Four outstanding television documentaries on the long history of the African-American civil rights movement were made with $2,620,871 from NEH. Through the initiative Created Equal, 500 communities around the country received DVDs of these films along with a special issue of HUMANITIES magazine featuring an essay by Earl Lewis, now president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, on how today’s historians write about African Americans’ long struggle for equality. The materials are being used as the basis for public conversations about race and American history.
The Abolitionists from American Experience, released on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, dramatized the lives and careers of some of slavery’s greatest enemies. William Lloyd Garrison, whose uncompromising anger led him to burn the U.S. Constitution, argued against union with slave-owning states. Other figures in the film include Angela Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown, with whom Frederick Douglass once compared himself, saying, “His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine. . . . I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.”
Following the Civil War, other forms of oppression came to the fore. African-American men in the South were subject to arrest, imprisonment, and forced labor under the flimsiest of pretexts, the so-called Black Codes. These restrictions on loitering, vagrancy, unemployment, and talking loudly in public resulted in massive roundups of black men, who were then rented out for months and years to private interests as a cheap source of physical labor. Douglas Blackmon told the tragic story of this iniquitous pattern in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which became the basis of this documentary directed by Sam Pollard and written by Sheila Curran Bernard.
Other race laws limited who Americans could marry. The Loving Story gives an intimate account of Richard and Mildred Loving, the white man and black woman whose union violated Virginia state law and became the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down antimiscegenation laws across the country. Using contemporaneous footage shot by the verité filmmaker Hope Ryden and photographs taken for LIFE magazine by Grey Villet, director Nancy Buirski developed a touching portrait of the plainspoken couple who stood up not only for justice but for the loving bond that had brought them together.
The film collection culminates in Freedom Riders, which tells the moving story of the civil rights effort to integrate interstate busing. Using Raymond Arsenault’s book of the same name and interviews with participants, this documentary from American Experience, directed and written by Stanley Nelson, powerfully depicts the politics, violence, and drama of this historic episode. Director Nelson made good on his ambition to be not just a reteller of stories but an investigator in his own right as he discovered never-before-seen footage of a Greyhound bus attacked by a mob and engulfed in smoke in Anniston, Alabama. It was these 1961 rides and the publicized violence against the young idealistic riders that caught the attention of the nation and mobilized a generation of nonviolent civil rights activists.
Image Credit: Corbis