Remembering a public TV drama that delved into lives of black Chicagoans

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Durham (Photo 012, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library)

A new book by Sonja D. Williams looks at the life of Richard Durham, a reporter, community organizer and writer of radio and TV dramas whose path veered into public media in the 1960s. In earlier commercial radio series such as Destination Freedom and Here Comes Tomorrow, Durham explored the history and contemporary life of African-Americans. In its short run, his first TV series, Bird of the Iron Feather, took a bold look at Chicago’s police force.

This excerpt from Williams’ Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom (University of Illinois Press) appears as part of Rewind: The Roots of Public Media, our series of historical essays about public media created in partnership with the Radio Preservation Task Force. The RPTF is an initiative of the Library of Congress. 

Television.

Richard Durham had been hankering to write for this popular mass medium since the early 1950s. He had to be thrilled that 1969 brought the promise of creating a unique TV series. The show, to air on noncommercial station WTTW—Channel 11, would be a soap opera about black life in the Windy City.

Rewind_FINAL_03022016In the past, Durham’s TV scriptwriting desires had been dashed while he legally sparred with NBC. A Chicago NBC affiliate had tried to revive a show of Durham’s without his permission, and he’d taken them to court. But after that fight ended, Durham served as a ghostwriter for science fiction shows like One Step Beyond, Climax and The Outer Limits, as well as other TV dramas during the late 1950s. Durham’s name might have been removed or never attached to the scripts he authored because of the still-potent blacklists that restricted the careers of past and present Communist Party members and some leftist sympathizers. So WTTW’s proposed show offered Durham an opportunity to receive on-air credit for what might be a groundbreaking series. And within certain limits, he could set the agenda for WTTW’s serial about black Chicagoans.

Durham probably found out about WTTW’s plans to create a black soap opera from Irna Phillips. During the mid-1960s, Phillips, called the “queen of the soaps” because she created numerous soap opera hits for commercial TV, suggested to WTTW program director Edward L. Morris that the soap opera concept might work on educational TV. With input from black staff members and other station officials, the station decided to create a series exploring some of the socioeconomic problems affecting black Chicagoans. The drama would be called More from My Life.

Station executives identified a potential funding source: the Ford Foundation, which had had set aside $5 million to establish a “New Television Programming Grant.” Noncommercial TV stations or networks could apply for funds to improve their cultural, public affairs and children’s programs. In spring 1969 the Ford Foundation awarded WTTW $600,000 to support the production of one hundred More from My Life episodes. WTTW officials interviewed several scriptwriters, but based on his “considerable experience,” Richard Durham, then 51, became the show’s chief writer. The station also hired other staff writers and freelancers.

In short order, Durham infused the series with his philosophical sensibilities. For inspiration, he turned to one of his favorite African-American leaders: Frederick Douglass. In an 1847 speech, Douglass asserted that black Americans, “the sons and daughters of Africa in the United States,” had a history laced with struggle and blood. “They have been a bird for the hunter’s gun, but a bird of iron feathers, unable to fly to freedom.”

Consequently, Durham transformed Channel 11’s innocuous original title into Bird of the Iron Feather. The show’s executive producer, Clarence McIntosh, said the new title “more accurately depicts the plight of the men and women forced to live out their lives amidst the countless frustrations of the ghetto.” Bird would break ground in its approach to storytelling by and about blacks and seek, through protracted struggle, to increase black involvement in television’s behind-the-camera world.

Before those battles erupted, however, Durham had to figure out how to shape his story. He could have decided to explore familial issues through the experiences of a black war veteran. Via the news coverage he oversaw as editor of the Nation of Islam’s weekly Muhammad Speaks national newspaper, along with the graphic battlefield images broadcast on American TV screens, Durham knew that the Vietnam War was a rich incubator of heroic and tragic tales.

But Durham chose another path.

He let the friendships he’d cultivated with police detective Jack Cole and younger officers Edward “Buzz” Palmer and Renault Robinson guide him. These black men regularly spoke with Durham about the challenges of working in the Chicago Police Department — one of the nation’s more volatile law-enforcement bodies. Buzz Palmer saw Richard Durham as his mentor, someone with whom he could talk about some of the unsavory aspects of his job. Durham realized that the stories he heard from Palmer and others “might make a hell of a serial program.”

