One in this documentary miniseries about the social and cultural history of African-Americans, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

By the beginning of the 1940’s, many thousands of African-Americans migrate to Detroit, Michigan in hopes of starting new lives earning decent wages in the booming automobile industry. However, employment does not ensure African-Americans any kind of equality, economically or otherwise; African-Americans are often put to work in dangerous places such as foundries without regards to their safety or fair wages, and are subject to increasing racial tensions. In 1941, the Japanese launch a surprise attack on the military base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, spurring the United States to enter World War II. Production facilities around the United States instantly reconfigure themselves to serve the war effort, and automobile manufacturers in Detroit start producing bombers. Defense assembly lines become federally integrated due to severe labor shortages. This further stokes racial tensions between African-Americans and whites in Detroit, and in 1943 a massive race war breaks out in the city. The riots leave dozens dead and hundreds injured as whites storm African-American neighborhoods and inflict violence upon them.

However, World War II also brings with it an opportunity for African-Americans to prove themselves by serving their country in the military. Hundreds of thousands sign up, hoping that their service will earn them equal rights back home. They do not receive full citizenship for their efforts, and in response to this, African-American presses spearhead the “Double V Campaign,” calling for victory over both the Axis powers and over discrimination back home. Fighting in the war imbues many soldiers with newfound purpose and determination over their struggle for equal rights, even as white soldiers attempt to discriminate against them overseas. Upon returning home, African-American veterans are dismayed that the country’s attitudes have not changed, and that the discrimination and violence against them have even increased. In February 1946, army sergeant Isaac Woodard returns from his tour of service to return to his home in South Carolina. During a bus ride back home he gets into an argument with the bus driver and is taken away by police officers who assault him, leaving him permanently blind. His story is reported in the press, and even some whites are horrified by the violence against Woodard. Orson Welles, then a prominent radio host, spends one of his shows discussing the Woodard incident, expressing his outrage and disgust.

Radio proves to be an influential force in favor of African-Americans; in 1949, the Memphis station WDIA, in an attempt to boost its lackluster ratings, changes its programming to be entirely African-American-centric. African-American DJs start to arise, such as Ford Nelson, who talks about how African-American radio programming helped foster feelings of community and pride amongst African-Americans in the South. WDIA soon attracts white listeners as well, creating an audience that transcends racial bias; African-American culture becomes popular and subtly works to change attitudes about race. In the 1950’s, African-American celebrities and popular figures rise to prominence, and a handful use their newfound fame to champion the cause of civil rights, such as actor and singer Paul Robeson. He speaks out internationally about the injustices committed against African-Americans by the United States, and in 1951 he speaks at the United Nations, charging the country with slow, systematic genocide against African-Americans. He believes that the only solution is a communist uprising, although his opinion is unpopular amongst other African-American leaders.

Meanwhile, the NAACP continues to enact a slow, deliberate campaign to end Jim Crow laws. At the time, Robeson’s viewpoints are not accepted as part of this strategy, but in time he comes to be known as one of the precursors of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, the Civil Rights Movement begins in earnest via the Montgomery Bus Boycott, protesting segregated seating on public transportation. On December 1st of that year, protester Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on one such bus for a white person, leading to her arrest. Parks becomes an important symbolic figure in the struggle for civil rights; she is selected as being “perfect” for the boycott due to her long history with activism and protest organization. Parks’ example resonates in Montgomery, where African-Americans forego taking the bus altogether. The effort is led by a then-unknown Atlanta minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who goes on to become perhaps the most central and essential figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Montgomery ends segregation on its city buses, and Dr. King stresses the use of nonviolence as a means to effect change for the better; his strategy is to agitate segregationists and garner sympathy from the rest of the country.

On November 14th, 1960, federal marshals escort six year-old girl Ruby Bridges to an all-white elementary school in New Orleans, the first African-American child to do so. Police officers erect barricades to prevent her entry. The NAACP managed to get a court ruling desegregating schools in 1954 as a result of Brown vs. Board of Education, but most schools were still de facto segregated, and Southern schools refuse to integrate. Bridges enters the school as a massive anti-integration protest erupts outside. Once she is inside, parents storm the school to take their children away, evacuating over 500 children in total. Others soon follow in Bridges’ footsteps as the process of integration occurs slowly and sporadically. Two students, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, become the first African-American students to enroll in the University of Georgia in 1961, also sparking controversy. Students become key figures in the struggle for civil rights; they have little to lose and are not as worried about changing the status quo as their parents, due to them not wanting to jeopardize what they already have. Students Diane Nash and John Lewis lead a much-publicized effort to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. Under the tutelage of Reverend James Lawson, they learn about nonviolent protest methods and how to properly conduct sit-ins. The first of these sit-ins occurs in 1960 at a lunch counter in Nashville and is met with violent reactions from whites, serving its function as intended. In response to this show of violence, Nashville becomes the first Southern city to desegregate its lunch counters.

