More than a few Columbus residents may not be inclined to watch the new documentary “Our Towns” on HBO Max, which features Columbus among eight small cities across the country.
Once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes.
The documentary features Atlantic magazine correspondent James Fallows and his wife, Deborah, and is based on their 2018 series “American Futures” published in the magazine.
But for some residents, it’s another instance of national exposure that left a bitter taste in their mouths more than two decades later.
In June 2000, on the CBS show, “48 Hours: Mystery,” a segment focused on the then-unsolved murders of five elderly Columbus residents, casting the city in what many Columbus citizens felt was an unfair and unfavorable light.
Memo to Columbus folks: It’s OK to watch this latest national broadcast, which once again shines a light on the city.
In the spring of 2014, the Fallows spent eight days in Columbus collecting materials for the magazine series. The Fallows visited 10 small cities across the country. Eight of them were featured in the HBO documentary.
In the documentary James Fallows said the cities were chosen because “they all had things to be reckoned with, usually involving some economic shock.”
In the telling of the stories of the cities of California’s “Inland Empire” — Redland, Riverside and San Bernardino — along with Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Eastport, Maine, Charleston, West Virginia, Bend, Oregon and Columbus, the Fallows don’t ignore the struggles of those communities, but rather their reactions to them.
In the Columbus segment, it opens not with economic troubles, but with the city and state’s troubling history of race relations.
“There are things to be reckoned with,” James Fallows says at the beginning of the segment.
Even so, the segment focuses not on reciting the litany of abuses of Black citizens, but on how the community is addressing it. The segment begins with footage of the Eighth of May Emancipation Day Celebration by Mississippi School for Math and Science students at Sandfield Cemetery.
Only then, does the segment address the economy, connecting the dots between the city’s racial history and its present economy.
“Factories around Columbus used to make things like blue jeans, hot dogs, pork chops and toilets,” James Fallows said. “Those industries disappeared, leaving 20 percent unemployment in the poorest state in the country. Getting out of that kind of depression just doesn’t happen. It takes community action.
Fallows cited the founding of the LINK as the pivotal moment, introducing LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins, who deftly connected the city’s racial struggles of the past with its present trajectory.
“Columbus has a foot in antebellum and a foot in the future,” Higgins says in the segment. “Some days, they almost seem confused.
“When I got here, I said, ‘Before I take this job, answer a question for me: Are you a community that values your past more than your future?’ They said, ‘Oh no.’ I took the job.”
The segment notes the arrival of industry in the county as well as its efforts in educating residents to be employable.
Former East Mississippi Community College workforce development director Raj Shanauk talks about the then-as-yet-to be-completed Communiversity.
“The old attitude was that vocational school was a penalty a person paid,” Shanauk tells the Fallows. “Today, we are about second chances. Many individuals in our community are one flat tire away from losing their job or not finishing their education. We help bring partners in to remove those barriers. We lift up the community as a whole.”
Deborah Fallows is clearly impressed. “That’s the best description of community college and what you do that I’ve heard anywhere,” she said.
Columbus certainly has its share of problems, but “Our Towns” reminds us that we have much to take pride in.
There’s nothing cringe-worthy in the 10-minute segment.
In other words, it’s not “Another 48 Hours.”