Video: When Heston, Poitier, Brando, Baldwin, and Belafonte Sat Down to Talk Civil Rights

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
May 28 2013 1:10 PM

Video: When Heston, Poitier, Brando, Baldwin, and Belafonte Sat Down to Talk Civil Rights

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This roundtable, in which a group of Hollywood actors talk about the meaning of civil rights, was filmed in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963: the day of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The participants, all of whom attended the march: from left to right, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, moderator David Schoenburn, director and writer Joseph Manckiewicz, Marlon Brando, and James Baldwin.

The U.S. Information Agency, formed in 1953 to improve the American image in the eyes of the world, arranged and filmed this chat. During the Cold War, racial inequalities in the U.S. were a serious PR problem overseas. In his blog post on this film clip, the National Archives’ Richard Green writes that the USIA, having no choice but to face up to the civil rights movement’s increasing visibility, decided to showcase events like the March on Washington as evidence of the vitality of the American democratic process.

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The clip amuses with its quaint production values: The men’s foreheads and noses are shiny for lack of makeup. Everybody smokes. Heston—who, later in life, was to align himself strongly with conservative causes—recites lines from Tom Paine. Brando rambles about the universal anger in the human heart.

Schoenburn, as the voice of USIA, tries to make the point that the very fact of the demonstration is unusual on the world stage—“I have seen no March on Moscow or March on Peking.” Belafonte, who was a lifelong supporter and confidant of MLK, speaks up, arguing that this self-congratulation is not enough: “It is long since past the time when we can measure our own sense of conscience and our own morality based on what some decayed society refuses to give their own.”

The group becomes the most animated at the end of the film, when talking about whether the issue should be called “The Negro Problem” or “The White Problem”: a distinction far from semantic.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.