'Freedom Summer' and 'The Watsons': Powerful TV About A Civil Rights Journey : Code Switch This story in the "Book Your Trip" series features NPR TV critic Eric Deggans on two books turned TV shows about civil rights: PBS's Freedom Summer and Hallmark Channel's The Watsons Go to Birmingham.
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'Freedom Summer' And 'The Watsons': Powerful TV About A Civil Rights Journey

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'Freedom Summer' And 'The Watsons': Powerful TV About A Civil Rights Journey

'Freedom Summer' And 'The Watsons': Powerful TV About A Civil Rights Journey

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Now, some reading that's inspired television programs. As part of NPR's "Book Your Trip" series, TV critic Eric Deggans looks at two books which became TV shows about summertime travel at a turbulent time. The documentary, "Freedom Summer," debuts tonight on PBS, while the Hallmark channel's "The Watsons Go to Birmingham" is available on DVD. Deggans says both shows offer an emotional journey into the depths of America's civil rights struggle.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When I was a kid in the mid-1970s, friends around my Indiana hometown talked about summers down south like they were heading to Disney World. The trip was an annual comforting ritual for black families up north with roots in the Deep South. But there was a time just ten years earlier when traveling down south could mean taking your life in your hands if you were black.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Hear that freedom train a coming.

DEGGANS: PBS's "Freedom Summer" tells the story of a dangerous journey to challenge segregation.

KARIN KUNSTLER: Spending a summer in Mississippi taught me a lot about this country. My high school social studies teacher taught me that we all have rights. Mississippi summer taught me that we didn't all have rights.

DEGGANS: That's Karin Kunstler, one of more than 700 mostly white student volunteers who headed to Mississippi in the summer of 1964. They rode buses from Ohio to Mississippi where they would live with black families scattered throughout the state. At first, they felt a joyous excitement known as a freedom high, according to the author of "Freedom Summer," Bruce Watson.

BRUCE WATSON: There was a lot of singing - a lot of freedom songs being sung on the bus, until they reached Mississippi. And then, in most cases, the buses were met at the state line by state highway patrolmen who had known, of course, that they were coming. And many volunteers told me that at that point, when they crossed the line, the singing stopped.

DEGGANS: Once in Mississippi, volunteers learned to live in crushing poverty and strict segregation.

WATSON: Black people were never called by Mr. and Mrs. They were always called by their first name or just boy, and all of these things - the degradation, the poverty - was really startling to the volunteers, even though they had been told about it.

REPRESENTATIVE ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: For the white volunteers, and certainly for the sheltered blacks, this was not only an eye-opening but a shock.

DEGGANS: That's Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress. In 1964 she was a law student and civil rights activist who helped develop training programs for the Freedom Summer volunteers. She also saw racist violence up-close when she tried to rescue activist Fannie Lou Hamer from a Mississippi jail.

NORTON: When I asked to see, Ms. Hamer, this storied woman-leader of the civil rights movement in the South as she was to become, she had been beat unmercifully by a black trustee. And they told him that if you don't beat her, we'll see just how hard you beat her, then we going to beat you even harder.

DEGGANS: But even the worst violence, the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, didn't keep volunteers away. For a less violent, more personal journey, viewers can watch the Hallmark channel's adaptation of "The Watsons Go To Birmingham." It's a story about an unassuming black family caught up in the civil rights struggle while visiting relatives in Alabama. A perfect metaphor for the bitter-sweet experience of traveling south back then, according to the book's author, Christopher Paul Curtis.

CHRISTOPHER PAUL CURTIS: When people would discuss about going south, there'd be almost this idyllic tone to what they were saying, and you know that's not quite true when people are being lynched.

DEGGANS: In one scene, the parents must tell their children how rules for travel are different than in their Michigan hometown.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 1: (As character) We left at 5 a.m., so by the time we get to Tennessee, the sun will be up and we can travel in daylight.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 2: (As character) Travel in daylight?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 3: (As character) Just to be safe, traveling in the daylight in the South is what's best for us.

CURTIS: When African-American people would travel from the North to the South, you had to do a lot of planning beforehand.

DEGGANS: Curtis said black families couldn't risk pulling in to a whites-only gas station or restaurant on a long trip.

CURTIS: There were actually books that told black people where they could stop. They gave restaurants that were either black-owned or that would serve black people.

DEGGANS: The Hallmark Channel movie features a family who joins the civil rights struggle almost by accident. PBS's "Freedom Summer" shows volunteers who deliberately challenged injustice. But both TV programs also depict another important journey - how the nation was led away from segregation by people willing to take a dangerous stand for equality. I'm Eric Deggans.


UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) It's an uphill journey, but I'm on my way.

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