Set during the Civil Rights Movement of 1963 and premiering around the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing September 20, the television special fictionalizes a day of infamy that would later bring Martin Luther King Jr. to rare public tears.
It follows the Watsons, a middle class African-American family from Michigan who travel to Birmingham at a watershed moment when schools are integrated.
The family bears witness not only to the overt racial creed of the South, but social destruction that mars a moment of victory.
“You need an event to galvanize a people,” star Wood Harris tells theGrio. “All throughout history, it’s like that. We just inherit the past, and nobody knows what to do with it, and then we get some event that reminds us…Rodney King, Boston bombings, Trayvon Martin, there’s a list of them. They’re all great big deals. In 1963, the bombing of a church, and for four little girls to die, I don’t think anybody should forget that.”
Rather than dwell, Harris believes in making amends with life and reaping the reward for toil and struggle.
“People shouldn’t be reminded to feel bad, but just to be empowered by that,” he continues. “It’s like going from poor to rich. You take your experiences as a person who had these goals to accomplish like money and success, and then when you accomplish that, you are empowered by the moments when you didn’t have it.”
What the history books neglect to teach
In the case of The Watsons Go to Birmingham, such moments reflect on a time when freedom was to be acquired like entryway to an exclusive club. Those who fought for a place in line were often dealt a heavy hand.
After President John F. Kennedy announced he would no longer allow for black and white children to be separated in schools, a KKK terrorist group bombed a Sunday School where black youth leaders met to organize protests.
Five decades later, some no longer recall the dark point in history, which became a significant catalyst to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Harris’ own costar, 22-year-old Harrison Knight, admits he’d never heard of the bombing before shooting the movie.
It wasn’t taught in school.
Harris jumps in.
“You see how it works?” He smiles. “The event is the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, that’s almost it. And so you need The Watsons Go to Birmingham to shine a light on a catastrophic event… The authorities that put together the textbooks and stuff like that, they don’t necessarily have to have the interest of everyone when they build the history stories. Why put in the four little girls? Let’s forget about them.”