Do Media Makers have a Mission?

Judy Richards, who has done many things in her life, but is possibly most widely recognized as a filmmaker, shares with the Center for Civic Media lunch gathering whether media makers have a mission greater than just making media.

The lively Richards opens with an anecdote about why she doesn’t like it when a film shows bad things and people brush it off as being “only a film.” I missed the title of the film, but in the mid-1900s, a movie came out with the plot of white Southern men defending communities from marauding former slaves. With all the racial tensions happening at the time in the US, Richards felt she couldn’t dismiss the movie as being merely a story, not connected to everything else happening in the country at the time.

She shifts gears to talk about Eyes on the Prize, a well-known documentary on which she worked. Martin Luther King, Jr., was everywhere. Everyone was focused on him. Many books and works tell his story. Eyes on the Prize looks beyond him to tell the stories of other civil rights leaders. Many had been working in areas long before King visited, but many people either weren’t aware of their doings or were so focused on King, they overlooked many other activists. Eyes on the Prize was noted for showing people who were “like us,” like the movie viewers. Once people realize people aiming for change are like them, it’s easier to take action. If s/he can do that, so can I. “What most people know is that Rosa Parks sat down, Dr. King stood up, and everything was fine.” They wanted to show far more of the history.

Richards shares a clip of Eyes on the Prize covering the Montgomery bus boycott with us. E. D. Nixon explains some aspects of the protest and what Rosa Parks did. Imagine organizing 40,000 people within two days to take action. Many ladies were instrumental in spreading the word. One lady reports talking to everyone she knew. Another says after informing many people, she woke up early to watch the buses go by. She was excited to see they were empty. She was late to work because she spent so much time watching. Now, keep in mind that before the boycott, 2/3 of riders were black and many depended n the buses to get to their jobs and go anywhere. The black community pooled other transportation resources, like personal cars, to support the protesters.

The clip goes on to talk about the relationships between white and black ladies. Many white ladies gave their African-American maids rides during the bus boycott. Some white folks began to frown on that practice. “If those white women would stop driving their house help around, the boycott would be over.” Some white women did it to do what they could to support the equal rights movement. Many felt powerless to do much for change in the oppressive Southern society.

Richards shares some of her proposed titles for the film. Her favorite: “We put our trust in the Lord (and they beat the shit out of us anyway).” Her list comes primarily from spiritual song titles, providing some musical tie-ins and familiarity with viewers.

A lot of people did not like the movie Mississippi Burning when it first came out, like folks from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And now, more people have seen it than Eyes on the Prize because the documentary does not get rebroadcast and it’s easy to find Mississippi Burning. One big objection is the portrayal of the FBI. Many people believe the FBI was the villain during the civil rights movement and can’t believe the filmmakers’ dramatic license properly extends to them changing who the heroes and villains are. Richards admits the film is beautiful artistically, but it has other problems she declines to discuss during the lunch.

Another clip from Eyes on the Prize introduces some philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his colleagues concerning the civil rights movement.

A clip from “Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968” introduced us to 1960s Orangeburg, SC. The documentary told viewers about a shooting at South Carolina State College where white state troopers shot several African-American students. “Everyone knows about the Kent State massacre. No one knows about the Orangeburg Massacre.” The shooting was one of the most violent, yet least known, incidents of the civil rights movement. The 1-hour documentary aired on PBS.

Activists had desegregated most of Orangeburg by 1968. The hospital and a bowling alley were among the institutions still segregated. A student, who was a Viet Nam veteran, began working on desegregating the bowling alley. The alley was a sore point of the community. Various people had been trying to get the owner to desegregate, but he was holding out. A group of students decided to go the bowling alley one night to see what they could do. A large crowd appeared. Witnesses and participants share their memories in the film. A white police officer describes the guns they had on hand that night, lamenting the lack of shotguns. The film premiered at the 43rd anniversary of the massacre. Many people believe the white police officers overreacted.

I shared with the group how I spent about 20 years of my life with an hour of Orangeburg and knew nothing of the massacre until attending this talk at MIT, about 1000 miles away from Orangeburg.

The librarian next to me observes how many of these films focus on organizing movements and how we can still learn from their methods now, even in the age of social media.

A fellow shared how when examining racial issues in Washington, DC, in the 1990s, they began by watching Eyes on the Prize and learning about the 1960s civil rights movement.

Richards cites the book When Affirmative Action was White.

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