In May, 1961, Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow referred to television as “a vast wasteland” full of vapid sitcoms, game shows, private eye melodramas, cartoons, and loads of westerns. But just six months earlier there appeared an oasis: a serious network news documentary, perhaps the most powerful ever aired.
On the night after Thanksgiving 1960, millions of viewers who tuned in to CBS in prime time didn’t see an entertainment program. Instead, they saw a bleak cold opening: black and white images of black men in shabby clothing milling about a hot, crummy-looking parking lot as slightly-better-dressed black men shouted out job offers. Lots of quick cuts from one part of the crowd to another, from one shouter to another. Then the solemn voiceover:
This scene is not taking place in the Congo. It has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Cape Town. It is not Nyasaland or Nigeria. This is Florida. These are citizens of the United States, 1960. This is a shape-up for migrant workers. The hawkers are chanting the going piece rate at the various fields. This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, ‘We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.’
The voice was Edward R. Murrow’s, the TV series was CBS Reports, and the documentary was Harvest of Shame, a stunning exposé that revealed the appalling conditions endured by the men and women who picked the fruits and vegetables enjoyed by Thanksgiving-stuffed Americans. Produced by Fred W. Friendly and David Lowe and written and narrated by the iconic Murrow, in the decades since its debut, the film has lost none of its power to inform, sadden, and horrify.
Following the trail of migrant laborers as they traveled from Florida to New York during the harvest season, the film showed in raw detail the dangerous buses and trucks they were jammed in, the filthy and crumbling housing camps they lived in on farms along the circuit, the minuscule wages they were paid, and the pitiful amounts of food they ate. At one point Murrow refers to the situation as “a modern Grapes of Wrath;” these were people who worked in the fields all their lives, from early childhood until death, and for whom the Great Depression was eternal.
Particularly moving are the interviews conducted by the driving force behind the program, producer David Lowe, a child of immigrants who himself grew up poor. None of the interviewees smile except in embarrassment about having to go to the bathroom in a tin pot or in the woods. To a man, to a woman, when asked if they have any hope for a brighter future, every one of the migrants says a despairing “no.” They have no minimum wage, no health insurance, no sick leave, no unemployment insurance, and, for the most part, no school for their children. Where there is a school, the children express hope to be a dentist, a teacher. But their own teacher tells Lowe that their poverty, their large families, and the necessary traveling mean that those dreams cannot be realized.
In an interview with Murrow, the head of a farmers’ lobbying group opposes any kind of federal regulation of the migrants’ working conditions because that would be too expensive for consumers and would deprive the migrants of choice — a familiar conservative argument half a century later. An individual farmer questioned by Lowe says the migrants actually enjoy the freedom of the vagabond life, but admits that they make “a poor living.” That poor living then was $900 a year — $7,200 in today’s dollars.
To modern viewers, the most surprising interview is with James P. Mitchell, the secretary of labor in the Eisenhower administration. He was called “the social conscience of the Republican Party,” and he proves it. Talking with Murrow, he advocates federal regulation of migrant labor and the unionization of the workers based on the model of garment workers. Republicans were different then.
Harvest of Shame was a sensation in its time. Middle-class Americans had never before confronted such poverty right in their living rooms. Most of the migrants shown were black, but some were white (one man whose family lived in the woods was a World War II veteran), and almost all were U.S. citizens. This not only could happen here, it was happening here.
And mostly, it still is. While some reforms have been made in the wake of the show — migrants must be paid a minimum wage (but only if the employer is large enough), their transportation and housing conditions must meet federal and state safety standards, and there must be rest and shaded areas in the fields — the farm lobby effectively railed against the program and blocked major federal regulation. So even over half a century later the conditions are still squalid. Unlike the European-American and African-American workers in the show, most migrants today are Latinos, and many, because they are undocumented, are ineligible to receive benefits or afraid to claim them. One of the children interviewed in the show was still a migrant laborer when a newspaper visited him in 2003. The current annual income for a migrant today is just $14,000.
Unusually for a network TV news program of its era, and even for today, Harvest of Shame makes no pretense of being objective about the people who make our Thanksgiving possible. Murrow concludes the show by looking straight into the camera and making a strong and urgent call for the audience to take action. On this Thanksgiving, we still must.