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Operation Breadbasket

0:00 Operation Breadbasket: A Civil Rights Legacy
9:53 Operation Breadbasket

Operation Breadbasket (US 1969)
Writer, Director, Producer: Robert Culp
Cinematographers: Reza Badlyi, Woody Omens, Gordon Quinn
Sound: Bud Alper, Gerald Temener
Editors: Murray Jordan, Pier Laskey, Peter Johnson, Joe Gillette
Music: The Operation Breadbasket Band “Welcome Welcome Emigrante” composed by Buffy Sainte-Marie
Featuring: Rev. Jess Jackson, Robert Culp
Production company: AHAB Foundation
Broadcast by ABC on Time for Americans

Air date: 7 July 1969
Sound: sound
Color: color
Original length (in feet): 2,371 ft. (16mm)
Original length (in reels): 2
Original running time: 65 min.

Preserved with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Film Preservation Foundation
Preserved at The CinemaLab
Digitized by Eastman Museum Film Preservation Services

In the summer of 1968, the United States was in the throes of explosive social upheaval and political unrest. Growing poverty, widespread protest for the war in Vietnam and the recent shocking assassinations of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy had many people feeling the fibers of the nation were corroding. When Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles in June, just weeks after King in Memphis, the African American community and its ongoing fight for civil rights stood on shaky ground.

In response, actor and director Robert Culp (1930-2010) assembled a small film crew and went to Chicago to document one of Dr. King’s most successful programs, Operation Breadbasket. Initiated in 1962, it was the economic arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Culp recognized the need to promote this positive directive, and he was in a unique position to gain access to the inner workings of Breadbasket. He had gained public trust within the black community from his work on the popular TV show I Spy. This iconic and groundbreaking series ‒ the first fully interracial show on television ‒ paired him equally with black comedian Bill Cosby.  Operation Breadbasket sought to make gains for the marginalized black community by forcing white-owned corporations into equal treatment of blacks and fair hiring practices.  Dr. King’s edict was simple: “Negroes need not patronize a business which denies them jobs or advancement or plain courtesy. Many retail businesses and consumer-goods industries deplete the ghetto by selling to Negroes without returning to the community any of the profits through fair hiring practices’’ (King, January 1967). 

Operation Breadbasket had been highly successful in educating the African-American community to boycott products from unfriendly corporations and when necessary to picket businesses that did not extend equality of service to their customers.  In its first fifteen months of operation, Operation Breadbasket in Chicago succeeded in negotiating 2,000 jobs for a total of $15 million a year in unprecedented new income for the black community. The program was then in the hands of a young Chicago minister, Reverend Jesse Jackson. After King’s death, Jackson led well-attended “Saturday Morning Meetings” in Chicago to promote the efforts of Operation Breadbasket and discuss the issues of the day. 

Culp’s film Operation Breadbasket is an hour-long exposé of the history and success of that program and the promise it held as a non-violent means for social and economic change.  Culp narrates and shapes film clips and rare interviews with civil rights leaders around the centerpiece of a “Saturday Morning Meeting” at Chicago’s Parkway Ballroom led by the young, charismatic Jesse Jackson.  Reverend Jackson’s passionate sermon in response to Kennedy and King’s recent deaths and his exhortation of the local community to stay non-violent evokes the turmoil of this volatile moment in American civil rights history, and the hope that the dream of Dr. King would not be forsaken. ABC-TV aired Operation Breadbasket, in an edited version, twice in 1969.  It was subsequently nominated for a Peabody Award, yet like many documents of the time, the film fell into unmerited obscurity and the negative was lost. The George Eastman Museum restored the original film from existing prints and it can now be seen by the public for the first time in over 50 years.

Operation Breadbasket remains a vital and vivid history of this highly successful civil rights and economic justice program, which eventually evolved into Chicago’s Rainbow/PUSH coalition. The film is a powerful portrait of one of the most important chapters in U.S. history.

The film is preceded by a clip from an upcoming companion documentary “Operation Breadbasket: A Civil Rights Legacy” combining further archival material with current interviews of activists and scholars speaking of the relevance of this historic film with the emergence of  #BlackLivesMatter and the movement for racial empowerment and social justice today. The new documentary material includes testimonials from original Operation Breadbasket leaders, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Calvin Morris, and the late Rev. Willie Barrow, who are featured in the 1969 film, Operation Breadbasket. — Joseph Culp, January 2022