Bird of the Iron Feather became his vehicle.

Durham painted his protagonist, Jonah Rhodes, as an intelligent and sensitive 35-year-old detective. And Durham added an unexpected twist. Detective Rhodes would be dead by the time the series began — killed, Durham wrote in his script treatment, in a crossfire between black rebels and the police during a race riot on Chicago’s West Side. The diary Rhodes left behind provided “fragmented but incisive notations” regarding the detective’s family life as well as his inner thoughts. Rhodes’ personal relationships and professional dilemmas would be revealed through flashbacks and the recollections of the people whose lives he touched.

Durham molded an interesting set of characters around Jonah Rhodes, including his wife, with whom Rhodes had a loving though increasingly strained relationship; a deaf aunt and uncle battling poverty and health concerns; a politically active younger sister; and a gang-leaning younger brother. Jonah’s family also included his stepmother, grandmother and jazz pianist father, as well as his uncle Funky Frank, the hip owner of a neighborhood bar.

In addition, Durham threw in plenty of police officers who either supported or sabotaged Rhodes. To make his law enforcement characters and their dilemmas as authentic as possible, Durham hired Palmer, Robinson and Cole as script consultants.

 


 

Six months.

That’s how little time there was between Durham’s July 7, 1969, hiring and Bird of the Iron Feather’s mid-January 1970 launch date.

WTTW producer Clarence McIntosh auditioned nearly five hundred actors by the end of the summer. Interest in Bird was extremely high in Chicago’s black communities, and as word about Bird spread, the consensus among African-American Chicagoans was “if you’re going to do this [TV series], you’re going to do it right,” director Harold C. Johnson said.

Of course, the various definitions of “right” clashed.

The Coalition for United Community Action, an umbrella organization of several black community and religious groups, formed a committee to articulate specific demands for and oversight of Bird. Coalition members wanted black men and women to be trained and hired for the show’s technical jobs. Few blacks worked in such positions in noncommercial or commercial TV stations throughout the country.

WTTW had planned on using two white staff directors for the show. Coalition members “insisted that we have at least two black directors,” actor Ira Rogers recalled. So months before the series became a reality, Richard Durham told Harold Johnson, an experienced African American theater director whom he knew from his thespian connections, about a unique opportunity. WGBH-TV in Boston, a growing production powerhouse in noncommercial TV, was offering a free television directing training program. Durham suggested that Johnson enroll in the program to prepare for the possibility of directing Bird episodes.

Johnson completed the WGBH training, returned to Chicago, and applied for a Bird directing job. However, the station rejected Johnson because it had already hired another black director. Other issues quickly emerged. After agreeing to lead Bird’s writing team, Durham signed a contract with the station for $500 per script. He subsequently learned that New York–based TV scriptwriters earned one-and-a-half times more for the same work. In addition, the rate of pay for Bird actors became an issue.

“So the coalition then got strong,” Harold Johnson said. “We got the Blackstone Rangers, a street gang, and took them over to the station. I mean literally, they walked in and pulled all the cords out of the switchboard and stood around and would not let [anything] go on in the station.” Durham did not appreciate this show of force. He knew about this black gang’s criminal activities, including alleged cases of extortion and murder, because he had assigned Muhammad Speaks reporters to write articles about them.

Yet gang members were not the only people who stormed into WTTW demanding to be heard that day. Actor Harold Lee Rush Jr. said that most of the protesters included people like himself, honest black citizens who wanted to be considered for acting or technical jobs on this new series.

The pressure produced results. WTTW hired about twelve black staff members, including camera, sound and lighting technicians or trainees, along with production assistants and a secretary. Harold Johnson came aboard as a director, the actors’ pay rates increased, and Durham’s compensation doubled to $1,000 per script.

But a major issue remained. WTTW still planned on using the Ford Foundation’s $600,000 grant to produce one hundred episodes, generating five half-hour shows a week for six months. Coalition members balked. “We said, ‘No you can’t do that,’” Harold Johnson recalled. “You can’t spend $6,000 and get a [high-quality] dramatic program.” At the time, soap opera episodes on commercial TV might cost about $30,000 each. The coalition pushed to reduce the number of Bird of the Iron Feather episodes in order to increase the quality of each show — a concept trumpeted by executive producer Clarence McIntosh with Richard Durham’s backing.

