South Carolina Denies “UPRISING”
By Reginald Stuart
Vol. 19, No. 3-4, 1997 pp. 33-35
For years, public television stations across the country have been expanding our grasp of the past by airing countless documentaries that trace our rich and complex history.
In South Carolina, operators of the state’s public television system have unintentionally succeeded in developing a new way to stir public interest in our history–don’t air a documentary.
Case in point: “Uprising of ’34,” a well crafted oral history about the campaign to organize Southern textile workers, a movement spurred by the promises of Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal.’ (See Southern Changes, Fall 1994) .
The organizing effort culminated in a three-week strike that swept the South in 1934. It involved nearly 400,000 workers (most in the Carolinas, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia), commonly referred to as “lint heads” because of their work in cotton mills. Most were white, poor, lived in company housing and shopped at company stores. The strike essentially ended with the shooting deaths by mill guards of six striking workers in the tiny mill town of Honea Path, South Carolina.
Release of the documentary in 1995 marked the first time since the 1930’s that much of the history of the strike was explored in detail for the general public. Most history books in the region say little if anything about the strike and the people who participated in it say even less.
Since South Carolina ETV’s decision nearly three years ago not to air “Uprising,” supporters and opponents of its airing acknowledge the program has probably received more attention in South Carolina and across the South than it would have had the 90-minute documentary been aired in the late hours of the night when even fewer channels are set on public television.
“It continues to be a very hot topic,” said Kathy Gardner-Jones, spokeswomen for South Carolina ETV, acknowledging that public response to the decision not to air the program was decidedly against the station’s position.
Many public stations outside South Carolina, except WTVI, the public station in Charlotte, North Carolina, have aired the program to widespread public acceptance. There have been a number of community viewings on college campuses, at local theaters, at the state museum. One group even raised money to air the film on a commercial station in Charlotte, after the public station refused.
Equally as important, “Uprising” is being embraced by labor and social studies teachers to jump start other projects that examine the history of the labor movement in the South.
“This (the decision not to air “Uprising”) actually pushed the ticket,” said Judith Helfand, a young documentary producer who assisted veteran George Stoney in making the documentary. “People are saying, ‘I don’t understand.”‘
With no narrator to steer the story line, “Uprising” successfully uses film from the National Archives, letters gleaned from the Library of Congress and several dozen fresh interviews with actual strikers, their children, mill owners, and labor organizers to offer a vivid picture of the battle between the workers and mill operators.
The film also offers new insight into the failure of the federal government’s labor protection apparatus under President Franklin Roosevelt, the people’s president, to intervene in the labor disruption in a meaningful way. That near-deaf ear, workers say in retrospect, left them at the mercy of the state police and mill operators. Strikers who were not killed or injured during the strike were blacklisted by mill operators, evicted from their company-owned homes, and forced to look for work outside the industry.
The story behind the story is an intriguing one that also sheds new light on the politics of programming in public television.
Stoney, a North Carolina native and Emmy Award winner, said he knew from the start the film would touch sensitive nerves in the historically conservative and strongly anti-union Carolinas. He laid groundwork to address that.
‘We’d had support from the North Carolina Humanities Council since 1989,” Stoney explained. “When we were producing, we knew we wanted it on PBS. We were very careful about getting labor support. And we knew we’d better have a southern station sponsor. Close to the end, around the spring of 1994, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was very enthusiastic about it and let us use their name as we solicited money to complete it. Just as we were about to launch, their top man said ‘no, we won’t air it.”‘
The film was eventually completed and picked up by “Point of View,” a New York-based service that packages documentaries that oft times visit controversial subjects.
Most public television networks, like South Carolina ETV, purchase rights to air “Point of View.” With the purchase, they have the option to air or not air any or all selections for the season.
Before “Uprising” came along, South Carolina ETV had taken passes on several “Point of View” installments, determining the offerings did not meet South Carolina standards of taste. The censor meter had run so often on “Point of View” that it was hard to justify the financial commitment, programming officials concluded.
By the time, “Uprising” was in the “Point of View” lineup, South Carolina ETV had canceled its “Point of View” contract. South Carolina ETV was offered an opportunity to take “Uprising” program separately, but after heated internal debate, refused that offer citing its decision not to take “Point of View” programming.
“It was a very controversial decision and there was a difference of opinion within the station,’ Gardner-Jones said. “The argument was that we don’t air the series and we aren’t going to pull “Uprising” out and put it in. If we start cherry-picking then you get other groups mad be-cause we didn’t air their particular program.
