The Making of Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Beyond the Printed Word
Vol. 19, No. 1, 1997 pp. 22-26
When Black Belt Press publisher Randall Williams suggested in 1978 that the Southern Regional Council publish a guidebook to civil rights historic sites in Montgomery, Alabama, former SRC Executive Director Steve Suitts married that proposal to his longtime interest in regional radio and cane up with the concept of a civil rights radio documentary project focusing on the five state capitals of the Deep South. From this initial conception of what would later be named Will The Circle Be Unbroken?,Suitts guided program development, oral histories, and fund raising for the series until his resignation as SRC’s executive director in 1995. Suitts is still a consultant for the project. In addition, he now works as a writer, and is an adjunct faculty member with the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University.
In a January, 1997 interview with Allen Tullos, Suitts reflected on his long involvement with the civil rights radio project.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? has taken even longer to produce than most of the media efforts the Southern Regional Council has undertaken fifteen years. It will actually be sixteen years from the point of planning to the point of broadcast. The project changed over this time. If we had finished the enterprise in the middle of the 1980s, it would not be what we are going to be broadcasting in the late 1990s. But the essence of it is there, and I think it is true to what the overall mission was from beginning to end.
This mission had two parts that allowed us to keep the faith through the thick and many patches of thin. First, we felt it was important to give voice and attention to a part of a social movement that defines the best part of the South, before many of the people who participated in it were no longer alive to tell their stories. The radio project was also an institutional effort to try to have the Southern Regional Council move beyond the printed word as the sole medium by which it tries to reach people around the country.
Reaching the hearts and minds of people is something we were thinking a lot about in 1980, when Jimmy Carter had been defeated for a second term and Ronald Reagan had declared that poverty no longer existed and that civil rights was no longer a major issue in America. It was a time to rethink. And it’s appropriate that the series finally emerges into the public domain at a time when people are beginning to realize that in a democracy you cannot simply fiddle with the enforcement of good laws and expect the people to remember why those laws ought to be there.
We chose the five capitals of the Deep South simply for the symmetry of it and because we felt there was, at that time, no recognition of the history of the local movements in these cities. In virtually every part of the public domain of those state capitals there are monuments to all sorts of histories of the South, primarily the Confederate’s history, but hardly any monuments to the history that changed the South from being a place of oppression by law to a place where equality of law was the abiding spirit and ambition.
Once we, the scholars and activists who were involved in this series, had good discussions and lots of debate among ourselves, we did develop an important perspective of how each of these state capitals, while very individual in their own stories, captures some important theme that ran through much of the Southern civil rights movement.
Jackson, Mississippi, showed vividly the problems of violent resistance, of how tenaciously, how violently whites were unwilling to give even an inch, much less a bit of human dignity. Little Rock represented the concept of federal intervention, the way that federal support in the end backed the movement. The Atlanta programs look at the idea of negotiated settlement, the deals that were cut and the compromises that were made in this process.
Montgomery features the importance of mass organization and Columbia shows how the courts were used as a route to social change. It’s not that any of these things didn’t happen in other communities; it’s just that they happened in a particularly emphasized way in those particular state capitals.
The important story in each of the cities’ programs in the radio series is not that there was an individual person but that there were many individual people, some of whose voices get played out in the series more often than others simply because they didn’t die; because they were available; because their words may have been remembered; or because their recollections are more vivid or their ability to tell a story is more emphatic.
But none of that discouraged us from holding onto the notion, which most of the people we interviewed reiterated, that this was a movement in everyday life. Ordinary people in the South at that time had to make some difficult decisions about courage and conviction and right and wrong, be they black or white, male or female. What rose out of this were extraordinary deeds done by people who lived ordinary lives.
Now, I think there’s an incredibly important message there, since Americans and especially Americans in the latter part of the twentieth century, have a real notion that activism is something which a handful of people who belong to a public interest group somewhere engages in and that social change or political change or economic change is something which you either watch on the evening news or read about someone else doing. Activism is not seen at this point in our history as being something that’s clone in the first person. Hopefully, our story will remind people that in a democracy, change occurs only when people think that it’s done in the first person and they think they can do something about it.
George King has produced a program which is really quite different from what would have been produced had we succeeded in our grant applications by the mid-’80s. Part of this difference has come about because George brought in some ideas of his own. But the program willalso be different because it’s ten to twelve years later, and things have changed.
Originally, we had hoped that this series could be on commercial radio as well as public radio. At that time, there was a real search for programming going on in AM commercial radio. This was before AM radio fell into its monolithic mania with talk radio, but when FM radio had emerged as the source for music. So AM commercial radio was looking for something.
