FRONTLINE and Retro Report Present “American Reckoning”
Caption: Wharlest Jackson Sr. is inducted into the Deacons For Defense; Credit: Amistad Research Center
The documentary is the latest component of FRONTLINE’s Un(re)solved multiplatform initiative investigating civil rights era cold case killings
Emmett Till, James Chaney, Medgar Evers, and four little girls from Birmingham — these are the stories of racially motivated violence we know.
But the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act — signed into law in 2008 — lifted the veil on more than 150 victims of this violence, for whom there still has been no justice.
Now, in collaboration with Retro Report, FRONTLINE (PBS) will tell the in-depth story of one of the cases on the Till Act list in a new documentary special titled American Reckoning.
From acclaimed directors, producers and journalists Brad Lichtenstein (When Claude Got Shot, As Goes Janesville) and Yoruba Richen (The Killing of Breonna Taylor, The Sit In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show) American Reckoning is the latest component of FRONTLINE’s Un(re)solved initiative, 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 WNET that examines poverty, justice and economic opportunity in America.
American Reckoning probes the story of one of the cases on the Till Act list: the killing of NAACP leader Wharlest Jackson in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1967. The film follows Jackson’s family as they search for the truth about what happened to Wharlest Sr., and it examines the history of white supremacy in Natchez.
Drawing on the collaboration and ground-breaking reporting of the Concordia Sentinel journalist Stanley Nelson, American Reckoning looks into allegations of the involvement of a Ku Klux Klan offshoot, known as the Silver Dollar Group, in Jackson’s murder.
The film includes intimate, never before seen archival film footage from the Ed Pincus collection made available through the Amistad Research Center — footage from 1965 and 1967 offering a window into an untold story of a Black led liberation and self-defense movement in Natchez, Mississippi as well as the funeral of Wharlest Jackson Sr. and its aftermath.
Woven alongside interviews with family members, experts and witnesses, American Reckoning shines a light on the life and legacy of Wharlest Sr. — including his work with the Deacons for Defense, an organization of Black men who armed themselves to protect activists and their community against racist violence, and the NAACP, which led boycotts for civil rights change in Natchez.
Against the backdrop of the Jackson’s story, American Reckoning also examines the limitations of the Till Act effort — and why families like the Jacksons feel the federal government has failed them.
The FBI interviewed several hundred people in the investigation of Jackson’s murder but no one was ever prosecuted, and the case was ultimately closed – as were many others examined under the Till Act, in most cases due to the fact that suspects and witnesses had long since died and there was no one to left to charge.
Many people — including the late Congressman John Lewis, who championed the Till Act, have expressed a desire to have achieved more.
While some agents have defended their work investigating these cases, one former head of the FBI’s cold case effort Cynthia Deitle tells FRONTLINE and Retro Report, “I feel like I failed the families, I feel like I failed communities.”
Combining verité footage, interviews, extensive reporting and never-before-seen archival material from the time of Jackson’s death, American Reckoning takes viewers on a compelling journey revealing the troubling and unresolved chapter of our history, in addition to providing context to the racial turmoil that continues to unfold today.
American Reckoning will premiere on FRONTLINE (PBS) later this year. 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.
American Reckoning is a FRONTLINE Production with 371 Productions in association with Retro Report. The producers, writers, and directors are Brad Lichtenstein and Yoruba Richen. The senior producers are Miriam Weintraub and Jennifer Oko. 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. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.
FRONTLINE, U.S. television’s longest running investigative documentary series, explores the issues of our times through powerful storytelling. FRONTLINE has won every major journalism and broadcasting award, including 95 Emmy Awards and 26 Peabody Awards. Visit pbs.org/frontline and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to learn more. FRONTLINE is produced by GBH in Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by the Ford Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Abrams Foundation; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Park Foundation; and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation. Funding for American Reckoning is provided by PBS; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation; the Sundance Institute; the Fetzer Institute; the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and The WNET Group’s Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative, with major funding by The JPB Foundation and additional funding from The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund.
About Retro Report
Retro Report is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to injecting historical context into the news cycle. Using investigative reporting and narrative storytelling, our 250 short documentaries have reached tens of millions of viewers through multiple distribution channels, including partnerships with The New York Times, PBS, VICE, The New Yorker and many others. We recently launched Retro Report in the Classroom to help teachers bring history to life at a time when an understanding of American history and civic literacy are diminished.
Brad Lichtenstein founded 371 in 2003 after working in New York as a documentary filmmaker for over a decade, producing and directing for Lumiere Productions, Bill Moyers, and FRONTLINE. Suzanne Jurva joined 371 in 2018 after more than two decades of scripted experience, including as a feature film development executive at Dreamworks where she created and led the research department. Together they have built a company that produces premium content across multiple platforms, prides itself on a commitment to stories that might not otherwise be told, and lifting up the voices and careers of women and filmmakers of color.
About The WNET Group
The WNET Group creates inspiring media content and meaningful experiences for diverse audiences nationwide. It is the community-supported home of New York’s THIRTEEN – America’s flagship PBS station – WLIW21, THIRTEEN PBSKids, WLIW World and Create; NJ PBS, New Jersey’s statewide public television network; Long Island’s only NPR station WLIW-FM; ALL ARTS, the arts and culture media provider; and newsroom NJ Spotlight News. Through these channels and streaming platforms, The WNET Group brings arts, culture, education, news, documentary, entertainment and DIY programming to more than five million viewers each month. The WNET Group’s award-winning productions include signature PBS series Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend and Amanpour and Company and trusted local news programs MetroFocus and NJ Spotlight News with Briana Vannozzi. Inspiring curiosity and nurturing dreams, The WNET Group’s award-winning Kids’ Media and Education team produces the PBS KIDS series Cyberchase, interactive Mission US history games, and resources for families, teachers and caregivers. A leading nonprofit public media producer for nearly 60 years, The WNET Group presents and distributes content that fosters lifelong learning, including multiplatform initiatives addressing poverty, jobs, economic opportunity, social justice, understanding and the environment. Through Passport, station members can stream new and archival programming anytime, anywhere. The WNET Group represents the best in public media. Join us.
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