The Great Depression

Article excerpt

It has been six years since Henry Hampton's extraordinary six-part documentary series Eyes on the Prize first ran on public television and reminded us, as nothing ever had before, of the role that ordinary citizens--black and white, but mostly black--played in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

In The Great Depression, the seven-part series currently being aired on PBS, Hampton's organization Blackside, Inc., has now done the same for the struggle for democracy in the 1930s. "Somehow, in the hardest of hard times," says the narrator in the first program, nicely summarizing the whole series, "with America slipping away, our parents and grandparents found it within themselves to fight their way out.... They may have done an imperfect job, but by the time the Great Depression was over, they had done better than simply save America, they had made a new America."

The new series does not have quite the immediacy of its predecessor, simply because so many of the men and women the producers would like to have interviewed are gone. But even when they have had to settle for their protagonists' children, old memories retain their sting: an interview with the son of the bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd intercut with one with the son of a lawman Floyd shot down, for example, and perhaps most chillingly memorable, the eerily unrepentant son of Tom Girdler, the Republic Steel magnate whose mindless intransigence helped bring about the deaths of ten unarmed strikers and the wounding of many more in what came to be called the Memorial Day Massacre in South Chicago in 1937.

This is a rich portrait of a tumultuous era, and it manages to cover an enormous amount of ground--from the failures of the Hoover administration through the limited successes of the New Deal to the coming of the war that finally ended the Depression--without overlooking any section of the country or straying far from the lives of the ordinary citizens most affected by it all.

In the second program the White House butler Alonzo Fields recalls a meeting of Herbert Hoover's cabinet in early 1932 at which the subject of Gov. Franklin Roosevelt's potential presidential candidacy came up; it was generally agreed that FDR could never be elected President once the people discovered that he was "only a half-man. …