Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive


The voices are not young anymore. They are firm, reasonable, even a little humorous.

Underneath, they haven't forgotten; they haven't forgiven.

"Quite early," says an old man with a remote and cultured voice, "yes, quite early, I realized there was something seriously amiss in South Carolina."

"I was a n__- to them." The woman makes a little sound that might almost be a laugh. "They would say it so mean it would cut your heart. And you couldn't say back a mumblin' word."

A black Mississippian named Henry Kirksey looks back half a century and recalls "that little blond girl" he used to play with every day. Then his mother said, "You got to stop playin' with Ruthie Belle."

Then she told him why.

"When I was a little child," his mother said, "the white folks made us all come out and look at where they'd built a scaffold and put a lot of dry wood under it. They took this black man who was supposed to be doing something with a white woman, and brought him out, and hit him for a while. Then they tied him on top of the wood and burned him to death."

"That did it for me," says the mother's son. "I'd see Ruthie Belle and head the other way. It scared the life out of me."

Those interviews are from Will the Circle Be Unbroken? a new documentary about the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a radio series of 26 half-hour programs that will run every weekday at 6:30 p.m. today through June 6 on National Public Radio, WUSF-FM 89.7.

The program is mostly oral history taken from recordings and tapes, unplayed for years, tracked down in attics, archives and the closets of private homes. Will the Circle . . . was begun 17 years ago by the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, but proceeded sporadically because of money problems. Not until 1970 was George King, a British-born veteran documentarymaker, hired to write and produce the series.

King put the focus on the rights struggle in five Southern cities: Atlanta, Little Rock, Ark., Montgomery, Ala., Jackson, Miss., and Columbia, S.C. Though Julian Bond introduces the series and other prominent leaders are heard from, the program takes its force from the terrible and glorious memories of more than 250 little-known veterans of the movement.

The interviews are more than so many cries of pain. They also expose the frauds and phoniness that accompanied official segregation.

"Separate but never equal," declares a retired black educator. "I was the teaching principal at a school with 132 students. The school board assigned me one other teacher. And trucked over a load of textbooks, now and then, after they'd been worn out and replaced in the white schools."

An Arkansas farmer tells how the poll tax was used to disenfranchise black voters. A planter would buy 100 ballots for his field hands, truck them to the polls and watch while they voted the way he told them. Election officials observed contentedly.

One program shows the ugly reality that sometimes faced that sentimentalized figure of song and story, the black woman who took care of white children.

"The parents would go away and you would play with the children and soothe them when they needed it," says Dorothy Bolden, an Atlanta domestic worker. "Cook their food and sing to them and kiss their little toes when they got stubbed because that's what you were supposed to do. Then the parents would come home, and the children would turn on you, and call you names, hurting names, but the parents wouldn't pay any attention."

In Jackson, a black woman got on a bus and was suddenly pulled back by the white man behind her. "He said that would teach me to go ahead of a white man. But I had my umbrella in my hand, and I umbrella-ed him right in the stomach and got back on.

"I came home and told my family what I'd done, and they got so afraid. Expected the Ku Klux Klan would come around to the house that night, but they never did."

Rarely, a vintage white racist speaks out on the program _ dry, restrained, scary: "The Negro wants to move right in with you. Give the Negro an inch and he'll take a mile. Let him dine with you, and he'll want your daughter."

To balance the program, producer King looked for contemporary segregationists but had trouble finding any willing to be recorded.

"People recognize it's no longer acceptable to speak publicly from a racist perspective," King says. "Several told me they'd been born again and were no longer racists, but they still wouldn't talk to us. No, they were not that born again."

Times of trouble

Through the years, African-Americans have faced triumph and tragedy in the fight for civil rights, in almost every part of America.

1. African-American students in Forrest City, Ark., march in support of their demands for integration and improvements at an all-black Lincoln High School. About 200 were arrested and taken to jail in school buses.

2. Peaceful protesters, black and white, demonstrate against racial segregation in public schools in 1963.

3. A curious spectator peers into a restaurant as two Freedom Riders lunch at a Greyhound Bus station in St. Petersburg in 1961.

4. James A. Meredith, left, the first African-American to graduate from the University of Mississippi, crosses from Tennessee into Mississippi in 1966, a few hours before he was shot by a roadside gunman. He initiated a 225-mile hike across from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., to encourage African-Americans to vote.

5. Jack Seale, identified as a major in the security guard of the Mississippi chapter of the Ku Klux Klan at Natchez, Miss., watches as some 1,000 civil rights marchers pass in downtown Natchez in 1965.