By the 1990s, when George came along, the radio market had changed. AM radio had found talk radio, most of it foul and disingenuous–people coming up with clever phrases to demean other people. Unfortunately, a lot of people enjoy that–particularly men, according to the demographics of American radio. So, there was no real opportunity to move in.
In addition, with the permission of the Federal Communications Commission, the limits on cross-ownership of stations–on one company or person owning several different stations–had been removed almost to the point of elimination. One can virtually own as many radio stations as you can buy today in America. Those limits used to be very strict–less than ten nationally and no more than two within the same market.
Having more and more radio stations in fewer and fewer hands has meant that national canned programming has filled up the AM commercial radio time, that the national talk shows do not. So there really has not been a chance to get into the commercial radio market for the last six or seven years.
This development meant that non-commercial radio was really the only avenue for us. However, during the same time period, non-commercial radio has become more widespread. There are many more stations. The listenership is much larger, although still not very diverse. And so I think the impact of the programming can still be as substantial as we had envisioned in our more ambitious strategies.
The other major difference between the programs as we originally envisioned them in the early ’80s and what has been produced is that we had foreseen having a more narrative style. We had foreseen programming where some important voices of people in these local places told their stories and then their own stories captured the
stories of many other people in their own communities. We saw them in some ways as much more personal stories than what the present programs show.
What George has led in producing is a very lively, rich set of voices which has a narrator who is fairly active in trying to emphasize and tie together the voices. It’s much more of a standard format for radio documentaries. It is probably a necessity. I think to try to introduce the more personal narrative form today in the market of telecommunications would probably be a very difficult sale.
In addition, George chose to add music to the formats, to enliven it so that there’s a combination of music and story. The music emphasizes the story and might even bring in new listeners, especially young folks. Even as recently as five or six years ago, when the Council was attempting to distribute other radio programming under the banner of Southways, which mixed together music and analysis and stories, we got enormous resistance. Radio stations wanted either a story, a documentary program, or a music program. It is a tribute to George and to the story that is being told that we have been able to get the public radio community excited about telling it with music.
The essentials of what we’re trying to do in 1997 are the same as they were in 1981: to give people who listen to radio a sense that there was a great movement in communities throughout the South and that something remarkable happened, a moment of grace in Southern history, when people recognized that they could pull together and that they could, with good will and hard work, do extraordinary good with each other.
I started working on the radio project in 1991, and I spent about a year writing twenty-five scripts. I remember that every time I would run into [then-SRC Executive Director] Steve Suitts in the corridor, I would repeat the mantra, “It can’t be done, Steve.” I wanted him to recognize the sheer volume of work that he was asking to be done–that I did not believe one person could do this in a year. By the end of the year, I had nine people working with me, as we scrambled in the last few months to get all the scripts finished.
Fairly early on, we conducted a national search to find any kind of recorded materials on civil rights in the South. After we read through hundreds of transcriptions of interviews, we started creating patterns according to themes and events.
So these scripts really evolved, then, out of the material that we gathered. We didn’t look at the history of a community and say, “Within this community, these are the stories we should try to tell, and let’s try to find people who can tell them.”
The way these scripts evolved was much more, ‘These are the stories people are telling us. Let’s try and see if they can tell the story of what happened in this community.” A rag-tag army ended up completing the scripts by the summer of 1992. We sent them to NEH and received for a grant to make a pilot in ’93.
For the pilot, I decided to do a prologue and five programs on Little Rock, Arkansas. I’d spent a lot of time in Little Rock, myself and done a lot of original interviews there, so I felt more confident about this city than I did about any of the others. I knew we had we had good material, and there was also a tremendous amount of archival material to back it up.
Frequently you’d rifle through people’s papers and you’d see “Tape. Box 52.” In box 52, you’d find some old reel-to-reel tape, and you’d put it on, and it would be amazing. It would be a speech by Governor Faubus that had vanished from sight otherwise. Or it would be some campaign slogans from a race in 1948 in Little Rock.
During our research we uncovered a lot of archival oral history interviews that were (lone for academic purposes and were never intended for broadcast. So we had all of these wonderful interviews that were going to sound like junk compared to what you hear on the radio. But fortunately, with new digital technology, we were able to enhance the sound and filter out a lot of the extraneous noise. We also had to resort to baking some of the tapes in ovens because the oxide had started flaking off.
