NPR logo

Revisiting The Stories Told In Murrow's 'Harvest of Shame'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/367244290/367244291" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Revisiting The Stories Told In Murrow's 'Harvest of Shame'

Movies

Revisiting The Stories Told In Murrow's 'Harvest of Shame'

Revisiting The Stories Told In Murrow's 'Harvest of Shame'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/367244290/367244291" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Elizabeth Blair visits Belle Glade, Fla., where Edward R. Murrow's film crew recorded migrant farm workers. (This piece was originally broadcast on <em>Weekend Edition Saturday </em> on May 31, 2014.)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro, and this is CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow in 1960.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HARVEST OF SHAME")

EDWARD R. MURROW: We present this report on Thanksgiving because were it not for the labor of the people you're going to meet, you might not starve, but your table would not be laden with the luxuries that we have all come to regard as essentials.

SHAPIRO: Murrow was introducing a documentary called "Harvest Of Shame" about migrant farm workers. That broadcast is considered groundbreaking. It offered millions of Americans a hard look at what it means to live in poverty. NPR's Elizabeth Blair wondered whether it changed anything. She tackled that question earlier this year as part of our series marking the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty. We think this is a story worth hearing again about what a difference a documentary can make.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: It begins in an open lot crowded with men and women looking for jobs. Crew leaders yell out the going rate for that day's pay.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HARVEST OF SHAME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Eight, seven bucks and you got to you and if you pull today, and we pull what we got to pull today, you'll have eleven dollars in your pocket.

BLAIR: It's called a shape-up for migrant workers - men and women packed onto the backs of large trucks that drove them off to the fields.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HARVEST OF SHAME")

MURROW: (As narrator) One farmer looked at this and said, we used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.

BLAIR: African-Americans and whites, weary mothers and fathers and their children told their stories to CBS producer David Lowe.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HARVEST OF SHAME")

DAVID LOWE: What is an average dinner for the family?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, I cook a pot of beans and fry some potatoes or some corn or something like that.

LOWE: How many quarts of milk do you buy for the children?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, we don't - we don't have milk except maybe when we draw our paycheck, we have milk about once a week.

BLAIR: The day after "Harvest Of Shame" aired, The New York Times said it was uncompromising in its exposure of filth, despair and grinding poverty that are the lot of the migratory workers.

DAN RATHER: Nobody but nobody on American television had taken an hour to do this kind of expose.

BLAIR: Former CBS news anchor and correspondent Dan Rather.

RATHER: The tone was somber, serious, direct.

BLAIR: The CBS crew spent nine months filming "Harvest Of Shame" from Florida to New Jersey across to California. They filmed in run-down labor camps and talked to workers in the fields. Many of them were from Belle Glade, Florida, a town whose motto is her soil is her fortune.

TERESA OSBORN: It was a hard job. You go from sun-up to sun-down and you look at the amount of money that you bring in and a lot of times it just didn't make ends meet.

BLAIR: Teresa Osborn is a middle school teacher in Belle Glade. Some of her relatives were interviewed for "Harvest Of Shame."

OSBORN: It's almost like you were working for that day, and then the next day had to take care of itself. And it was hard to save and put away monies and stuff, you know, so you always were looking for work.

BLAIR: Osborn credits "Harvest Of Shame" with making the rest of America look at how people who didn't have a voice were living. But there was also criticism of the documentary, even from some of the migrants themselves. Take Allean King, who was interviewed while she was picking beans.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HARVEST OF SHAME")

LOWE: How much did you earn?

ALLEAN KING: A dollar.

LOWE: One dollar?

KING: That's right, one dollar.

BLAIR: Years later, Allean King told The Sun-Sentinel in Florida she actually made 10 to 15 dollars a day. When CBS interviewed her she said one dollar, because she'd only worked two hours. She had more hours to go. In one of the most dramatic moments in the documentary, producer David Lowe interviews Allean King's nine-year-old son, Jerome. He's watching his baby sisters. The camera cuts to the kitchen counter where flies swarm around a pot of beans. Then, it cuts to a ripped up section of the mattress Jerome sleeps on.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HARVEST OF SHAME")

LOWE: How did you get that whole in that bed there, Jerome?