“It’s just an editorial decision,” she said. “It was their belief (the program department), that this film didn’t represent overall community wishes of what they wanted to see. There was a lot of soul searching here and there still is. This was not a unaminous decision at all.”
The station’s decision had the effect of barring the film from being shown on any of the state’s four regional public television stations.
Public reaction was decidedly against the station, Gardner-Jones said, even from the state’s major daily papers, which themselves take a generally dim view of organized labor. The state’s five largest daily newspapers wrote editorials highly critical of the decision. In North Carolina, The Charlotte Observer took its local public station to task. Talk show hosts in the two states had a field day dressing down the decisions. Columnists weighed in.
“I basically blasted ’em for it,” said Doug Nye, television critic for The State, South Carolina’s largest daily. “It’s educational TV, has something to do with South Carolina. Why not air it instead of stir up so much grief? It presented both sides and I could not see anything they could object to. I can understand some things they have passed on it the past, but this one they created a lot of grief for themselves,” said the native South Carolinian.
Gardner-Jones does admit the station has mud on its face. But she is adamant in her insistence that supporters of the film are wrong if they think the station was pressured by the state’s very powerful textile mill operators not to air the program. Critics have trumpeted the fact that Henry Cauthen, SC-ETV’s president and general manager since 1964, has close ties to the state’s textile industry. His father is a very powerful textile industry lobbyist in the state and served as president of the state’s textile manufacturers association.
“We did not have any outside influence at all,” Garnder-Jones said.
Indeed the SC-ETV knew what might happen if it aired “Uprising.” Several years earlier, it aired “Before Stonewall,” a documentary about the start of the gay movement in New York City. The day after the program aired, a state senator was quoted on the front pages of her local paper saying the system was using state funds to promote homosexuality. When the SC-ETV responded that the program was aired at night, when programming is paid for by viewer contributions as opposed to day when educational programs paid for by the state for schools are aired, the senator countered the next day that the studio, staff and equipment were paid for by the state. Discussion ended.
The station did not try to equate a story about local labor history with gays in New York, but Gardner-Jones suggested the same fears always haunt programmers at the station. “It’s a very thorny dilemma,” she said.
Despite refusing to air “Uprising,” SC-ETV did agree to allow other stations in its coverage area to air it. Under standard PBS procedures, stations have the exclusive right to air a program four times in four years.
Outrage in Columbia and the Greenville-Spartanburg area generated enough donations for a group in favor of airing to purchase an 11:30 p.m., Sunday slot on the NBC-TV affiliate in Spartanburg. Public TV in Chapel Hill eventually ran the program as part of the “Point of View” series. It aired late on a Saturday night before Labor Day weekend in 1995. The program fared better on public television in Georgia.
Meanwhile, WTVI, the Charlotte public station that refused to air “Uprising,” did obtain a $150,000 grant from the textile industry to produce “Spinning Through Time,” a much less biting history of the textile industry. It aired twice in prime time in Charlotte.
While controversy swirls around the politics of airing “Uprising,” those who were the focus of the documentary say they are glad someone has finally began to talk about what happened in Honea Path, after years of silence. Indeed, before the documentary was made, people there say their parents, neighbors, friends, hardly anybody, would talk about the strike or the shootings.
The documentary has been especially touching for New York writer Frank Beacham, a 49-year-old Honea Path native. His grandfather, Dan Beacham, was mayor of Honea Path in 1934, supervisor at Chiquola Mills and the man who organized the gunmen who did the shooting into the crowd of strikers from factory windows. The strike soon ended. No one was ever convicted in the seven killings.
“This was a virtual secret for nearly sixty years,” said Beacham. “My mother was a history teacher and she didn’t even know the story. Through intimidation after the shooting, the mill managers were able to silence this for a long time. I’m a third generation. I knew vaguely, as most of the people in the town, there was a shooting there. But it was never discussed in my family.
“That kind of intimidation is still around,” said Beacham, who returned to Honea Path after the documentary was aired to participate in the dedication of a mill workers memorial. “But I don’t see this documentary as pro-union. To me it’s the history of an area. Whether it’s pro union or not, it tells a story. This thing cuts hard both ways.”
Reginald Stuart is a contributing editor to Emerge magazine and a newspaper consultant. His article ‘News and Blues: Minorities in the South, Twenty-Five Years Later,” appeared in the Summer 1997 Southern Changes.