Around the same time, we decided we wanted to put music in the programs, and not just music that had been part of the movement. In an attempt to engage listeners, I thought it would be interesting to try and put popular music into the soundtrack as a way of connecting people to a moment in time. Songs serve as locating points. If you play somebody a tune by Martha and the Vandella and if they were old enough to have heard it at the time it was recorded, they re member what was going on in their lives and what they were doing.
My decision to use popular music from that time was also based on the fact that there was some amazing music that came out of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s in this country–blues, RB, country, gospel, rock and roll. So we brought on a music researcher named Thom Watson, who’s clone an enormous amount of laboring in the vineyard, looking for appropriate music.
As we put together the pilot programs on Little Rock, we had the idea to play them for focus groups made up of community leaders and movement participants. They could tell us whether we got everything right in both fact and emphasis and if we hadn’t, where we’d run off the rails.
Reconnecting the programs back to the local communities was so valuable; so many things came from that. They knew a lot of the people in the communities so they could say, “You folks never talked to Betty? You’ve really got to go talk to Betty, and here’s her phone number.”
Sometimes, I would arrogantly claim that we had been to every archive in this country and that I knew where every sound bite was. And then, the person I was talking to would say, “Well, I’ve got twenty interviews under my bed, actually.” So you were humbled by such things periodically, and the collection grew and grew.
When we took the first roughly-edited shows into Little Rock to the focus groups, one of the first comments was, “You don’t get a sense of what we opposed, of the people we faced. They’re not in these programs. People won’t understand or believe what we were up against.” That made a lot of sense, and we then went out and tried to interview segregationists, or find interview material from them. But it turned out to be no easy task to have those folks come forward and talk about their attitudes in an honest way. We found a few, but, boy, it’s been rare. What we’ve had to do is use the more sensational material we found in archives. which gives you a flavor of the conviction or sense of righteousness that segregationists had, but it doesn’t really explain much about the roots of prejudice.
However, just in the way that oral history can skew, there is a danger that in a small focus group of five people, one person can dominate it and say, “This is all wrong. My grandfather is obviously the most important person, and you’ve ignored him.” I think we were very fortunate that this never happened. I don’t believe anybody in these groups put their ego in the way or were overly protective or defensive about individuals or their communities.
Still, I never know for sure if someone is remembering something accurately. In some of the many original interviews that I did, I couldn’t be sure if people were trying to reposition themselves in history so they would look better than they were. To offset these pitfalls of oral history, I introduced another layer into the feedback process: a scholar with local knowledge. We identified scholars in each city with specific local knowledge, people like Mills Thornton in Montgomery, Cliff Kuhn in Atlanta, and John Dittmer in Jackson. Involving the scholars was very useful indeed for fact-checking and for balancing what the community was giving us.
So out of these three methods–one of which is the scholar, one of which is the community, and the third of which is the material that we actually had–the scripts and then the programs evolved.
Of course, this process of reworking the shows based on feedback from local focus groups and local scholars is very time-consuming. It becomes an expensive prospect–you might even be doubling the cost–but I think it was critical for the integrity of the project.
By 1995 we had received a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that gave us almost enough to finish the production side. Six months later we got another grant from the Ford Foundation for distribution–a facet which most independent producers very frequently ignore until it’s too late.
Because every public radio station in this country is essentially an independent entity, you have to “sell” your program to all of these individual stations throughout the nation while hundreds of other people are trying to get their programs onto the same limited air time. And then there’s the challenge of getting your program placed in a time slot where there’s actually going to be an audience. And then the challenge of getting an audience. To meet these challenges, we are fortunate not only to have Public Radio International distributing our program, but also to have been able to hire our own people to enhance the publicity, marketing, and outreach PM is providing.
Getting an independent production on the air is an incremental process, however you do it. You seldom get totally funded up-front for any of these kinds of projects; it’s a question of getting the resources that you can at any given moment and then doing enough to be able to demonstrate to somebody else that you’ve moved up the ladder four rungs–that you’ve brought in these other people and that you now have these additional resources. So it’s a real game of chutes and ladders, where sometimes you move up and sometimes you slide down.
As I’ve moved up and down over the last six years, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the South and particularly about black life in the South. It’s been an extraordinary privilege. Now, when I hear the convoluted arguments people make on AM talk radio about “We’ve kind of equalized things out now” and “Affirmative action is wrong because it’s now giving unequal rights to people,” I know that the speakers know nothing of this history.
You can tell that they have no experience with what black folks went through, or experience today. Unless you understand the history of violence, of segregation, of discrimination–second class citizenship, economic sanctions, redlining, inferior education, lack of political power, lack of respect–you are basing your opinion on only half of the story. It’s been an education which I really value, and it’s something that I will never forget.