How much impact did CBS’ 1960 documentary “Harvest of Shame” have? On Saturday, NPR’s Elizabeth Blair looked back at the program, which showed Americans scenes of what life was like for migrant workers. By modern standards, “‘Harvest of Shame’ feels more like advocacy than journalism,” Blair reported:
In his closing remarks, [Edward R.] Murrow looks squarely into the camera and urges viewers to take action: “The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do.”
The New York Times called the documentary uncompromising, Blair reported. Time said it was exaggerated. “The style was part expose journalism, part a deep digging investigative report,” Dan Rather told NPR. Blair spoke with people interviewed in the documentary and their families about “Harvest of Shame,” and some inaccuracies. She also spoke with Greg Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.
“Edward R. Murrow was a crusader,” Schell says. “He came and said, ‘We can change this, people, if you get aroused and demand that the government and Congress react.’ And Congress did react.” Schell credits the film with helping push forward legislation that was already pending in Congress, like funding for health services to migrant workers and education for migrants’ children.
In her story, however, Blair reports from the same parking lot in Belle Glade, Florida, where some of the 1960 documentary was filmed. Migrant workers still go there for work.