Doing right by martyrs

Preview: `Free at Last' remembers those murdered in the fight for civil rights, finding strength, tenderness and forgiveness where once there was hate.

February 10, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Emmett Till was only 14 in 1955 when he said a flippant remark to a white Mississippi shopkeeper. In an incident that made perfect sense according to the mores of the time and place, young Emmett was beaten to death a few days later by the woman's husband and brother-in-law, who dumped his body in the Tallahatchee River.

Fortunately, the mores of 1950s Mississippi weren't shared by the rest of the country -- particularly when pictures of Emmett's bloated, misshapen corpse appeared on newspaper front pages. The nascent civil rights movement had one of its first martyrs -- but, regrettably, far from its last.

"Civil Rights Martyrs: Free at Last," a two-hour documentary debuting tonight on cable's The Learning Channel, offers thumbnail sketches of 12 murder victims -- eight black, four white; seven male, five female -- who gave their lives in the struggle for rights that should have been theirs all along. Some names are well-known (Medgar Evers); others have faded from memory (Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo). All deserve to be remembered.

Surprisingly, "Civil Rights Martyrs" reveals almost as much about people's better natures as it does about their baser instincts. It celebrates people who refused to accept injustice, reminds us of leaders (particularly Lyndon Baines Johnson) who struggled to do the right thing, and -- in one powerful contemporary interview -- reveals a family's amazing capacity for forgiveness.

From Emmett Till, the documentary moves on to Evers, who died as his crying children kept urging him to get up -- and whose murderer, Byron De La Beckwith, would not be convicted until 31 years later. Next to be profiled are the four young girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.: 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, who died while primping for church one Sunday morning.

The following year, three men -- Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two New York Jews who traveled south to help register blacks to vote, and James Chaney, a local black plasterer's apprentice -- were murdered by a group of Klansmen (that included a deputy sheriff).

In 1965, the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Washington, had his skull bashed in after marching across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., with a group of protesters. That same year, Liuzzo was shot dead while ferrying marchers back to Selma after marching on Birmingham (and was subjected to a vicious smear campaign by J. Edgar Hoover, who was worried that her death made the FBI look bad).

And in 1966, shopkeeper Vernon Dahmer Sr. died of smoke inhalation when his house was firebombed; earlier that day, he had offered his store as a place where local blacks could pay their poll taxes and, thereby, register to vote.

Each of the dozen men and women are remembered through photographs and occasional film footage (there are also some pointless re-creations). Most memorable, though, are interviews with surviving friends and family members, including Emmett Till's mother, whose decision to keep her son's coffin open may have jump-started the civil rights movement; Reeb's friend, the Rev. Clark Olsen, who revisits the now-boarded-up site of the beating; and Dahmer's son, who speaks movingly of forgiveness.

If there's a flaw in "Civil Rights Martyrs," it's in the show's failure to do much follow-up. What happened to those murderers who were set free by all-white juries? And what about jurors and others who sat by while all this was going on?

Some of the best moments of the remarkable PBS civil rights documentary "Eyes On the Prize" came when the bad guys were interviewed; it would have been nice to see some of that here.

Still, "Civil Rights Martyrs" performs a valuable service, keeping alive the memories of men and women who died in a struggle that, if we were truly as civilized a nation as we think, would never have been necessary in the first place.

Tonight's TV

What: "Civil Rights Martyrs: Free at Last"

When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m. (repeats midnight-2 a.m.)

Where: The Learning Channel

In brief: A welcome spotlight on some true heroes.

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