The History of Say Brother
by Sarah-Ann Shaw
In 1968 when it began, Say Brother helped set a standard of excellence for black television shows, with the issues it brought to the public, the artists it featured, and the education it provided for the white community. This was the era of Black Power, Black Pride, and the thrust for political power -- an era when hairstyles and modes of dress proclaimed "Black is Beautiful." Even the title of the show sent a message. "Say brother" was a commonplace greeting in those days. It was a signal, a sign of recognition that blacks were connected to one another emotionally and by common experience. This program was an opportunity to expose the true facts about black history through music, song, discussions, art, drama, fashion, and educational scholarship. Say Brother represented another door being cracked open slightly by white America. However, cracking open this door was of greater significance because it opened the door to TV land, a place where blacks had been sorely underrepresented for years. The renowned producer Henry Hampton, who gave the world Eyes on the Prize, was involved with Say Brother from its inception. This is part of a commentary he delivered on the Say Brother first anniversary program:
For the first time, television stations not only paid lip service to the participation of blacks and Puerto Ricans, but actually offered significant blocks of air time to black producers and writers. A year later, many of the shows are off the air. Some lack the necessary skills and adequate resources to accomplish ambitious goals. Some were simply axed because we didn't riot last summer and things have returned to normal. Perhaps a few failed because they were simply too honest with those who sponsored them. But a few shows survived and like Say Brother have gone far past their original boundaries.
TV land presented the opportunity to help shape opinions and share information. The idea of a show by, for, and about blacks was a foreign concept to management at commercial and educational television stations. Following the urban riots and the growth of the civil rights movement, commercial stations realized they had almost no black staff members. This hindered news gathering, so stations and networks hurried to hire black reporters, producers, photographers, and other personnel. This hiring was sometimes insensitive. Men and women with little knowledge of the industry were recruited and sent out to sink or swim. About 20 black-oriented shows emerged in the 1970s.Boston viewers could watch Third World (later City Streets on channel five), Black News on channel seven or Talking Black (later renamed Mzizi Roots) on channel four. National shows included Washington DC's Harambee, New York City's Soul and Like It Is, and Detroit's CPT (later Detroit Black Journal and now American Black Journal).
During this period, WGBH first tested the waters with a dramatic series called On Being Black. But it was not until Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968 that a larger commitment to black programming was made. The night after Dr. King was killed, WGBH, at the urging of City Councilor Thomas Atkins and Boston Mayor Kevin White, produced a special concert at the Boston Garden. Soul legend James Brown was the entertainment. This concert was credited with helping to keep Boston calm, unlike other cities where the streets blazed with fire.
Following that concert, WGBH management began talking among themselves and with some members of Boston's black community about a show that would be by, for, and about blacks. In an interview on Say Brother in 1978, David Ives, former general manager of WGBH, reflected about the strong convictions of some WGBH managers in 1968 who pushed for a black show:
The realization was born that all previous programming, of which WGBH had done a lot on black problems and black issues, amounted to whites doing programs about blacks. It was felt perhaps it was time blacks had the opportunity to say what they thought and what they had the right to express about their problems.
Say Brother made its debut July 15, 1968. Ray Richardson, one of the show's first producers, was a brilliant young man in his early 20s.He never wavered in his commitment to portraying all facets and accomplishments of black life. Say Brother grappled with issues of housing, employment, and education; showcased local and national performers from all segments of the arts; provided a platform for political discussions; and much more, all from a black perspective. This is what Ray Richardson said in 1969 on the show's first anniversary:
We attempted to create an outlet for many of the viewpoints that exist in our community and to deal with political, educational, and cultural activities relevant to black people. We have had successes, occasional failures, and many memorable incidents.
But this was not a situation where they lived happily ever after. In late 1969, there were race riots in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ray Richardson and some of his small staff went there for several days. They did interviews and documented the smoke and the fire, the role of the police, and the frustration of New Bedford blacks. Some blacks swore during their interviews. WGBH management warned Ray about the content of the show and instructed him to remove certain sections. (At this time, FCC rules did not allow profanity to be broadcast.) This was a turning point for Richardson and the rest of the staff. They questioned how the program could be by, for, and about black people if final decisions did not rest with them. Richardson aired the show as it was and WGBH fired him. This infuriated the staff, leaders in the black community, and viewers. WGBH was picketed and blanketed with critical phone calls and letters. There was media coverage, but management did not relent, and a new producer was hired. This period also saw the establishment of the Say Brother Community Committee. This committee was to make sure that the program was continued, and that the interests of the black community were represented. It was also responsible for creating an open dialogue between staff and management, so conflicts could be addressed and additional firings forestalled.
Over the next few years, Say Brother continued in much the same way it had operated under Ray Richardson. The four producers who followed him, John Slade, Topper Carew, Marita Rivero, and Barbara Barrow, presented a dazzling array of ideas and issues, controversies and accomplishments, and performances of all types. In 1975 Say Brother went national, presenting shows on Africa, Attica prison, national theater companies, the national NAACP, as well as other topics. Thirteen national shows were produced. The following year, 1976, saw another change: the development of a multicultural format. This format called for a program that would not only present concerns of African Americans, but would also explore concerns and culture of Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians.
Five years later, Say Brother returned its focus to black programming. During those first 12 years, Say Brother accomplished many things. It presented blacks in a way they had not been presented before. It served as a training ground for blacks, Asians, Native Americans, and Latinos. Some of the original staff has gone on to highly successful television careers. A survey was sent to many former staff members asking them to describe their experiences with the show, what they learned and how the show was received in the community. The vast majority of responses were positive. They stated that the show was a wonderful training ground, providing them with tools that in many instances helped their personal advancement. In addition, all were glad to have been associated with an important, groundbreaking program that had such an enormous impact not only in greater Boston, but also across the country. Say Brother won Emmy awards, but more importantly, it provided an outlet for voices that might have remained silent, and offered a blueprint for other black shows to follow. But most importantly, it was a show by, for, and about black people.
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©2001 WGBH Educational Foundation.