Documentary shows civil rights-era history of Sacramento

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The civil rights movement of the 1960s is often viewed as centralized in the South, but blacks in Sacramento faced similar challenges, and a KVIE documentary tells those stories.

“It was just a really horrific time in Sacramento,” said Bryan Shadden, a producer at KVIE who worked on the film, “African Americans in California’s Heartland: The Civil Rights Era.”

The documentary first aired four years ago, but is being shown again Feb. 17 to coincide with Black History Month.

Shadden worked on a story about busing African-American students out of Oak Park after Stanford Junior High School burned in 1963.

Students were bused to almost all-white schools in an effort to integrate the races. Unfortunately, unintended consequences led to racial tensions, which contributed to shootings and other violence in the following years, according to the film.

“You can still see scars from decisions that were made a long time ago,” Shadden said, adding that even though the decisions were made with good intentions, they still sometimes led to strife.

He said one of the people he interviewed in the film, Kim Harrington, told him that trees were cut down in Oak Park in 1967 to give police officers better shooting lanes after they raided the Black Panther headquarters and a gun battle ensued.

Newspaper articles from the time show a trend of violence between “snipers” and officers in the area, with one June 16, 1969 article reporting more than 100 shots exchanged in one night.

A Sacramento Bee article from May 11, 1970 tells the story of the shooting of Officer Bernard Bennett, who was hit in the head by a sniper and later died.

In 1973, an African-American teenager from Del Paso Heights was accidentally shot and killed by police, and a citizen-led effort to improve relations between police and the community.

Other stories in the documentary shed light on housing discrimination, and even burial discrimination.

“A lot of funeral homes wouldn’t accept African Americans to bury,” said Marinda Johnson, who was also a producer on the documentary.

Vincent Thompson, an African-American embalmer, started the first African American funeral home, Thompson Funeral Home.

“He really became a voice for the African-American community,” Johnson said. “He helped start the Oak Park Community Council.”

Though the stories tend focus on struggle, not all are that way.

In a time of racial turmoil across the country Grant Union High School had an all-African-American men’s track team.

“This relay ended up winning the championship, and even though they had all these race issues going on around them, there were no racial tensions at this school,” Johnson said. “Everyone just thought of them as champions … the achievement, the success was all they focused on at the school.”

Both Shadden and Johnson said the memory of the 1960s and 1970s tends to be lost today, and the documentary is a reminder of how far the city has come.

“There was a Time Magazine article in the early 2000s that said Sacramento is one of the most diverse cities, and that’s the short-term memory,” Shadden said.

“We almost kind of turn our eye to it in a sense,” Johnson said. “We hear about it and we think, ‘oh it couldn’t be that bad. It’s Sacramento … It’s not as bad as the South, so it can’t be that bad.’ That’s the mentality.”

The documentary is paired with another, which explores the history of African Americans in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevadas from the Gold Rush through the 1950s, which will air at 7 p.m. Feb. 9. and at 6 p.m. Feb. 13 9 p.m. Feb. 15.

The documentary on the civil rights era in Sacramento will air at 11:30 p.m. Feb. 17.

For more information about the documentary and more stories on the civil rights era in Sacramento, click here

Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. 

Editorial note: The time of the encore has been corrected to Feb. 13 at 6 p.m.

  • William Burg

    Sounds interesting indeed–will either of these documentaries talk about the West End, the original African American neighborhood downtown, before the redevelopment era? Both the Thompson funeral home and the Morgan Jones funeral home (which is still in Oak Park) started out downtown, as well as many other businesses, churches and residents, before the entire neighborhood was displaced by the Capitol Mall and Interstate 5 projects.

    Sacramento’s civil rights history goes back almost to the city’s founding–the first California “Colored Conventions,” statewide meetings to discuss civil rights (while there was still debate over whether California would be a free or slave state) happened here in Sacramento, hosted by the local African Methodist Episcopal church. The Archy Lee slave trials were one of California’s early civil rights trials–one of Lee’s defense team for hist first trial was a young abolitionist lawyer named E.B. Crocker.

    • Brandon Darnell

      The West End is definitely covered in the civil rights documentary. It is part of the story included in the school fire. In the interest of summary for the news story, I didn’t include it. The film does chronicle the West End’s predominantly black families being forced out of the area.

    • William Burg

      Good to know–thanks for the follow-up.

  • Sheryl Brown

    African Americans in California’s Heartland – Part I
    Airs: February 9 at 7pm (encore 2/13 at 6pm)

    African Americans in California’s Heartland: The Civil Rights Era – Part II
    Airs: February 17 at 11:30pm

    For a complete list of Black History programs to air on KVIE, visit

    Sheryl Brown is KVIE’s Marketing Communications Manager

    • Brandon Darnell

      Thank you, it’s been fixed.

    • Will the documentary on the civil rights era in Sacramento re-air?


  • Michaela Stewart

    ” WOW!, I never imagined anything like this would take place in Sacramento, but it’s nice to know we have made a significant change from the experiences of the civil rights movement during the 1960s.”