Narrator: Morgan Freeman. An engrossing record of the 1930s-70s black migration from Mississippi and other Deep South enclaves to Chicago as lived by several participants, “The Promised Land” is a riveting testimony to how a people has been badly served. The five-part series — opening program involves two hours — is a solid dose of sad and joyful revelations and reminders.
Series producer Anthony Geffen resourcefully uses individuals whose stories represent those of millions. Everyone tells his tale simply and effectively, and sometimes wryly. They recall sharecropper life, talk about their northward migration and of how life was in Chicago, which would become the most segregated city in the U.S. And how the dazzle quit the razzle.
Southern life was dealt out by whites’ cruel and demeaning rules. Segregation and sharecropping combined to keep blacks down, and the descendants of slaves bore the suffering out of ignorance and fear, as the testifiers explain in the first two hours. Joe Louis, the only black who could lift a fist to a white man, became a god in the ’30s. And blacks who’d tasted Chicago’s freedoms told about life up north where they could vote, even enjoy respect.
Courageous young people liked what they heard. There were good housing, well-paying jobs, freedom and good times. Vernon Jarrett dreamed of being a newsman and moved north into his dream, becoming a reporter at the Chicago Defender. Ebullient Florida Denton, shaking off Mississippi in ’46 with a dime in her shoe, worked hard in a laundry before landing a job in an eatery, and has never forgotten the agony of cotton picking. James Hinton, a successful barber, also owns a repair shop with 10 employees. Grieving, he hasn’t cut hair since the night Martin Luther King died.
By the third hour of the docu, conditions dim as overcrowding begins. A third of the people in Chi 30 years after World War II were black. James Baldwin would write about the city in 1960, “A million in captivity as far as the eye can see.” By 1970, 5 million jammed the South Side and West Side.
In the 1960s, Dr. King, at odds with Chi’s Mayor Richard J. Daley, who failed to live up to a housing agreement, had urged a peaceful march. Eventually gangs erupted in the streets, black pride was flaming and Stokely Carmichael demanded black rights.
The handsome Robert Taylor housing had been a high-rise knockout, but too many black brothers were arriving — one new face every minute of the day, estimated Oscar Brown Jr.’s father — too much hooch and drugs were at hand, too much crime and license were abroad, too many people not working. The Taylor projects became vertical ghettos.
This was segregation, a different kind, to be sure, one with blacks in isolated communities and whites in their own neighborhoods, with no one allowed to cross over. Uneducated people vied for jobs; some lined up for welfare.
One of the migrants returning to the South was gentle-voiced Rev. Uless Carter, who, having left Mississippi a houseman to become a Chi minister, has gone back home. But O’Dell and Viethel Wills, who once picked cotton together in 108-degree heat, went north and learned to jitterbug and slow-dance, lived in the Taylor Homes and moved 40 blocks south when housing restrictions were lifted. They’re staying.
Enriched by testifiers’ hopes and positive memories, “Promised Land” gets down to broken promises and dreams deferred. The civil rights movement, riots, gangs, poverty and waste are parts of the picture, just as are those who have prospered in unsegregated areas along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
But the luster of the early Chicago days is gone. As someone says, “Scratch black Chicago and there’s Mississippi.” Racism flourishes as successfully in the North as it ever did in Mississippi; it’s just got city lights and another face.
The rewarding account of Americans seeking a place in the sun has been beautifully photographed, with archival stills, newsreel footage and a lovely score to help fill it out. Here’s important as well as compelling television.