Bird of the Iron Feather actors Curly Ellison and Louise Pruitt Dumetz Hodges enjoy a moment off camera. (Photo courtesy of Clarice Durham.)

Bird of the Iron Feather actors Curly Ellison and Louise Pruitt Dumetz Hodges enjoy a moment off camera. (Photo courtesy of Clarice Durham.)

By early November 1969, Durham and WTTW executives were well aware that in just two months, Bird of the Iron Feather would make its maiden flight. Yet months of protests, delays and escalating costs destroyed the serial’s production schedule. The station was in no position to deliver the one hundred episodes originally promised. Therefore, Program Director Edward Morris asked the Ford Foundation for permission to reduce the number of Bird shows to a maximum of 35. The foundation agreed.

Bird of the Iron Feather was now set to air three nights a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. starting in mid-January 1970. Bernard Ward, a professional actor from New York, would play Jonah Rhodes. Chicago-based actors filled the other roles. Durham felt that Ward wasn’t right for the part, but the decision was out of his hands. Two black directors, Roy Inman and Harold Johnson, alternated with WTTW’s two white staff directors, Peter Strand and Louis Abraham, and black trainees or assistants joined the show’s technical crew.

 


 

Reaction to Bird of the Iron Feather was swift — and mixed.

“Whatever else the series may be,” Chicago Tribune reviewer Clarence Petersen wrote, “it is a noble experiment, capable of arousing new compassions in all of us.” He noted that by the show’s fifth episode, the series becomes “sufficiently complex to satisfy the most demanding devotee of serial drama.” But Petersen determined that Bird’s first episode was “a bore.”

Bird’s debut show, “Prescription for Pallbearers,” was a prescription for dramatic disaster. Detective Jonah Rhodes’s colleagues talked, with little physical action, about Rhodes’ impending funeral, their relationships with him, and the diary he left in his locker.

“As close to a dud as anything I have seen on television,” Chicago Daily News reviewer Norman Mark wrote. But Mark optimistically claimed that the series “appears to improve as [it] goes along. The question is: Will viewers stick with the program through the early shows when the acting is wooden, and the writing is talky, until the entire production gets more professional in later episodes?”

To be fair, many new TV dramas begin their broadcast lives on wobbly legs. Some strengthen their standing and survive as the writers, directors and actors become more comfortable with the characters and fine-tune the show’s storylines. Given Bird’s status as the first TV series of its kind, the show generated widespread interest — and skepticism. “Virtually everyone will find something wrong with Bird,” WTTW program director Edward Morris told local and national reporters. “Black militants will claim it’s not militant enough, the black middle class will say conditions aren’t like that, white liberals will cringe at what they see and white conservatives will say we’re helping blacks to overthrow the government,” Morris said. He predicted, however, that people would watch Bird “in angry fascination.”

Morris’s prediction prevailed.

Despite the show’s mixed reviews, including references to its sometimes “amateurish acting” and “simplistic plots,” Bird of the Iron Feather attracted a large audience. By mid-February 1970, national newsmagazines Time and Newsweek reported that Bird’s half-million viewers made it the highest rated local production in WTTW’s history.

Bird earned this distinction in part because of Durham’s insistence on dealing with issues TV often avoided. “In the soap operas of the old days, you couldn’t write about all the social conflicts,” Durham told a reporter. “You’d have to deal with personality and very little else. The thing I resent most about television, especially daytime television, is the refusal to take material from real life.”

Durham certainly bucked that trend.

For example, one of Durham’s more dynamic scripts, “The Target,” dramatized an actual case involving the Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. College students and Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark lost their lives Dec. 4, 1969, after CPD officers rushed into Hampton’s apartment, guns blazing, in a predawn raid. The raid was not an aberration. Sociologist Todd Gitlin noted that between 1968 and 1969, local police officers and FBI agents raided 31 Black Panther offices across eleven different states.

Determined to defend black people from oppression — including police brutality —Oakland, Calif., natives Huey Newton and Bobby Seale established the Black Panther Party in 1966. Dressed in leather jackets with berets on their bulging Afros, Black Panthers openly flaunted their legal right to own handguns or rifles — and to use them, if needed, to protect the oppressed and poor masses. The Black Panthers’ militancy provoked the ire of law enforcement agencies nationwide. Yet the Black Panthers also earned respect in black communities for creating free breakfast programs for poor schoolchildren, along with health care and other support programs.

