Black History Month TV

Originally published – Feb. 3, 2000
A column by WALT BELCHER/of The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA – Biographies, dramas, documentaries and musical specials during February spotlight the accomplishments and challenges black Americans have faced.

Most Americans should know what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did for the civil rights movement.

But what about Emmett Till, Viola Liuzzo and Vernon Dahmer?

Till was a Chicago teen whose summer vacation in Mississippi in 1955 left him a battered, barely recognizable corpse.

Two white men beat him, crushed his skull, gouged out an eye, shot him in the head and dumped his body in a river, reportedly for talking to a white woman.

Liuzzo was a Detroit homemaker who kissed her husband and five children goodbye to join an Alabama freedom march in 1965. She was killed by Klansmen in a drive-by shooting near Selma.

Dahmer was a Mississippi store owner who helped blacks register to vote. He died in his wife’s arms after Klansmen fire-bombed his home in 1966.

These unsung heroes of the early civil rights movement are profiled in “Civil Rights Martyrs: Free at Last,” one of many documentary specials during February, which is Black History Month. It debuts at 9 p.m. Feb. 10 on The Learning Channel.

More diversity is on tap on The History Channel, which has 29 Black History Month offerings, ranging from “High Points in History: Harlem Hellfighters” at 6 p.m. Tuesday (about a World War I National Guard unit) to “Shaka Zulu,” a miniseries about the legendary leader of the Zululand tribes, at 10 a.m. Feb. 19.

Black history also is celebrated with movies, biographies, musical specials and “The Trumpet Awards,” which honor black Americans of achievement. There are specials that recall the careers of Sidney Poitier, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Little Richard and Duke Ellington.

February also is a ratings sweeps month, and CBS combines history and titillation on “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal,” a four-hour miniseries beginning at 9 p.m. Feb. 13 and 16. Carmen Ejogo stars as the slave and mistress of President Thomas Jefferson (Sam Neill) in this account of their 38-year relationship.

“Little Richard” (9 p.m. Feb 20) is NBC’s sweeps offering. The movie traces the rock ‘n’ roll singer’s childhood in Macon, Ga., to his rise to fame in the 1950s. Included are the racial obstacles faced by Richard (Leon).

Another dramatic entry is “Freedom Song,” debuting at 7 p.m. Feb. 27 on TNT and starring Danny Glover. It’s a fictional account of how the civil rights movement affects a small Mississippi town in the 1960s.

Those who wonder why we still need a Black History Month should look at “Civil Rights Martyrs,” a powerful reminder of the cost and struggle for equal rights in the 1950s and ’60s.

Narrated by Steve Harris (“The Practice”), the two-hour documentary uses archival material, personal photographs and interviews with family members, civil rights activists and journalists to recount the violent deaths of 12 men, women and children – all victims of racial hatred.

In addition to Till, Liuzzo and Dahmer, the program covers the murders of civil rights leader Medgar Evers (1963); the Rev. James Reeb (1965); civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney (1964); and four young girls killed in a church bombing: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley (1963).

Other highlights of the month include:

Tuesday: ”Intimate Portrait: Florence Griffith Joyner” (7 p.m. on Lifetime) – Phylicia Rashad narrates a biography on Joyner, who won three gold medals as a runner in the 1988 Olympics.

Wednesday: ”Intimate Portrait: Harriet Tubman” (7 p.m. on Lifetime) – The biography recounts the life of the escaped slave who helped set up the Underground Railroad, was a spy for the Union army and fought for women’s rights in the late 1800s.



  • “Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light” (8 p.m. on WEDU, Channel 3) – This new “American Masters” program looks at the actor and director from the Bahamas whose distinguished film career includes “In the Heat of the Night,” “Blackboard Jungle,” “Lilies of the Field,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “To Sir With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”


  • “God’s Gonna Trouble the Waters” (11 p.m. on WEDU) – The history of the Gullah people, who live off the coast of South Carolina, is presented.

    Saturday: ”The Color of Friendship” (7:30 p.m. on the Disney Channel) – Carl Lumbly stars as a black congressman whose family opens its home to a South African exchange student. Expecting a black student, they are surprised when a white South African arrives, a product of apartheid who views blacks as second-class citizens.

