Harvest of Shame

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Harvest of Shame
DVD cover of Harvest of Shame
Directed by Fred W. Friendly
Starring Edward R. Murrow
Country of origin USA
Original language(s) English
Producer(s) Fred W. Friendly
Edward R. Murrow
David Lowe
Running time 55 min.
Original channel CBS
Original release November 25, 1960

Harvest of Shame was a 1960 television documentary presented by broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow on CBS that showed the plight of American migrant agricultural workers. It was Murrow's final documentary for the network; he left CBS at the end of January 1961, at President John F. Kennedy's request, to become head of the United States Information Agency. An investigative report intended "to shock Americans into action", it was "the first time millions of Americans were given a close look at what it means to live in poverty" via their televisions.[1]

The program was an installment of the television documentary series CBS Reports, widely seen as the successor to Murrow's highly regarded 1951–58 CBS program, See It Now. Murrow's close associate, Fred W. Friendly, who co-produced See It Now, was the executive producer of CBS Reports. Their colleague, Edward P. Morgan, had taken up the issue of migrant labor in his CBS Radio Network commentaries. Morgan's assistant had visited Senator Harry F. Byrd's Northern Virginia farm during the apple harvest and was outraged by the conditions of the migrant laborers working there. According to Murrow biographer Joseph Persico, Friendly decided that the issue was a natural for Murrow, long seen as a champion of the oppressed.

While Murrow and Friendly are often seen as the forces behind the show, broadcast historians such as the late Edward Bliss, Jr. have also given credit to "Harvest of Shame" producer/reporter David Lowe. Lowe did much of the legwork, including a number of the interviews featured on the installment.

The program originally aired just after Thanksgiving Day in November 1960. The December 5, 1960 edition of Time quoted producer Lowe as saying,

We felt that by scheduling the program the day after Thanksgiving, we could stress the fact that much of the food cooked for Thanksgiving throughout the country was picked by migratory workers. We hoped that the pictures of how these people live and work would shock the consciousness of the nation.


The opening was voiced over footage of migrant workers, including a number of African-Americans, being recruited:

This scene is not taking place in the Congo. It has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Cape Town. It is not Nyasaland or Nigeria. This is Florida. These are citizens of the United States, 1960. This is a shape-up for migrant workers. The hawkers are chanting the going piece rate at the various fields. This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, "We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them."

Murrow describes this story as an American story, that moves from Florida to New Jersey. Murrow calls it a 1960's Grapes of Wrath of people, unrepresented, who work 136 days of the year and make 900 dollars per year. Throughout the documentary there are numerous interviews, conducted by David Lowe in his nine months of field reporting, of people working in the industry.

The report starts in Florida. There is Mrs. Doby, mother of nine children, who describes picking strawberries and cherries. The children work with her, except for her baby. Her average dinner consists of a pot of beans, or corn. She cannot afford milk more than once a week for her children.

Jerome, a 9-year-old child, is taking care of his three infant sisters while his mother is at work. The family sleeps on a bed with a hole in it, which is due to rats, as Jerome says. The mother cannot afford day care, which costs 85 cents per day, because after working from 6 a.m. until 4 p.m. she has only made one dollar.

The people travel on buses thousands of miles looking for work, sometimes sleeping outside during their travels. They often don't have enough food for dinner. The travels can take up four days, and rides last about 10 hours at a time, without stops for food or facilities during that time. The story moves from Florida to North Carolina. A camp in Elizabeth City has one source of water for the whole camp, and does not have sanitary facilities. Mrs. Brown, who is 37, started working in the fields at 8 years old. She hopes to get out of the work, but does not think that will happen.

Murrow describes the complaints most workers have, including bad housing, flies, mosquitoes, dirty beds and mattresses, unsanitary toilets, and lack of hot water for bathing. One employer of hundreds of workers is asked "Are the [migrant workers] happy people?" and he states, "They love it." The trucks move north from North Carolina to Virginia and Maryland for beans, asparagus, and tomatoes. Every year there are accidents on the road that often result in injury or death because workers are packed into the backs of trucks very compactly. There is no interstate standard for the transportation of migrant workers.

Murrow then describes the conditions in labor camps. In New Jersey, a labor camp has two outhouses and two water taps. Families live in one room, often sleeping in one bed. Lunch is served to children in the camp, a bottle of milk and a couple of crackers. The children of migrant laborers have low levels of literacy; only 1 in 5000 children of migrant workers finish high school. The children are anxious to get an education, but they cannot get help from their parents because often the parents are illiterate themselves.

While federal legislation is hoped for by the workers, issues include the variability in terms of wages, types of labor, and the transient nature of migrant workers' lives. For example, the crop does not always sell at the same price, because the largest purchasers have a monopsony, or the ability to dictate the prices because they have buying power, which affects how the workers are paid. Farm labor is excluded from federal legislation, despite the fact that the laborers travel from state to state every year. In November, the cycle starts all over again, and the migrants move back south.

Murrow's closing words:

The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck.

Murrow and the National Security Council[edit]

After Murrow joined the National Security Council as a propagandist, his position did lead to an embarrassing incident shortly after taking the job, when he asked the BBC not to show Harvest of Shame, in order to not damage the European view of the USA, however the BBC refused as they had bought the program in good faith.[2] British newspapers delighted in the irony of the situation with one daily Daily Sketch writer saying: "if Murrow builds up America as skillfully as he tore it to pieces last night, the propaganda war is as good as won".[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Blair, Elizabeth (May 31, 2014). "In Confronting Poverty, 'Harvest Of Shame' Reaped Praise and Criticism". Weekend Edition Saturday (NPR). Retrieved July 26, 2015. 
  2. ^ "Edward R. Murrow, Broadcaster And Ex-Chief of U.S.I.A., Dies". The New York Times. On This Day (column). 1965-04-28. Retrieved 2014-05-31. 
  3. ^ Balough, Brian. "Harvest of Shame, Reviewed in Time, March 31, 1961". HIUS 316: Viewing America, the United States from 1945 to the Present. Retrieved 2014-05-31. 

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