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Among other nice things in a recent review of my book, Ralph Bowden wrote that I “grew up with engaged, responsible parents.” This is true. One of my favorite examples of Mom and Dad’s engaged responsibility, however, did not make it into the book….

In the winter of 1987, when I was eight years old, my parents informed me that the three of us would be watching every episode of the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 together. It was, I remember, broadcast once a week for six successive weeks, with each episode covering a specific aspect of the movement.  It also came on precisely at my bedtime. In my house, bedtime was iron-clad, so the fact that Mom and Dad let me stay up late made me happy and conveyed the deep importance of what I was watching. Some of the footage, I remember, was scary – buses on fire, men being beaten, faces contorted with hate, but I was allowed to ask questions about what I was seeing.  It was while watching those episodes that I learned about my parents’ memories of those days.

I looked forward to the every episode of Eyes on the Prize. Sometimes, I would fall asleep on the couch, but Mom and Dad woke me up if there was something they thought I needed to see – I still remember being shaken awake to witness the Freedom Rides.

Because of what my parents did, I felt a responsibility to what I’d learned. I wasn’t sure what exactly to do with my newfound knowledge,  but I knew, somehow, that I needed to be mindful of that history in my daily interactions. I knew those stories were important. I also became completely fascinated with the movement – a fascination that rekindled itself as I sat in the Downtown Nashville Public Library in the summer of 2005 and began what would become my book.

Tonight, PBS is airing another immensely important Civil Rights documentary – Freedom Riders – in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, when black and white Americans violated Jim Crow laws to ride buses together across the South. Advance criticism is overwhelmingly positive. From what I can tell, one thread of the story involves students retracing the rides today.

We Americans can talk and talk about what happened here in the 1950s and 60s, but few genres capture the high stakes, terror, and courage of the Civil Rights Movement like documentary film.  Tune in tonight – PBS 9/8 C. And if you have school-age kids, keep ’em up – I speak from experience when I say this is one history lesson that’s worth sacrificing some sleep for.

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