    Sunday: ”Dear America: Color Me Dark” (7 p.m. on HBO) – Another in the Scholastic Productions series about heroic young women in American history, this one deals with slavery.


  • “A Storm in Summer” (8 p.m. on Showtime) – Peter Falk stars as a bitter Jewish deli owner whose heart is softened by his friendship with a young inner-city black youth (Aaron Meeks).


  • “The Greatest Boxer: Muhammad Ali” (9 p.m. on TLC) – Ali’s life and career are recalled through clips and interviews. Included are comments from his daughter, Laila Ali; trainer Angelo Dundee; fight doctor and Ybor City native Ferdie Pacheco; and Ali biographer Thomas Hauser.


  • “Lena Horne” (10 p.m. on WEDU) – The life and career of the singer and actress is recalled through clips and interviews.

    Feb. 13: ”It’s Black Entertainment” (8 p.m. on Showtime) – Vanessa Williams is host of a two-hour movie that features clips of dozens of black performers from pioneers such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to contemporary artists such as Notorious B.I.G.


  • “Delroy Lindo in Conversation With Charles Burnett” (9:30 p.m. on Showtime) – Actor Lindo (“Cider House Rules”) interviews Burnett, an independent filmmaker for three decades whose award-winning works about black families have not been widely seen.

    Feb. 14: ”Biography: Forever Ella” (8 p.m. on A&E;) – Nancy Wilson is host of this two-hour biography of jazz-blues-pop singer Ella Fitzgerald.

    Feb. 16: ”Whatever happened to Michael Ray?” (10 p.m. on TNT) – This Chris Rock-narrated documentary tells the story of the rise and fall of former New York Knicks great Michael Ray Richardson.

    Feb. 17: ”The Johnson Tapes: Uncivil Liberties” (9 p.m. on TLC) – Based on White House tapes made during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, this new documentary shows how FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tried to undermine Martin Luther King Jr.

    Feb. 20: ”The Wishing Tree” (8 p.m. on Showtime) – Alfre Woodard and Blair Underwood star in this love story.

    Feb. 22: ”Black Film Festival” (24-hour marathon beginning at 6:30 a.m. on AMC) – The marathon includes “Stormy Weather” (11 a.m.), “Black Like Me” (12:30 p.m.) and “Cry, the Beloved Country” (2:30 p.m.). Also featured are four Paul Robeson films.


  • “`Lost Tribes of Israel” (9 p.m. on WEDU) – This new “Nova” explores a theory about whether an African tribe can be traced to Jewish ancestry.

    Feb. 23: ”Discharged Without Honor: Brownsville” (8 p.m. on The History Channel) – A new documentary recounts President Theodore Roosevelt’s discharge of a black infantry unit stationed in Texas following a midnight raid on the small town of Brownsville in which citizens were attacked by men on horseback. Members of the unit were discharged without having a chance to defend themselves, and there was no proof that the soldiers were involved.


  • “Duke Ellington’s Washington” (11 p.m. on WEDU) – This new documentary looks at the talent that came out of Washington, D.C., in the early 20th century, including the legendary Duke Ellington, who already was performing by age 18.

    Feb. 26: ”Trumpet Awards” (8:05 p.m. on TBS) – Turner Broadcasting presents the awards to honor black Americans of achievement. This year’s winners include Patti LaBelle, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Lou Rawls and Shirley Caesar.

    Also honored are Patrice Clarke Washington, the first black woman to become a captain for a major airline; Marlon St. Julien, a black jockey whose goal is to ride in the Kentucky Derby; and U.S. Appeals Court Judge Damon J. Keith of Michigan.

    Feb. 27: ”Aida’s Brothers and Sisters: Black Voices in Opera” (2 p.m. on WEDU) – This “Great Performances” special looks back at the difficulties faced by black singers who had great voices but were held back because of their race.

    Feb. 28: ”John Brown’s Holy War” (9 p.m. on WEDU) – This new “American Experience” program looks at the abolitionist zealot whose crusade against slavery went to murderous extremes.


  • “Walker Evans’ America” (11 p.m. on WEDU) – The work of the black photographer who documented the hard lives of rural people in the 1930s is featured.