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Moyers's voyage through the 20th century

Our century is the first to have taken moving pictures of itself. And it is fortunate for us that the Corporation for Entertainment and Learning (CEL) has had the foresight to assemble a fabulous archive of film and videotape which preserves that graphic diary.

Now, Bill Moyers is giving us the unique opportunity to accompany him on a photographic voyage into the heart of the 20th century with his new series: A Walk Through the 20th Century With Bill Moyers (PBS, selected Wednesdays, starting Jan. 11, 9 p.m., check local listings)m. The programs attempt to rediscover the vivacity of the past, drawing on those CEL archives as well as the National Archives in Washington.

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Bill Moyers has already won his place in electronic history as ''the conscience of American television.'' One of the few PBS-nurtured personalities on the air today, Mr. Moyers has managed the jump from PBS to CBS with grace and responsibility.

Now, Bill is back at PBS, if only temporarily, with ''A Walk Through the 20th Century.'' It is a series destined to become a television landmark, and it starts right out with a classic premiere, a 90-minute paean to his hometown, everybody's hometown, perhaps all the hometowns that never really existed as we like to remember them.

In ''Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas'' Bill meanders about this east Texas town where he was born, visiting with friends and relatives, chatting with neighbors and teachers. The segment in which Bill discusses the old days with two teaching sisters is, by itself, reason enough to watch the premiere episode.

But there is much more, including the realization today that what seemed to be idyllic days for white Bill Moyers were troublesome days for the black side of town. James Farmer, founder of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), is also a native of Marshall, and now, after all these years, Bill gets to know him and discuss the Marshall which Farmer knew as differentiated from the Marshall of Moyers's memories.

''Marshall, Texas'' is more than nostalgia; it is Americana with perspective. It is the perspective of intelligence, compassion, and conscience that Bill Moyers brings to such a show. And it is an auspicious beginning for what promises to be a memorable series.

Welcome back to PBS for this series, Bill Moyers. We've missed you, even as we've watched you on CBS.

I have a suggestion for the PBS Search Committee, now busy searching for a new PBS president to carry on the tradition of excellence: Bill Moyers.

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