Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame, David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be and Other Resources

Edward R. Murrow exposed the plight of migrant workers in Harvest of Shame.

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.

I vividly remember going to Plymouth Rock in the early 90s on Thanksgiving Day to observe what Wampanaog Indians called a National Day of Mourning.

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.

He said:

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.

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2 responses to “Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame, David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be and Other Resources

  1. I have been fortunate in my life to meet several people who have been transformative, or nearly so, in American life. One was Cesar Chavez. One summer, he was visiting the American University in Washington. He stayed, however, on the campus of Wesley Theological Seminary. I was the Resident Assistant on duty and had to give him his key and show him his room, and was impressed with his humility and humor.

    The comments you mention the owners making recall southern historians of the pre-WWII era on slave life – a life of idyll, they claimed, full of privileges they would lose with emancipation. As recently as the mid-1990’s, I read an investigative report on near-slavery conditions for migrant workers in FL; lured to the US from Central America, they were told they had to work off the debt incurred to bring them here, and became trapped and isolated (many were told they were brought here illegally, and if they approached the police about the conditions in which they lived, would be thrown in jail and treated even worse).

    We in the US have to face up the fact that, as a documentary on Wal-Mart puts it, there is a high cost to low prices. Whether it is retail or produce, the economics of pricing, and the insistence the we Americans will not pay higher prices, are continuing to create not just the “lost Americans” who travel with the harvest, but the near-pauper like conditions of those who work for Big Box retailers as well.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Geoff, for this latest comment. That must have been quite an experience to meet Cesar Chavez. I hear you completely about the similar way of southern plantation owners and more modern employers talking about their slaves/workers, and agree with you about the cost of low prices. In that way, I see the issue a bit like global warming. While one’s individual action cannot alter the existing dynamics in any other way, not acting is a moral failure, and, together, we can make some positive impact.

      Hope Julie and your family are well. Thanks again.

      Jeff

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