the history. Viewing The Sixties is one informative and emotionally moving way to get up to speed.