Standing on the Promises

Perhaps the most dangerous thing for America's rulers over the years has been the existence of people audacious enough to believe in America's promises. More than 200 years ago, Mr. Jefferson wrote the declaration promising a land of liberty and equality. And for two centuries those words have haunted America's powerful (Jefferson included) as successive generations of workers, women, blacks, native people, and immigrants have risen up to claim them. Until now the fact that those promises have been honored mostly in the breach has done little to dilute their emotional power.

The lingering power of America's promises is one of the lessons that emerges most clearly from the six-part public television series Eyes on the Prize, which aired nationally in 1987. With the title drawn from a favorite civil rights movement spiritual and subtitled America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, the series presents the most thorough film chronicle yet of the most important people's movement of post-war America.

One could say of the series that it had been a long time coming; it shouldn't have taken 21 years for such a cultural landmark to be erected. But you could also say that it's right on time. Our current rulers consider racism a purely private issue and define discrimination as what happens to white males under affirmative action. They wrap the flag of freedom around a foreign policy of terrorism against inconvenient brown and black people. And anyone who dares to stand against the tide is automatically anti-American.

In such a sinister context, this video history dares to remind us that the struggle to right America's wrongs and fulfill this land's democratic promise is in fact the very soul of patriotism. In telling the civil rights story, the producers bring home again and again that it was not just a black struggle, or a special interest cause, as the current wisdom would have it.

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