The familiar saga of civil rights in the United States takes on new dimensions - and often new meaning - in "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." The powerfully moving 13-hour, 26-part Public Radio International documentary series premires in many American cities this week (check local listings).
It is oral history of the best kind, describing the civil rights struggle between 1940 and 1970 primarily in first-person accounts, some 180 of them not heard anywhere before.
As the more than 250 reflective voices - black and white, old and young - slip in and out of the narrative, their personal stories evoke sharp images. They weave an engrossing tapestry that depicts the sweeping historical tale in convincing personal terms - aided by well-chosen and evocative popular music of the period.
Five cities featured
The series was initiated by the Southern Regional Council, a 77-year-old civil rights group based in Atlanta that today is working to protect minority voting rights and record racial attitudes. Written and produced by George King - with a prologue and epilogue by Julian Bond - the series is narrated by Vertamae Grosvenor and covers the civil rights movement in five cities: Atlanta; Little Rock, Ark.; Jackson, Miss.; Montgomery, Ala.; and Columbia, S.C.
Some 17 years in the making, the ambitious project required extensive research - not only in museums, universities, and civil rights organizations, but also in attics, under beds, and in other nooks and crannies, to discover many long-forgotten narratives.
The series takes the listener from the early efforts in the 1940s by Thurgood Marshall and others, through the Montgomery bus boycotts and other struggles, on to "American Apartheid" in Mississippi between 1940 and 1960. In the final program it ponders the question of whether the fight for civil rights is still needed today.
What makes it work well is the medium itself. A decade ago the public TV series "Eyes on the Prize" told the story of civil rights in its own compelling terms. Yet by revisiting the story on the radio, through the reminiscences of people who have lived through the history, without seeing the speakers, you are able to experience the individuals in a special way - to savor their tone of voice, to sense the emotional meaning.
This series adds to our understanding not through historical revisionism or even startling new information, but by an emotional education imparted through dabs and strokes, until the broad social impact begins to emerge.
Some familiar public figures speak - such as Julian Bond and Andrew Young - but it's the ordinary people and their individual recollections that provide the focus and detail. Their obscurity - and in some cases anonymity - gives the programs universality.
Sometimes indignities recalled in tranquility can have an added impact. An old woman's voice describes her experience of segregation. Sadly, without malice, she speaks of the matter-of-fact acceptance decades ago by whites and many blacks of their status - "the dark days of bondage" when everything from "city hall to cemetery" was segregated.
A myriad of courageous acts ranging from quiet dissent to open defiance - are memorably recounted.
The memories are not all from African-Americans. We hear old recordings of white political apologists voicing ugly sentiments. When a southern politician says, "Let him [the African-American] dine with you, and he'll want your daughter," the tone is not inflammatory, but laid-back - all the more disquieting in its complacency.
If a lesson is taught by the series, it is the impact on individual lives of social injustice. You hear what it felt like when white children growing up together with black children were separated - often to their dismay - when they got old enough. None of the series is ideology. It is life lived and recollected in ways that listeners won't soon forget.