Creating Technology for Social Change

Judy Richardson on the Local Organizing that Produced the Civil Rights Movement

This is a writeup of our Civic Lunch event today. Come join us next week!

Judy RichardsonSarah Wolzin of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies department introduces Judy Richardson, one of the producers of the award-winning Eyes on the Prize documentary series, a history of the Civil Rights movement. Richardson went on to make a series of influential African American historical docmentaries. Her work on films was based in part on her history as an activist, which began with her involvement, as a college student, with SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, one of the major organizations that built the American Civil Rights Movement. Her work creating change through media has included founding Drum and Spear in Washington, DC, the largest African American bookstore in the US.

Judy begins by reminding us that films, like other forms of media, influence how we see ourselves, the world, and each other. Film can change the narrative of how we view history. She offers an example from her own, personal history. Judy grew up in Tarrytown, NY, 45 miles north of New York City, in the Hudson Valley. It was a one-factory town. Her father organized the United Autoworkers Local, and died when she was 7 years old, while working on the auto line. Her mother, now a single parent, managed to send Judy to Swarthmore College, and her sister to Bennington College.

Judy tells us that her mother never spoke about race. But she did talk about going to see Birth of a Nation, the infamous pro-Ku Klux Klan film directed by D. W. Griffith. When her mother left the theatre on that day in 1915, she was so ashamed, she couldn’t hold her head up. Judy explains that the film was used as a vehicle to renew the Klan, portraying the racist organization as protectors of white people against ravaging former slaves. Woodrow Wilson premiered it at the White House, which played into his overall efforts in support of institutional segregation. The film is a political document – it focused on the “protection” offered by the Klan, rather than all of the progress made under Reconstruction.

Judy worries that film students are introduced to Birth of a Nation as an example of new filmaking techniques and technologies, but they are rarely introduced to the historical context. People say, “It’s just a movie. Why take it seriously?” Judy takes the cultural power of media seriously (unless it’s a comedy).

Eyes on the Prize, about the Civil Rights movement, was nominated for an Academy Award, won several Emmies, and was top-rated PBS programming before Ken Burns’s Civil War. From the start of productionin 1978, Blackside Media held to a strict journalistic regimine during production, carefully fact-checking each document, interview, and piece of narration in the piece. Working out of the South End of Boston, Blackside hired Judy because she had come from the student movement of SNCC, and could get civil rights activists to talk to them.

At the time, all of the research Judy read about the civil rights movement focused on Dr. King – with no mention of the existing landscape of movement leaders that existed. Simple Justice was the only book Judy could find that reflected that the Civil Rights movement emerged from local leaders and local organization.
Eyes on the Prize was an attempt not just to make a compelling documentary, but to change civil rights movement scholarship and take seriously the broad nature of the movement. “When people saw ‘Eyes,’ they saw people like themselves who were the change agents in the film. They saw students and clergy and young people, not just movement leaders.” Judy stresses this important point: “If people don’t know that the hallowed movement leaders were exactly like the people in this room, just like us, then we don’t know that we can do it again, and the bad guys win.”

She shares an (edited) clip from Eyes about the Montgomoery bus boycott. The Mongtomery boycott is sometimes understood as: “Rosa Parks sat down, Dr. King stood up, and then everything was fine. What people don’t realize is that Dr. King was coming into an already-organized community.” The clip shares stories of individuals who refused to sit in the back of the bus before Rosa Parks took her historic stance. The leaders in Montgomery had strategized with the existing core of activists to organize the bus boycott well in advance, and the boycott was built on the back of an existing movement.

The bus boycott involved a complex system of the latest technologies: private cars, payphones, and phone trees. Thousands of people walked to work each day. The organizers weren’t sure how widespread the boycott would be, but it turned out that black people in Montgomery had been mistreated, in thousands of different ways, and they were tired of it. And the movement got support outside of the black community: a number of white women began providing rides to their maids, who weren’t otherwise able to get to work. When men told them to stop offering rides, the white women responded that they would, as soon as the men started doing the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and childcare.

