``If Martin Luther King were alive today . . . I think he'd be talking about the black family.'' So states Carolyn Wallace, one of the heads of the International Youth Organization, a community center in Newark, N.J. She is talking to CBS News correspondent Bill Moyers in what may turn out to be the most controversial documentary of the year: The Vanishing Family -- Crisis in Black America (CBS, Saturday, 9-11 p.m.).
It is a hard-hitting news special. Mr. Moyers and his witnesses don't hesitate to face what they have found to be the current state of the black family in America.
A series of interviews with young blacks, mostly in Newark, reveals a shockingly naive punk sophistication. Moyers elicits unnerving information about the morality and economy of a subculture: black youngsters in fatherless homes, often children who bear children. He manages to make his points with a kind of reassuring ministerial compassion; no matter how stern Moyers waxes, there is always an overlay of empathy in his probing.
According to the program, nearly 60 percent of all black children are born out of wedlock today. Black teen-age mothers and their offspring constitute the fastest-growing segment of Black America. Both the mothers and the fathers come to depend upon welfare for their support. What evolves is a cycle of illegitimacy, dependence upon the state, low self-image, and in too many cases, wasted lives. Moyers considers this web ``a potentially explosive condition in American society.''
He allows blacks to speak for themselves. In fact, Moyers is the only white person who appears on camera. And he seems to feel a bit uncomfortable playing the gadfly role.
``The messages that kids are getting from society seem to say: `Do anything you want to,' '' he says, ``so a white man like Moyers cannot step in and say to young black kids: `It's not right to have children out of wedlock, welfare needs to be changed, you've got to take responsibility.' Who's going to say these things to these kids,'' he asks Mrs. Wallace, the black community leader, just a bit plaintively.
``Why can't you say it?'' she asks.
``They won't listen to me,'' he responds.
But she is not about to let him, or us, off the hook that easily. ``You've got to say it anyhow,'' she insists. ``They may not listen to me either, but I'm saying it. . . . Hey, let's deal with the problem.''
``The Vanishing Family'' performs a major public service by unflinchingly spelling out the problem, something many less courageous observers have avoided doing.
As the program clearly focuses on only one segment of black society, in the interest of balance the final half-hour (not available for viewing at press time) of the two-hour special is devoted to a panel discussion by black Americans. Taking part are the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Eleanor Holmes Norton (professor of law at Georgetown University), Dr. Glenn C. Loury (professor of political economy at Harvard University), and Charles Knox (police director of Newark).
Produced by Ruth C. Streeter under the aegis of executive producer Perry Wolff, ``The Vanishing Family'' is proof that the documentary form is alive and well at CBS News, despite some recent setbacks. A chat with Bill Moyers
``I may be accused of having done a broadcast with a racist premise,'' CBS News commentator Bill Moyers says regretfully, ``and of giving aid and comfort to the racists in America. But the truth is often abused by people who have a stake in distorting it. That cannot stop journalists from reporting the reality they have found.
``There are many blacks who are saying that this is an issue that cannot be swept under the rug any longer. In fact, one reason the black family is in crisis today is that they [black leaders] insisted 20 years ago that the issue be stricken from the public agenda. I know because I was there as special assistant at the White House when President Lyndon Johnson took the Moynihan report, which dealt with the emerging breakdown of the black family, and turned it into a major speech at Howard University.
``Top black leaders praised the speech but then recoiled from the implications of the report on which that speech was based. Martin Luther King said, in effect, `We are caught up right now in a struggle to end legal discrimination, and this report will give our enemies ammunition which they will distort.'
``But right before his death King started speaking to that issue, because he knew it was the one condition that could offset all the gains that had been made.''
Moyers has statistics to prove the existence of the crisis:
Over one-half of all black children under 18 live with one parent, compared with one-sixth of white children and one-fourth of Hispanic children.
Only 42 percent of black children are living with two parents, compared with 80 percent of white children and 70 percent of Hispanic children.
In 1960 slightly more than 20 percent of all births to black women were out of wedlock. Today that figure is around 60 percent, as compared with 34 percent for white births and 27 percent for Hispanic.
Almost 9 out of 10 births to black teen-agers are out of wedlock, compared with 4 out of 10 to white teen-agers.
Without some action, the turn of the century will see 70 percent of all black families headed by single women and fewer than 30 percent of all black men employed. (This figure, Moyers explains, comes from a study done at the University of Chicago by two black scholars.)
Moyers suspects that ``the traditional civil rights leadership may react negatively to this program, just as they reacted to the Moynihan report in the 1960s. But there is a growing awareness on the part of other blacks that, while institutional changes are necessary, blacks must take the initiative themselves.''
He quotes black leaders to support his thesis. Glenn Loury, a black conservative Harvard professor: ``The bottom stratum of the black community has compelling problems which can no longer be blamed solely on white racism, which will not yield to protest marches or court orders, and which force us to confront fundamental failure in lower-class black urban society.''
And John J. Jacob, president of the Urban League: ``We may have allowed our just anger at what America has done to blacks to obscure our own need for self-discipline and strong community values.''
Although the documentary comes down heavily on the welfare system, Moyers insists that ``there are many causes in this crisis and no one solution. We defeated the Japanese and the Germans on two fronts, but can we solve a serious human dilemma with a multipronged attack? We must revise welfare, keep digging at the roots of racism, arrange for better access to contraception, and inspire higher personal moral values and positive social attitudes. I hope this documentary moves us in that direction.''