UPDATE: Austin Murphy has a well-written and engaging story in this week’s Sports Illustrated about the Belle Glade area that opens Murrow’s film. Murphy talks in the piece about the townspeople’s resilience and grit that has contributed to the area being a NCAA Division I football pipeline. He also discusses The Muck Bowl, which features teams from Belle Glade and neighboring Pahokee.
People across the nation have loosened their belts after consuming heaping portions of sumptuous Thanksgiving Day feasts.
Dunreith, Aidan and I went to Jon’s home in South Shore, where he prepared the turkey and all the trimmings, including stuffing, brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, and acorn squash. Dunreith chipped in with a couple of pumpkin pies and Aidan made his trademark cranberry sauce.
Mom, Jon’s girlfriend Lynette, and his friend/roommate German Cabrera joined us for a warm and festive occasion.
For many others, of course, Thanksgiving is not a cause for celebration.
Beyond that, much of the food that made our bountiful feast was picked by migrant workers.
The plight of migrant workers is not a new one.
Legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow tackled the subject in Harvest of Shame, an hour-long documentary produced by Fred W. Friendly that aired the day after Thanksgiving nearly half a century ago in 1960.
Dunreith and I watched the video today, and it hit hard.
The opening scene, in black and white footage, had Murrow’s deep voice intoning over images of black workers being recruited to work in the fields of Florida.
This scene is not taking place in the Congo. It has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Cape Town. It is not Nyasaland or Nigeria. This is Florida. These are citizens of the United States, 1960. This is a shape-up for migrant workers. The hawkers are chanting the going piece rate at the various fields. This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”
Murrow traced the workers’ experiences as they moved north from Florida with the crops, ending in New Jersey in November.
Plenty of heart-rending footage of nine-year-old children tending to their younger, runny-nosed siblings while their parents work in the field mingle with interviews of the parents saying they would like more than anything to leave the work they are doing, but do not have any means or hope of doing so.
Murrow shows black, white and Latino workers essentially undergoing the same oppression. The film also features interviews with several callous owners, one of whom talks about workers having “a bit of the gypsy” in them and living blissful existences, and with a farming official who essentially says that it’s better for a lot of people to receive poor pay a few days a years than nothing at all.
Secretary of Labor James Mitchell calls the workers “the excluded Americans,” but seems surprisingly helpless to do anything to improve their situations. Murrow, who is smoking in nearly every scene in which he appears, notes toward the end of the film that more than 150 legislative initiatives had been attempted, but just one had succeeded.
The film ends where it began, in Florida, with workers returning back after their journeys north to the latest chapter in a book of grinding poverty. Murrow quotes a pastor who urges people to think not just about charity, but about justice, before uttering the film’s final words:
“The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck.”
The late David Halberstam wrote extensively about Murrow’s career, his seminal reporting during World War II, his pivotal work on Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the Harvest of Shame in The Powers That Be. In typical fashion, Halberstam also writes unflinchingly how Murrow fell out at CBS with network head William Paley and the shabby treatment Paley doled out as a result.
Latino workers appears mostly in the Murrow documentary as competitors with the black and white workers, but my brother Jon has photographed the experience of Latino day laborers for the past decade. His remarkable web site shows these workers’ journeys across the border, their efforts to provide for their families, their interactions with the criminal justice system, and their home lives.
Friend Kari Lydersen has written about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ struggle for better wages and working conditions and Guatemalan-born worker centers’ organizer Jose Oliva in Out of the Sea and Into the Fire.
Watching Murrow’s film, looking at Jon’s web site or reading Halberstam’s or Kari’s books can remind those of us who live in privilege and comfort that they do not come without a price, and to consider taking action accordingly.