“For history to be effective, it has to be interesting: a good story well told,” Judy tells us. A production like Eyes on the Prize is based on well-researched facts, but story-telling is key in ensuring it reaches an audience. 

Judy shares a memo from 1979 about titling the series. The original title was “America, We Loved You Madly,” a reference to the standard closing line of Duke Ellington’s performances. Henry Hampton, the founder of Blackside, loved the title…though he may have been the only one. Judy hated the title, and lobbied others at Blackside to try another name. She offered a memo proposing alternative titles, all drawn from freedom songs. Her preferred option, “We placed our trust in the Lord… and they beat the shit out of us anyway,” was passed over.

Sarah Wolotzin reminds us that the video was significant not just for its content; it was important that African Americans were making the films, and that the voices of ordinary people were showcased, which was an important shift for PBS-style documentaries. Judy notes another change, which was that academics advised on the content of the film, but were not featured on-screen.

“We held school,” Judy tells us, talking to academics, doing homework, reading academic literature on the movement. And being involved with the project changed the lives of the staff who were involved, launching many of the African American staff involved with the project into media careers.

Tyler Bridges, a Nieman Fellow and journalist in Louisiana, comments on the power of focusing on ordinary people, noting that it’s a powerful way Judy has given recognition to the people behind the movement. Judy praises these members of the Civic Rights movement again, pointing out how organizing occurred before the movement was a nationwide phenomenon. One of the people profiled in Eyes brought 15,000 African Americans to Mississippi to talk about voter rights as early as 1950. The movement most of us have heard of built on these earlier movements.

Ethan Zuckerman notes that many of the people attending the talk are interested in media as a force for change. It’s getting incredibly easy to make moving images and spread them around. This puts forth all sorts of challenges associated with wading through all of this content and generating strong narratives.

Judy noted that one of her concerns is about the flourishing of amateur media is accuracy. The Eyes on the Prize style of storytelling is bottom-up, not top-down. It focuses on groups like the young as change-agents. But it’s rigorously grounded in the facts of what happened on the ground.

She contrasts this way of working with movies like Mississippi Burning which represent the popular narrative around the civil rights movement. Mississippi Burning is fundamentally flawed, Judy argues, because it portrays the FBI as the heroes, rather than the villains. “You don’t take dramatic license that far. It would be like making a film about World War II, and honoring the Vichy government collaborators, not the French Resistance.” Gorgeous, compelling pieces of content like Mississippi Burning present a challenge for documentarians: people still watch that film, while Eyes on the Prize isn’t nearly as widely watched.

People assume that movements are spontaenous and unplanned. Eyes on the Prize showed that the Civil Rights movement was meticulously planned by intelligent people considering the consequences of their actions. The movement wasn’t just about desegregating public facilities. It also focused on voter registration (not geting killed for exercising the right to vote), education inequity, and economic rights. Congressman John Lewis’s speech on behalf of SNCC at the 1963 Freedom March in Washington, DC, opened with a line establishing the economic demands of the movement, for jobs and helping the homeless and a living wage.

Judy shared another clip from Eyes on the Prize focused on economic justice. Martin Luther King’s Poor Peoples’ Campaign recruited from all races, bringing thousands to Washington to force the government, through nonviolent disobedience, to respond to the plight of its citizens. King understood that a movement had to deliver, and they had on civil rights, but 1967 was the time to deliver on making a living. Many were unsure about a “poor peoples’ movement” – whether it would deliver results in the short term and provide enough of an initial success to build on. Dr. King would usually let the team argue it out, sometimes provoking people to disagree with each other, ultimately bringing them together around the idea that now that progress had been made on civil rights, now was the time for a radical redistribution of economic power.

Judy shared this clip with a group of students, talking about economic rights and equity. One student came up afterwards and apologized, because she thought all the movement people had sold out and become stock brokers, and hadn’t realized that the struggle continued.