JEROME: The rats.

LOWE: The what?

JEROME: The rats.

BLAIR: Jerome King is Teresa Osborn's cousin.

OSBORN: That was not rats. I mean, that was just Mitch saying what it was, but...

BLAIR: Jerome King?

OSBORN: Yeah, Jerome.

BLAIR: The boy.

OSBORN: That was Jerome giving his depiction of what it was, but, give him time to get it right. No, it wasn't rats. It wasn't rats.

BLAIR: After it aired, members of Congress and the farm lobby kicked into gear to discredit the documentary, saying it was distorted and one-sided. Time Magazine wrote that "Harvest Of Shame" was an exaggerated portrait. But Greg Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, believes the images of the working conditions for migrants spoke for themselves.

GREG SCHELL: The impact of "Harvest Of Shame" cannot be underestimated in terms of what it produced.

BLAIR: Schell says the documentary helped push forward legislation that was already pending in Congress, like funding for health services to migrant workers and education for migrants' children.

SCHELL: Edward R. Murrow was a crusader. He came and said, we can change this, people, if you get aroused and demand that the government and Congress react. And Congress did react.

BLAIR: But whatever changes "Harvest Of Shame" might have helped bring about, migrant workers are still living in poverty. TV news teams have tried to cover why these problems persist in segments that have revisited "Harvest Of Shame" on anniversaries of its airing. NBC sent Chet Huntley to Belle Glade in 1970.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBC NEWS")

CHET HUNTLEY: It has been 10 years since Edward R. Murrow made "Harvest Of Shame." We hope that no one will need to make a film about migrants 10 years from now.

BLAIR: But they did - NBC went back in 1990. CBS went back in 1995 and then again in 2010. Gregory Schell believes the TV news stories covering migrant workers have gotten tired.

SCHELL: They're increasingly characterized by a sense of resignation - that these problems are intractable and that nothing's going to change.

BLAIR: Schell admits some of these problems are hard to solve. Take the link between immigration policy and wages. Today, many of the field workers are from other countries like Mexico and Haiti. They're often paid by the piece, meaning the more fruit or vegetables they pick, the more they get paid. And since 1966, they're also covered under minimum wage.

SCHELL: Under the law, the worker is guaranteed the minimum wage, no matter how many or how few pieces he picks. Now, if piece rates are set properly, the diligent worker will make well above the minimum wage. But because of a chronic surplus of labor, most piece rates are set very low, and the fastest workers cannot earn the minimum wage. But the workers don't understand the minimum wage guarantee. That's a secret the employers like to keep from them.

BLAIR: Back in Belle Glade, Florida, men and women still gather around 5 a.m. in the same lot you see at the beginning of "Harvest Of Shame," waiting for buses to take them to the fields.

LEROY AKINS: Fellas, how many? Seven...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Same thing yesterday.

AKINS: Huh?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Same thing as yesterday.

AKINS: Same thing as yesterday.

BLAIR: Thirty-five-year-old Leroy Akins helps his crew leader find workers. He also makes boxes for the corn they'll pick that day. He says his parents and grandparents all did farm work and had him doing it when he was a teenager.

AKINS: So I grew into it like it's a hobby for me. If I wouldn't have probably been doing it then, I probably wouldn't be doing it now.

BLAIR: The loading ramp, as it's called, is a bleak, empty lot surrounded by some small buildings with bars on the windows - a boarded-up storefront. City officials recently decided to demolish the lot and turn it into a park. Leroy Akins was surprised to hear about the plans, but he says it won't stop the early morning shape-up.

AKINS: 'Cause I'm pretty sure they got more places for buses.

BLAIR: Where else would they do it?

AKINS: Anywhere - they would come pick you up from the house if they had to.

BLAIR: Somebody has to pick the corn and cut the sugarcane, even though it's among the worst paid jobs in the country. Today, the average farm worker makes about $10,000 a year. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.