Migrant Children picking cotton
Migrants picking cotton - not for the feint of labor.

May 1952 – Migrant Workers In The San Joaquin Valley – Past Daily Reference Room

Migrant Children picking cotton

Migrants picking cotton – not for the feint of labor.

May 1952 – CBS Radio: The People Act: Migrant workers and families in San Joaquin Valley – Gordon Skene Sound Collection

Before the age of tape recording, the only method of producing a documentary was either by a cumbersome disc-cutting machine, an undependable wire recorder or making it all up in the studio. When tape recording came into being after World War 2 and became the standard of the industry by the early 1950s, the possibilities of going out and getting on-the-spot recordings of events suddenly became endless. But in doing that, the unintended benefit was the ability to go out and expose wrongs and to capture events as they were happening in ways no staged recording or recreation could possibly achieve. It also cast a spotlight on issues and people we knew very little about and gave a better understanding of the world around us, and the ability to react in positive ways.

That was one of the intents of the radio documentary series The People Act from CBS Radio in 1952. Narrated by veteran journalist and newscaster Robert Trout, The People Act explored issues in communities outside of major cities and brought listeners closer to real life and real problems as an examination of the human experience. It was part of a wave of broadcast journalism that, in many ways, made the world much smaller than it was before World War 2.

Of course, compared to 2018, the technological advances of 1952 are pretty primitive – and the world in turn has become microscopic by newer technology; we learn about events in Los Angeles happening in distant corners of the world within seconds of their occurring – and vice-versa. Where would we have been, had streaming been around in World War 2?

This documentary deals with the issue of Migrant workers in the agriculture sector of our society. The participants are racially mixed and all in the same boat; poor, exploited and deprived. It’s an interesting look at how that segment of our labor force was treated in the early 1950s. What’s even more interesting is how this documentary deals with a set of issues that practically exploded only two years later – the issue of illegal migrant workers from Mexico in 1954.

One of the fascinating aspects of history and digging into our past is that it’s not all made up of broad strokes – things happen over a long period of time. And a number of elements, seemingly unrelated, all contribute to the moment of crisis.

This one’s worth a few minutes (hopefully the full 25 minutes) of your time. The dramatic music wouldn’t be missed if it was not included, but we were still in the midst of radio as an entertainment medium, so a certain amount of “show’ had to be part of it.

Otherwise, have a listen and get a glimpse of how we were 66 years ago.

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