Remembering ‘Harvest of Shame’

Reader Contribution by Erik Thiel

This is a must see film about the poverty America’s migrant farmworkers faced 55 years ago. It aired the day following Thanksgiving in 1960 on CBS Reports and was hosted by Edward R. Murrow.

Many of these scenes are far from pretty, children left unattended and uneducated while their parents go work in the fields all day harvesting vegetables and fruit for little pay, families of six living in their cars sleeping in the woods on the side of the road to follow the harvest, groups of families temporarily living in farm camps with only one source of water, bales of straw to sleep on, and zero toilets. This is not a feel good film.

It’s still a must see, however. By the end of this 52 minute film I was left with two things. One question and one strong feeling of motivation to continue growing my own food, supporting local farms, and praying for the hard working farm laborers before I eat each meal. My question – although this film is from 55 years ago, how have the conditions for the migrant farmworker changed?

Before getting into that last question and sending you to my blog to watch CBS’s 50-year follow-up to Harvest of Shame, along with links to all the other follow-ups produced by CBS and also NBC, and before sharing my personal and positive experience working on a farm harvesting vegetables, let me list some quotes that really stood out to me as I watched this movie.

• “One farmer looked at this and said, we used to own our slaves, now we just rent them.” – Murrow, film narrator, as crew leaders load hired laborers into the back of trucks headed out to the fields to harvest vegetables and fruits for the day.
• “This is as primitive as man could live.” – a priest talking about a settlement of former migrants called ‘the bottom’
• “Approximately 1 out of every 500 children whose parents are still migrant laborers finishes grade school. Approximately 1 out of every 5,000 ever finishes high school. And there is no case up on the record of the child of a migrant laborer ever receiving a college diploma.” – Murrow
• “The migrant farmer is the most poorly housed member of our society.” – Senator Harrison Williams, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Migratory Labor
• “We live anywhere, in a tent, under a shade tree, under a river bridge, we drink water out of a creek or anywhere we can get it, 5 or 6 families drink out of one cup, a tin can, or anything else. We’re to blame. We tolerate that stuff. If we stick together and say we won’t do it, we won’t pick your cherries until you give us some restrooms in the fields for the ladies, and some for the men, and some water fit to drink, we won’t pick them. We got them!” – a farmworker in a town meeting debating a strike
• “The migrant farmworker occupies the lowest level of any major group in the American economy. The soil has produced no Samuel Gompers or John L. Lewis.” – Murrow
• “Is it possible to have love without justice? Is it possible that we are … we think too much in terms of charity, in terms of Thanksgiving day baskets, in terms of Christmas baskets, and not in terms enough of eliminating poverty?” – Julian Griggs, a chaplain for the migrants

Now watch this movie while keeping in mind it is up to us to make a difference – which we can, will, and currently are – by growing our own food at home, with community members, and by supporting local and sustainable farms. And by reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

You can hear my personal and positive story about working on a farm and also watch all the follow-ups to Harvest of Shame on my blog, Mad Love Organix.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.