By April 1960, tens of thousands of students conduct sit-ins across the South. However, the Civil Rights Movement’s leadership does not offer them much support, as they favor different tactics in their efforts to bring about equal rights. Veteran protest organizer Ella Baker, however, understands their plight, as well as the effectiveness of their risky protest strategy. She helps to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, advocating a grass-roots movement aimed at the most highly segregated and racist sections of the South. The movement has difficulty gaining traction in the North until 1963, when Detroit music producer Berry Gordy and his label Motown makes a record of a speech by Dr. King made in June of that year in Detroit. The speech serves as an early version of what would become Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech several years later. That same year, a speech by Malcolm X is also released, creating a counterpoint to Dr. King’s nonviolent methods with a philosophy of militant opposition to racism and white supremacy; his experience in prison radicalizes him and he converts to Islam, advocating armed self-defense. His message appeals to people dissatisfied with the deliberate pace of the Civil Rights Movement and impatient to see change in the nation.

In June 1963, the Great Walk to Freedom occurs in Detroit, attracting followers of both Dr. King and Malcolm X. The turnout is unprecedented for such an event, serving as an inspirational touchstone to African-Americans. It also highlights the stark contrast between Dr. King and Malcolm X and their respective philosophies. Dr. King’s nonviolent methods gain more prominence and spread throughout the country. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act is signed, marking a major step towards racial equality under the law. On March 7th, 1965, a march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama results in “Bloody Sunday,” a standoff at the Edmund Pettus Bridge featuring a brutal assault by the National Guard on peaceful protestors, broadcast over national television. The influence and power of television in particular is essential in introducing the movement to a wider audience and gathering support for its cause. The outrage over Bloody Sunday sparks further protest movements across the country, and Dr. King’s nonviolent methods are successful at gaining alliances with clergymen and religious leaders of all faiths. On March 15th, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson expresses his support for the Civil Rights Movement by using their mantra, “we shall overcome,” in his address to the nation, and soon thereafter he signs the Voting Rights Act, affording African-Americans the ability to vote unhindered. However, Southern states create obstacles for African-American voters which undermine the law’s intent.

In 1966, James Meredith protests these voting restrictions via a one-man march across the South, but is shot in Mississippi by a hidden sniper. Dr. King and other civil rights leaders pick up where Meredith left off, joined by young civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael. Carmichael represents a generation of young people dissatisfied with Dr. King’s message of nonviolence and believing that only more dramatic and violent actions will be successful in forcing the nation to accept them as equals. Carmichael also feels that Dr. King’s methods allow white people to easily harm or kill African-Americans at will. In Greenwood, Mississippi during the Meredith march, Carmichael gives a speech asserting that African-Americans must become more assertive and self-assured in their own communities, giving rise to the slogan and idea of “black power.” This revolutionizes the Civil Rights Movement and sends it into a new phase, representing a psychological shift to a more aggressive form of protest. On April 4th, 1968, Dr. King is assassinated on the balcony of his motel room, representing the end of an era for the Civil Rights Movement.


  • DATE: 8:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 0:56:06
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 121906
  • GENRE: Public affairs/Documentaries
  • SUBJECT HEADING: African-American Collection - News/Talk
  • SERIES RUN: PBS - TV miniseries, 2013


  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. … Executive Producer, Writer
  • Peter Kunhardt … Executive Producer
  • Dyllan McGee … Executive Producer
  • Julie Anderson … Executive Producer
  • Stephanie Carter … Coordinating Producer
  • Rachel Dretzin … Senior Producer
  • Leslie Asako Gladsjo … Senior Story Producer
  • Rebecca Brillheart … Supervising Producer
  • Timothy Messler … Supervising Producer
  • Phil Bertelsen … Producer, Director
  • Hazel Gurland-Pooler … Co-Producer
  • George Kunhardt … Co-Producer
  • Teddy Kunhardt … Co-Producer
  • Jaime Sukonnik … Associate Producer
  • Stef Gordon … Line Producer
  • Andy Cahill … Animation
  • Brian Oakes … Animation
  • Brittany Clemons … Researcher
  • Donald Yacovone … Researcher
  • Marial Iglesias Yutset … Researcher
  • Jill Cowan … Researcher
  • Paul Taylor … Writer
  • Paul Brill … Music by
  • Wynton Marsalis … Music by
  • Elizabeth Ziman … Music by
  • Neil Cleary … Music by
  • 5 Alarm … Music by
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. … Host, Narrator
  • Damon J. Keith … Interviewee
  • David Levering Lewis … Interviewee
  • Christopher Parker … Interviewee
  • Michael Bertrand … Interviewee
  • Ford Nelson … Interviewee
  • Martin Duberman … Interviewee
  • Vernon E. Jordan Jr. … Interviewee
  • Ruby Bridges … Interviewee
  • David C. Forbes Sr. … Interviewee
  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault … Interviewee
  • Diane Nash … Interviewee
  • John Lewis … Interviewee
  • Eleanor Holmes Norton … Interviewee
  • Peniel E. Joseph … Interviewee
  • Grace Lee Boggs … Interviewee
  • Dan Rather … Interviewee
  • Aram Goudsouzian … Interviewee
  • Alvin Poussiant … Interviewee
  • Ella Baker
  • Stokely Carmichael
  • Berry Gordy
  • Hamilton Holmes
  • Lyndon B. Johnson
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • James Lawson
  • James Meredith
  • Rosa Parks
  • Paul Robeson
  • Orson Welles
  • Isaac Woodard
  • Malcolm X
Continue searching the Collection ➾