Tuesday, Feb. 15 at 9 p.m.
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 (PBS) 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.
“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.”
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.
American Reckoning is the latest component of FRONTLINE’s Un(re)solved initiative — which also includes a web-based interactive experience and traveling augmented-reality installation creatively directed by Ado Ato’s Tamara Shogaolu, and a podcast series hosted by podcast producer James Edwards. Un(re)solved is executive produced by award-winning filmmakers Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble, Gideon’s Army) and Raney Aronson-Rath (Executive Producer, FRONTLINE). The film is supported by Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative from The WNET Group that examines poverty, justice and economic opportunity in America.
“To understand the present, we must look to the past — and American Reckoning does that in a unique way, complementing the investigative reporting and storytelling seen in our larger Un(re)solved initiative and shining a light on America’s history of racial violence,” says Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of FRONTLINE. “We are grateful to the Amistad Research Center for making this remarkable footage come to life again, to Yoruba and Brad and Dawn for helping us investigate this critical story, and to Retro Report for their editorial partnership.”