Current U.S. racial unrest reminds us of the continued relevance of Thurgood Marshall’s work. But public TV stations are ignoring or only airing the newest documentary during graveyard hours, even during Black History Month
Martin Luther King, Jr. is the face of the civil rights movement, but the architect who tore down the framework of legalized discrimination, Thurgood Marshall, is often overlooked except, perhaps, during Black History Month despite his impact on American history.
That’s why filmmaker Mick Caouette made “Mr. Civil Rights,” a documentary about Marshall’s early life, the time period before he successfully challenged separate public schools for black and white students in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.
Caouette said he first set out to do a story about civil rights activist and former NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins. But Roger Wilkins, Roy’s nephew and past publisher of The Crisis Magazine, thought Marshall made for a more interesting character study.
“He’s been largely forgotten and I couldn’t understand why that was,” said Caouette recalling his conversation with the younger Wilkins. “I wanted to do something that would bring his name back to the forefront again. I found there was little on this part of his life, and I wanted to expose the courage of this part of his life and remind people of who he was.”
“Mr. Civil Rights” was completed more than a year ago, but unfortunately, many public broadcasting stations have yet to air it. Of the more than 351 public television stations that receive support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; “Mr. Civil Rights” has aired on about 200 of them, Caouette said.
The film was scheduled to be shown in 115 cities on Martin Luther King’s birthday, including Marshall’s hometown. WHUT at Howard University is also airing the film. But WETA, which broadcasts in Washington, D.C. have has not aired the film, and has no plans to at this time.
Caouette said that some public broadcasting stations, like WETA, may be waiting to air the documentary during black history month.
“They want to pigeonhole it into a black history day or a month. But that’s a little disappointing to me because this is everybody’s history,” Caouette added. “Thurgood Marshall is American history. My main complaint is not even that PBS has ignored it, or if it is even conscious, but the film has been placed in the ‘Black History’ mold, when in fact it is all of our history, black or white, good or bad.”
The stations that have aired the film often do so at odd times, added Caouette. Maryland Public Television, which broadcasts in Marshall’s hometown of Baltimore, has scheduled the film to air just three times next month: Feb. 1 at 11 p.m. and Feb. 2 at 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.
“Schedules are created months in advance. I found this show at a late date in the creation of the February schedule and wanted to play it, but the prime time slots were already filled,” said Zvi Shoubin, managing director for program services at Maryland Public Television. It is scheduled at 11pm after Masterpiece on Sunday which is a very good lead-in. I will schedule it on MPT2 in the future in prime time. “
Shoubin said the documentary will air in prime time slots on the station’s digital channel, MPT2, which features lifestyle and cultural content as well as encore productions from the station’s primary channel.
“Mr. Civil Rights” is not on WETA’s broadcast schedule for the months of January or February (Black History Month), but that doesn’t mean the station won’t air it, a spokeswoman said this week. She said that she was unaware of the film, which is being distributed by American Public Television.
Caouette is encouraging supporters to write and call public TV stations, including WETA, to encourage them to air the film.
The documentary, which can be purchased through the PBS store or Amazon.com, is the first attempt on film to delve into Marshall’s childhood growing up in Baltimore, his schooling and highlights his relationship with Charles Hamilton Houston, a law professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. where Marshall studied. Houston became Marshall’s mentor, and eventually, his contemporary.
The film was completed long before recent racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, New York and other parts of the country, but “Mr. Civil Rights” shows how relevant Marshall’s work still is, and the work that’s left to be done, Caouette said.
“Recent events show that the issues he worked on are still as relevant as ever,” Caouette said. “The issues of race and racism aren’t going away. It may be more subtle now, but they are still very much there.”
To see the film in your area, please contact your local PBS affiliate and ask when the station will air the documentary.