'Harvest Of Shame': Farm Workers Struggle With Poverty 50 Years On

The documentary Harvest of Shame was revolutionary in its raw portrayal of poverty amongst migrant farm workers. NPR's Elizabeth Blair discusses the film's legacy and the state of migrant work today.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to turn to a story about a documentary that changed the way the nation talks about poverty. You might remember that throughout the year, we've been talking a lot about the war on poverty. Well, before Lyndon Johnson took up that cause in 1964, in 1960, the legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow focused on the lives of migrant farm workers in the CBS documentary "Harvest Of Shame." "Harvest Of Shame" trained a spotlight on the low pay and poor conditions endured by the people who help bring America's food to the table.

But it also created a lasting portrait of one Florida community that residents say is still following them for better and worse, more than half a century later. NPR's Elizabeth Blair took a closer look at "Harvest Of Shame" and travelled to Palm Beach County, Florida, to talk with people who live there today. And Elizabeth Blair's with us now. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So why did you want to focus on "Harvest Of Shame" all these years later? What a good idea.

BLAIR: Well, it did turn out to be a good idea because in the documentary world and broadcast journalism, "Harvest Of Shame" is a classic. I mean, it really is the first time Americans saw, up close and personal, what it looked like to live in poverty. The CBS crew spent nine months following migrants and their families, some little children up to senior citizens, from Florida to Georgia, up to Maryland and New Jersey. And it really - after the hour, you really feel, this work is extremely hard and that it was a very insecure existence.

MARTIN: So as part of your reporting, you went to a town in Florida called Belle Glade. Tell us about it.

BLAIR: So Belle Glade is on the southeast corner of Lake Okeechobee. It's in Palm Beach County, which is one of the wealthiest counties in Florida, though you would not know it when you visit Belle Glade. It's very poor. About a third of the people live under the poverty line. It's known as Muck City because the soil there is very fertile - will grow anything from radishes to sugarcane, as they say. And that is where "Harvest Of Shame" begins, in Belle Glade...

MARTIN: Yeah. That's where the opening scenes - are shot there - right? - for people who remember it.

BLAIR: That's right. It's at the loading ramp where many, many men and women and their family and their children show up to load onto these buses and trucks that will take them out into the fields.

MARTIN: Do the people there remember the documentary? Film students do. A lot of journalism students do. Do people there have a memory of it?

BLAIR: People of a certain age definitely have a memory of it. I mean, when you bring it up to them, they're like, you're still talking about "Harvest Of Shame"? They say that younger people don't really know about it. And some of the older people I talked to wish that they did know "Harvest Of Shame" because it just shows how hard people had to work from their community. And the people who do remember it, even though they might not want Belle Glade associated with a documentary with the word shame in the title, do say that it made a difference and that for the first time people who didn't have a voice had a voice.

MARTIN: You know, sometimes, though, that kind of scrutiny is a double-edged sword, and everybody doesn't love it. A lot of us have done reporting where people don't always appreciate being cast in a certain light, even if you think you're being helpful. So was there any of that?

BLAIR: Very much. They don't trust the media in Belle Glade. They have not been cast in a very positive light, over the decades.

MARTIN: How about Stella Pifram(ph)?

BLAIR: Yeah.

MARTIN: She's one of the people you interviewed.

BLAIR: That's right. And she's...

MARTIN: Yeah, tell me about her.

BLAIR: She's in her late 70s, and she was a migrant worker from the age of 6 up until she was 19. Today, she is - she taught in the Palm Beach County school system for 50 years. And today, she has a nonprofit. And she is very much one who said "Harvest Of Shame" made a difference. And there's a clip of her talking.

MARTIN: Yeah, let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

STELLA PIFRAM: It was an important story to tell because they did focus on some of the negative things that were existing at that time, which I think, had something like that not happened to create an awareness, many of the things that have improved may not have been where they are today.

MARTIN: Where are things today?

BLAIR: Well, in Belle Glade, I would say much has changed, but it looks the same. It is - the loading ramp, for example, is still there. And migrant workers still show up before the sun comes up to find out if they'll have a job that day. But people in the community - I interviewed the mayor and some city commissioners - they are really trying to change things in Belle Glade.

MARTIN: Is the work still the same? Are the people still the same?

BLAIR: The people - I mean, it's a very close-knit community and a very friendly community. But the crops have changed. The agricultural industry has gone through a lot of changes. It's mostly sugarcane now. After the Cuban revolution, many of the farmers who had fruits and vegetables - there was incentive from the U.S. government to convert to sugarcane, and that's what they did. And this has been going on for many decades. But the farm industry is more automated now. And a lot of people lost their jobs when that happened.

MARTIN: What about the level of poverty? I mean, kind of the core question was that this was a place that Edward R. Murrow and his team went because they wanted to show the face of poverty. Is there still a lot of poverty, and why is that?

BLAIR: There is still a lot of poverty. About a third of the population lives under the poverty line. Why is that? I think, probably, they've had a very hard time finding industries that would replace farming. One of the men who gave me a tour of the community pointed out Palm Beach State College. And he said, this has been a godsend for Belle Glade because now young people can get nursing degrees or develop a trade. But I think it felt very isolated, Belle Glade. I mean, it's fast-food restaurants just about everywhere. I mean, I think, it's a long haul for them.

MARTIN: Speaking of the face of poverty, is the demographic the same there? I mean, the "Harvest Of Shame" was very much a story black and white. I mean, one of the - I think, what may have been a revelation for some people, if they weren't living it, was that there were a lot of desperately poor white people. There were a lot of desperately poor black people. So is that still the case?

BLAIR: Well, in Belle Glade, I think it was mostly black, even in 1960. But now the population doing the migrant work, it's still black, but it's also Haitian, Guatemalans. So it's more - a lot of immigrant, foreign workers and some undocumented workers doing - working in the fields.

MARTIN: You were telling us that there's still some sort of eye-rolling, you know, about this.

BLAIR: Right. It's back to this problem of Belle Glade can't catch a break with the media. And I interviewed Mary Ross Wilkerson, who's a city commissioner. And she was one who rolled her eyes when I mentioned "Harvest Of Shame." And this is what she said.

MARY ROSS WILKERSON: As people grew and things got better, we're doing better. But for some particular reason, everybody tends to focus on the negative in Belle Glade instead of the positive. Just like now, while we're paving new streets and getting a new marquee and coming into the 21st century, we don't have no one out here to showcase that for. But let there be a shooting, everybody from the Atlantic Ocean to the Lake Okeechobee is here to see who got shot, why, when and how.

MARTIN: Interesting. I think, well, that's interesting. A lot of people would have that complaint, too...

BLAIR: That's right.

MARTIN: ...And lots of places around the country. But you can kind of see her point that sort of things get - narratives get worn into a groove, and you can't get out of that groove. So but what about the effect of the documentary on farm workers in general and Belle Glade in particular? Was there an impact?

BLAIR: There was. After "Harvest Of Shame" aired, legislation that was already pending in Congress passed, legislation that helped migrant workers with health care, legislation that helped migrant workers their children - give their children education. Not everything that was on the table in 1960 was passed. But it definitely made a difference.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Blair is a senior producer and reporter on NPR's Arts & Culture desk. And she was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. - took the long walk down the hall. So thank you so much for joining us.

BLAIR: Thank you.

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