Wednesday, November 23, 2011

At the Movies: Rising Up Down South

The myriad marches, sit-ins, camp-ins and other protest demonstrations sweeping across America these days didn’t spring up out of nowhere. Such actions against entrenched injustice were honed in the civil rights movement that shook up authorities in the 1950s and 1960s. That movement energized and inspired a groundswell of grassroots movements against the war in Vietnam, for women’s liberation from stultifying traditions, against environmental destruction and for safer working conditions, among other heated issues of the time.  

For those who’ve forgotten or never knew what that earlier era of dissent was about, I’d recommend viewing You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South, a documentary by Lucy Massie Phenix that’s just been re-released on DVD. This is the story of a nonviolent uprising that effectively challenged racial discrimination laws, night-riding Ku Klux Klan gunmen, police who beat African American citizens trying to register to vote, blatant dumping of industrial waste into water supply streams and other arrogantly authoritarian customs of the time in southern states still clinging—a century later—to calcified attitudes of the post-Civil War era.  

 “This film brought me face to face again with some of the people I most admire, those 'ordinary,' 'plainfolks’ people who see the wrong that exists so clearly they can't rest without doing something about it,” Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, said of this film.  The black and white activists profiled in the film are down to earth, still feisty despite advancing age, and memorably articulate about what spurred them into action.

“There comes a time when people stop thinking about what happened to them and start thinking about what they are going to make happen,” said a woman involved in the civil rights movement, which repeatedly took a beating in sit-ins, marches, bus rides and bus boycotts until federal laws were changed and Southern states elected a different assortment of public officials—many of whom today are African Americans, whose ancestors were denied the right to vote.  

“I learned that you don’t quit when you’re denied—you keep on going and try something else,” said another protest organizer, who banded together with fed-up neighbors and backpacking college students in an effort to save a landmark mountain in Kentucky from being deforested, blasted and bulldozed into a massive strip mine for coal.

“We can’t leave it up to somebody else to save it. We’ve got to. We’ve got to say ‘no more,’” said a third activist who helped lead a community revolt against the dumping of hazardous chemical wastes in a remote Appalachian corner of Tennessee.  

The DVD of Phenix’s 1985 documentary was recently released by Milliarium Zero, a New Jersey based distributor of independent American and foreign art films and social issues documentaries. With an eye on attracting the current generation of students and teachers, the DVD version “memorializes the 50th anniversary of the Albany Movement — a landmark in the history of American civil rights activism — which was led by students, including Bernice Johnson Reagon (founder of the a cappella group Sweet Honey In the Rock and a nationwide leader for human rights) who appears in the film,” notes the distributors.

As the documentary shows through period film clips, photos, folk songs and flashbacks by an array of participants, challenging authority to change from protecting exploitative practices to championing democratic improvements on the premise of the Declaration of Independence has a deeply inspirational, illustrative history in this country. 

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