Mention civil rights, and several names immediately come to mind: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But before Martin and Malcolm and Rosa, there was Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois. There was Walter White and the NAACP, crusading for justice, equality and freedom. The era immediately after the civil war and before the modern civil rights movement was a time of horrific brutality, but also great strength and courage.
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, a new series which premiers on PBS in October, examines this unique period in American history. The four-part documentary, written, produced and directed by Richard Wormser, is a stirring historical account of the battles fought by African Americans across the nation for equality and justice.
"People don't realize how complex the African American experience is," says Sam Pollard, one of the producers of the series who has worked on awardwinning documentaries, including Spike Lee's Four Little Girls, which looks at the 1964 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads.
"This is an investigation that most of us, even Black Americans, don't even want to deal with," Pollard adds.
The investigation begins with the birth of Jim Crow in 1836. Jim Crow was the name of a "malicious minstrel character of a Black man that was created by a White man to amuse audiences," notes Richard Roundtree, who narrates the documentary. However, as the film explains, Jim Crow would ultimately come to symbolize the system of racial hatred and segregation that Blacks endured for more than a century.
In the first episode of the documentary, "Promises Betrayed (1865-1896)," the journey begins with 4 million slaves freed by President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The period of Reconstruction was a prosperous one for Blacks. They were elected to Congress, purchased land and went to school. Blacks became doctors, lawyers, bankers and inventors. They built schools and churches. Most of all, they were independent and free. But their prosperity would prove to be short-lived.
Jealous of Black achievement and fearing Black dominance, Whites devised laws such as the Black codes in Mississippi, to keep Blacks "in their place." Nathan Bedford Forrest organized the Ku Klux Klan and began a system of intimidation and violence. And by the 1880s, many Southern states had passed laws legalizing segregation.
In the second installment, "Fighting Back (1896-1917)," Booker T. Washington's Atlanta exposition speech and the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision help cement Blacks' standing as second-class citizens. In 1898, the Supreme Court denied Blacks the vote, and during the same year more than 100 Black men were lynched in the South.
It was also in 1898 that successful Blacks were shot and killed mercilessly by envious Whites in the city of Wilmington, N.C. Years later, the racist film Birth of a Nation would mark the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
The second episode also gives a glimpse into the harsh imprisonment of Black men and children in convict lease camps, a form of slavery in which those sentenced to jail would be placed in the camps and used as free labor to build railroads, clean swamps and work in mines.
As editor of the NAACP's Crisis magazine, Du Bois used the publication as a vehicle to fight Jim Crow. He became a vocal critic of "separate but equal" and, unlike Booker T. Washington, believed that Blacks should fight for equality.
In "Don't Shout Too Soon," the third episode, which chronicles the years from 1917 to 1940, Blacks migrated north as lynchings in the South became more firequent. The NAACP played a major role in civil rights during this time. While Du Bois urged Blacks to fight for their rights, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White posed as a White man to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, and Charles Hamilton Houston, the NAACP's first chief counsel, fought battles in the courts to lay the foundation for the historic Brown v. …