Investigative Classics is a weekly feature spotlighting past masters of the reporting craft.
Many critics believe we are living in a golden age of documentaries. Their evidence includes the box office success of filmmakers such as Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and Dinesh D’Souza, the popularity of festivals such as AFI Docs and Full Frame, and with the ability of services such as Netflix to stream small films into millions of homes.
Less attention, however, is paid to the near disappearance of important documentaries from broadcast television. Until the 1980s, the news divisions of the major networks routinely produced documentaries that were seen by millions of viewers and often prompted reforms.
One of the most famous and enduring of these films was CBS News’s 1960 look at migrant farmer workers, “Harvest of Shame.” It opens with shots of African Americans crowding onto rickety trucks, as Edward R. Murrow reports:
This scene is not taking place in the Congo. It has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Cape Town. It is not Nyasaland or Nigeria. This is Florida. These are citizens of the United States, 1960. This is a shape-up for migrant workers. The hawkers are chanting the going piece rate at the various fields. This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, "We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them."
The film tracks workers as they follow the harvests north, from Georgia to Maryland. It documents their abject living conditions – many sleep on straw beds and lack access to hot water or bathrooms; some bring their young children, who receive little education along the way, into the fields with them. It shows similar conditions on the west coast.
Almost six decades later, it is still shocking.
Watch “Harvest of Shame”