As I sit back and try to write this piece on a new documentary premiering on PBS, I can’t help but think about what it meant to be Black in America and living in the south during the 1960s.
Families living in constant fear that a loved one might not make it back from the grocery store because they looked at a white person the wrong way. And when those family members didn’t return home, unsolved murders piled atop. It’s a horrifying thought for any human being to think about let alone experience, but it was a reality for so many Black people living during the civil rights era.
In the new PBS documentary “American Reckoning,” which airs Feb 15, directors Brad Lichtenstein and Yoruba Richen dive into the unsolved murder of Wharlest Jackson, a Natchez, Mississippi native who was killed by a car bomb. Jackson was on his way home from working a long shift at Armstrong Tire and Rubber, the first Black chemical mixer at the shop. Jackson didn’t think when he left work that evening that he would never see his family again.
Jackson’s story is just one of so many. In 2007, the late John Lewis introduced the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act into the United States congress. This bill allowed for the reopening of unsolved murder cases against Black people during the civil rights movement. But time waits for no one, even if you and your family do deserve justice. According to a Justice Department report released in 2021, almost all of the cases were either closed due to everyone involved being deceased or reviewed, then closed due to lack of evidence or other legal reasons.
Jackson’s case was one of those cold cases reopened by the Emmett Till Act, and although it might have been too late for justice, sometimes storytelling can be just as impactful.
The full-length documentary features rare impactful footage from the times that allow viewers to experience the rawness and realness of Black American life. It also tells the story from more than one perspective. The directors also made a conscious decision to find ancestors of Klansmen and interview them for the piece.
“It was always important for us to find and talk to the White Klanspeople and or their descendants,” said Lichtenstein in an interview with the Washington Post. “That was part of our mission in telling the story because it wasn’t just the Black people who resisted or who were killed, but the White Klan people who did it.”
“American Reckoning” premieres on FRONTLINE (PBS) on Tuesday, February 15 at 10/9c.