• U.S.

TELEVISION: The Excluded Americans

3 minute read

“We felt that by scheduling the program the day after Thanksgiving,” said David Lowe, producer of last week’s “Harvest of Shame” on CBS Reports, “we could stress the fact that much of the food cooked for Thanksgiving throughout the country was picked by migratory workers. We hoped that the pictures of how these people live and work would shock the consciousness of the nation.”

When he started on the nine-month filming project that took him from Belle Glade, Fla. to Chenango County, N.Y., Lowe found that “at first, the workers were embarrassed. Then one man spoke up: ‘Are you with us or against us?’ I said, ‘I’m with you,’ and they let us take their pictures.” The pictures he got included that of an unbowed 29-year-old Negro woman, a migrant laborer since she was eight, now the mother of 14 children but still working for $1 per ten-hour day. She was one of several million U.S. migratory farmers who earn an average of only $900 and whose situation is self-perpetuating; only one in 5,000 of their children finishes high school. Said Edward R. Murrow, roaming a field in a short-sleeved sports shirt and quoting one farmer, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”

That line may have been overemotional, but the rest of the show invited emotion. The scattered, somewhat uncertain opening scenes were followed by startling juxtaposed flashes of irony. A flat-bed truck jammed with migrant families who were allowed to rest only every ten hours was compared to a cattle train, which by federal law has to stop for five of every 28 hours. A rat-infested hovel housing six was contrasted with a nearby $500,000 stable for race horses. And Murrow noted that while the Federal Government spends $6,500,000 annually to protect migratory wild life. Congress this year failed to appropriate $3,500,000 to educate migratory workers’ children.

What made the Lowe-Murrow hour a moving, muckraking masterpiece was the drumfire of interviews with Charles B. Shuman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, and Secretary of Labor James P. Mitchell. While the verbose Shuman found himself becoming the program’s unwitting heavy as he painfully elaborated his foot-dragging conservatism, Mitchell emerged as an impassioned reformer. Extemporizing on “the shame of America” and the personal “blot on my conscience” he spoke bluntly of the power of the farm lobby and noted that what he called “the excluded Americans” had no voice in Congress, no organized force (“The soil has produced no Samuel Gompers or John L. Lewis,” said Murrow). Mitchell’s final vow: “As a citizen, in or out of office, I propose to continue to raise my voice until the country recognizes that it has an obligation to do something for them.”

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