Sasha Costanza-Chock: It is amazing how you’re sharing clips recorded by members of the movement, playing the role of storyteller, and pooling media elements from various places in the movement. We talk about that a lot now, with digital media being participatory. The assumption that this means the story magically gets told is false. We still need the storytellers to effectively narrate the movement. This won’t ever go away.

Judy responds that there is a disconnect between the long-form documentarians and the new media folks. Some people do both, but there aren’t that many. The footage needs to be there for effective storytelling, otherwise you have to delve into re-creation, which most of “us” don’t like.

Another question: What was the process of moving from “celebrity MLK”, to the Eyes on the Prize narrative?
Judy: Henry Hampton already understood the bottom-up, real voices, before Judy joined the team. He had gone down to the Selma march, and seen the beatings of Bloody Sunday. That was the environment they were working within. The treatments written by the producers were reviewed for the story they were telling. Judy will go into interviews with a plan, a logical series of questions. She knows it will change while editing, but the planning is critical. She quotes a friend “Documentary film, at its best, is very much like the [civil rights] movement. It gets its ideas from everywhere. Feedback is encouraged from everyone.”

Judy shares a last clip, from the PBS film Scarred Justice. This 1968 Orangeburg massacre ends with 3 black students being shot on their own campus by white State Troopers. This is years before the four white students killed at Kent State. Nobody knows this story.

The clip documents the daily situation for the majority black population, leading up to the massacre. A small group of students sought to desegregate a local bowling alley, one of the last remaining segregated local institutions. The crowd grew to 300, at which point the fire department was called. Fire hoses had frequently been used to attack nonviolent protesters. The students taunted the firemen by lighting matches, at which point the police began beating them with clubs, splitting heads and ripping earrings out of a girl’s ear.

Judy describes how they premeired Scarred Justice at the 43th annual commemeration of the massacre. Families of the students were there, among other poeple that experienced it, and the film received a standing ovation. Before the film, most white people in town believed that the police response was appropriate. Many of the black people in town thought that while the kids might have charged the police, the police’s response was disproportionate. The film featured interviews with reputable witnesses establishing that the kids never charged the police, changing the popular narrative and conceptions about the massacre. The research showed that almost all the students were short in the back and the side, while fleeing, and on their own campus, not while marauding the town.

Jessica Baumgart thanks Judy because she grew up within an hour’s drive of Orangeburg, and had never heard of the Orangeburg Massacre. She wonders whether this is simply a fact that high school history lessons often end with World War II. Judy notes that there’s a need to ensure that American history includes telling the story of the Civil Rights movement.

Leo: Some stories are about sharing facts and awareness, others are about inciting action. What is needed to tell a story to foster some specific action?

Judy: During teacher training she discusses the fact that these were student activists. The film is the base, but how you use it is the key. It is up to the people using the films to take it to the next level.

Q: The films are also about organizing. It might be an interesting exercise to discuss how social media might have been used in these contexts.

Q: There is a certainly psychology to being in a crowd, in a physical space with other people. The juxtoposition of online groups and being in a physical space together.

Judy: Nothing can replace being in a group of people. There is just something different. When she went to New York to stop Bush from dropping bombs, she felt like part of a mass that could change something.

Sasha: There is a false perception that young people are only fighting for social change online. The National Domestic Worker’s Alliance used the popularity of the film The Help to do face-to-face movement building to win labor rights for domestic workers. How can movements leverage the entertainment films that are so popular?

Judy: Judy shares the Freedom Song film in her teacher trainings, a dramatic film. This film is all based on fact, about the movement in Macone, Mississippi. This can start a discussion of all the same topics as Eyes on the Prize.

Andrew: I grew up with Eyes on the Prize as the lens for history. What are the stories now that you want to tell?

Judy: I’m busy! I’d love to see something around the economic issues. You’d have the find the story. Modern voter suppression is another one.

This post was written with Rahul Bhargava and Ethan Zuckerman. Updated to correct the Ken Burns series referenced and to clarify perceptions of the police response after the massacre.