The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 24, 2012

Harvest of our food is still shameful 52 years later

The Back Porch

By Nerissa Young

— CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow believed in the innate power of television to change the world. He had shown the power of the media through his radio broadcasts from London’s rooftops during that city’s bombing by the Germans in World War II.

Pictures with sound could tip the fulcrum and move the world, he believed, and he dedicated and later sacrificed his broadcast career for that purpose.

His landmark documentary “Harvest of Shame” aired on Thanksgiving Friday 1960 in the evening after Americans had enjoyed two days of feasting. They gathered around their TV sets for Murrow’s hourlong broadcast about who had provided the feast.

Murrow’s team followed migrant workers through a year of their lives. He showed the Florida shanties where they lived during the winter, the crowded buses and rickety trucks they rode in to harvest northern crops, the shanty shelters they used during that harvest and their return trip south.

He showed poor whites — homeless veterans and rural people living in their cars. He showed poor blacks, who had it worse than the whites. And, finally, he showed poor Mexicans, who had it worst of all.

And always there were the children — homeless, shoeless, hungry for food and hungrier still for a chance to attend school. There was Jerome, barely old enough to care for himself but looking after his four sisters while his mother worked in the fields. There were the young girls desperate to attend summer school in New Jersey while their parents worked the fields because they wanted to grow up and be teachers.

Their own teacher held out little hope they would get even an eighth-grade education. They were almost surely doomed to the same fate as their parents, a life of hard labor and living hand to mouth with no hope of having a home of their own.

So many of the themes Murrow explored more than half a century ago are just as relevant and prevalent today.

Poverty pits one race against another and against immigrants for jobs offering slave wages. People born into a quagmire of poverty have very little chance of pulling themselves out. Education, so vital to breaking the cycle of poverty, seems to remain just out of reach.

Murrow didn’t just appeal to the heart. He reported that in 1960 the federal government spent more to protect migratory birds than it spent to educate the children of migrant farm workers. While there were no regulations on the number of hours that humans could be packed into a truck without a break, federal law required that livestock trailers stop every six hours so cattle could be watered and fed.

In his closing remarks, he noted that the people profiled in the documentary had no power or voice of their own to make themselves heard. Murrow urged those watching to be the power and voice for them.

Fifty-two years later, the silence is deafening.

Except in the halls of Congress where members of both parties are engaged in a game of partisan chicken while the economic safety of Americans — especially the most vulnerable and the powerless — is at stake.

Fiscal cliff? Throw those idiots off a cliff.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2012 by Nerissa Young