FRONTLINE: American Reckoning
Premieres Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV / On Demand
Emmett Till, James Chaney, Medgar Evers, and four little girls from Birmingham — these are some of the well-known stories of racially-motivated violence from the civil rights era. But the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act — signed into law in 2008 — lifted the veil on more than 150 other victims for whom there still has been no justice.
Now, in collaboration with Retro Report, FRONTLINE presents “American Reckoning,” an extraordinary look at the civil rights era - the violence and resistance - through rare footage filmed more than 50-years ago in Natchez, Mississippi, and the still-unresolved killing of local NAACP leader Wharlest Jackson.
From acclaimed directors and producers Brad Lichtenstein ("When Claude Got Shot," "Messwood") and Yoruba Richen ("The Killing of Breonna Taylor," "The Sit In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show") “American Reckoning” examines Black opposition to racist violence in Mississippi, spotlighting a little-known armed resistance group called the Deacons for Defense and Justice, woven alongside the Jackson family's decades-long search for justice amid the ongoing federal effort to investigate civil rights era cold cases.
Drawing on intimate, archival film footage of the civil rights era — much of it never-before broadcast — from filmmakers Ed Pincus and David Neuman and made available through the Amistad Research Center, “American Reckoning” offers a window into an untold story of a Black-led liberation and self-defense movement in Natchez, as well as the funeral of Wharlest Jackson Sr. and its aftermath.
Combining verité footage from 1965 and 1967, profound interviews, extensive reporting, and rich archival material from the time of Jackson’s death, the documentary feature also taps into the groundbreaking reporting of the Concordia Sentinel journalist Stanley Nelson, who investigated allegations of the involvement of a Ku Klux Klan offshoot, known as the Silver Dollar Group, in Jackson’s murder.
The documentary is the latest component in FRONTLINE’s ongoing Un(re)solved project — an unprecedented, multiplatform investigation of civil rights era cold case murders which includes a web interactive experience; podcast mini-series; augmented-reality installation that can tour schools, libraries, and museums; a companion educational curriculum; and events.
“We are at a crucial moment in our country where the stories of white terrorism and Black resistance need to be unearthed in order to truly reckon with our political situation today,” says Richen. “I am so proud to be a part of this effort to amplify the story of Wharlest Jackson Sr. and his family’s efforts to find the truth about his murder, which reveals a much larger narrative about how the U.S has failed to deliver justice to the Black families of the men and women who were victims of racial violence during the civil rights era.”
“It is an honor to be able to share Wharlest Jackson, Sr’s story. He is one of the many unknown but crucial ‘foot soldiers’ who made the civil rights movement a success,” says Lichtenstein. “I’m so grateful that the Jackson family has trusted us with their family’s story — a tough one to share and one that reveals the depths of white denial about our nation’s racist violence, as resonant and urgent today as it was 55 years ago.”
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A FRONTLINE production with 371 Productions in association with Retro Report. The producers, writers, and directors are Brad Lichtenstein and Yoruba Richen. The executive producer for Retro Report is Kyra Darnton. The executive producers for FRONTLINE’s Un(re)solved initiative are Dawn Porter and Raney Aronson-Rath.