In “The Target,” Durham’s Jonah Rhodes and a handful of his colleagues accept a top-secret assignment. The officers are trained by “a real sharp sonofabitch,” a no-nonsense instructor of military bearing who shows them how to effectively hit their “target.” The officers will attack the headquarters of a group called the Black Protectors, Durham’s stand-in for the Black Panthers. However, Detective Rhodes wonders: “Is this the next step in the evolution of policemen? The way it was in Nazi Germany, Fascist Spain … police as executioners?”

Shortly thereafter, Rhodes is dropped from the mission. He believes it is because “certain people didn’t want me sniffing about. I think it’s cold-blooded murder.” By placing these words in Rhodes’s mouth, Durham reveals the opinions of some black Chicagoans about the actual raid on the Hampton and Clark apartment. Durham’s Fred Hampton–like character, Julian, and one of his friends in the Black Protectors die in the subsequent police raid. The drama’s police officers claim that they had a shoot-out with the men.

In the real Hampton/Clark case, Renault Robinson and several other Afro-American Patrolmen’s League officers rushed to the scene immediately after the raid and conducted their own impromptu investigation. “All the bullet holes in [the apartment’s back] door were going in,” Robinson recalled. “So we called a press conference to point out that the State’s Attorney and his folks lied about the shoot-out.” Months later a report released by a federal grand jury found that of the more than eighty bullets identified in the apartment, only one might have come from a Black Panther member’s gun. The AAPL labeled the raid a “shoot-in,” and Durham’s well-written script reflected that viewpoint.

But WTTW rejected it. “We worked on the script very hard and very long, and we thought it was going to be a part of the series,” Durham told historian J. Fred MacDonald. Station officials probably considered the episode too incendiary for broadcast, especially coming only a few months after the actual Hampton and Clark killings.

As it turned out, WTTW’s rejection of “The Target” script foreshadowed what would soon happen to the series. The station, in its own ironic parlance, “terminated” Bird of the Iron Feather in early March 1970. WTTW essentially blamed the black community for the show’s demise. Station officials told the Chicago Tribune that the Coalition for United Community Action’s demands “helped drive up costs of the series and put it out of business after 21 episodes instead of the 100 originally planned.” Program Director Edward Morris claimed that in order for WTTW to achieve the Coalition’s objectives, “the cost of the series skyrocketed from the projected $6,000 to nearly $30,000 an episode.”

Not true, Durham countered.

He told a Chicago Defender reporter that Bird’s cost per episode was actually around $7,000. The same article reported that Bird cost about $21,500 per show. Despite such conflicting claims, the question remained: how did the series run out of money so quickly? Edward Morris said that in addition to the show’s rising production costs, 20 percent, or $100,000, of Bird’s Ford Foundation grant went to station overhead — a grant requirement.

Certainly, other factors contributed to the show’s demise after only seven weeks on the air. Durham had argued with station management over the series’ concluding storyline. “The true ending was [supposed to be] a police assassination; police assassinating other police officers,” Durham told historian J. Fred MacDonald. Durham admitted that he had agreed to change the storyline, since the depiction of cops killing cops was taboo at that time. “This was before [the movie] Serpico came out. I was always a little bit too ahead of the situation,” Durham said. When the time came for him to change the series closer, “I didn’t feel like doing it,” Durham admitted.

His stubborn streak kicked in. Durham’s decision and the show’s politically outspoken language no doubt angered WTTW officials.

Given his activist history, Durham could have mounted a vigorous campaign to save his series. Instead, another writing opportunity had already stirred his soul. He had joined forces with the self-proclaimed “greatest” boxer in the world, agreeing to write Muhammad Ali’s autobiography.

Richard was ready for this new journey.

Sonja D. Williams is a professor in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film at Howard University and the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards as a radio producer. Her credits include the radio series Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions and Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was.

Josh Shepperd, assistant professor of media studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and national research director of the Radio Preservation Task Force, is Faculty Curator of the Rewind series. Email: shepperd@cua.edu