At the Movies: Rising Up Down South

November 23rd, 2011

By Jan Barry

You Got To Move: Stories Of Change In The SouthThe 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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(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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3 Responses to “At the Movies: Rising Up Down South”

  1. Tom Carter |

    The Occupy demonstrators today may have picked up techniques and slogans from the civil rights demonstrations of the 60s and the Vietnam war demonstrations of the 60s/70s, but they’re missing a key component. They don’t know what they want, and they’re not even sure what they’re against. In a nutshell, they seem to be saying, “Everything sucks, so let’s destroy it all.”

    Perhaps the irony was most evident in a photo I saw somewhere (I don’t remember where) of an Occupy demonstrator sitting with his Apple laptop on his lap, busily pecking away. That he has such a miraculous device is a result of the efforts of all the things he presumably disdains — starting with his parents, whose basement he probably still lives in and who bought him the computer and going on to the company which made it, the highly paid geniuses who created it, the venture capitalists (Wall Street) who had the vision to risk investing in Apple, the banks that make loans to businesses that create computers and the networks they rely on, etc.

    I may not have always agreed in detail with the demonstrators of those earlier years, but I have profound respect for them. They knew what they were doing and their efforts played an important role in forcing change in the right direction. Not so much the relatively small bunches camping out in various cities today.

  2. Jan |

    Actually, Tom, the Occupy protesters aren’t saying “destroy it all.”
    What the mainstream media is not reporting is that the protesters are saying those who are making big bucks these days should pay more in taxes to help pay down the deficit and cover unfunded government programs (such as two wars). They’re also saying that Congress and Obama should get out of the business of catering to billionaires and listen to the concerns of the rest of America. I doubt that the news coverage you’ve seen included Al Myhill, a WWII vet from rural Seneca County, NY, who told his local weekly newspaper that he participated in Occupy Wall Street and why. I’ve run into vets at every protest I’ve checked out and they have plenty to say that’s seldom reported in the lala land of TV.

  3. Tom Carter |

    Granted, some of the Occupy folks are more articulate in voicing their concerns and demands than others. Most I’ve heard, however, mention only Wall Street greed, rich businessmen, and no jobs. What’s completely missing, apparently, is ideas about what should be done.

    I’m also concerned about the growing disparity between the wealth of the richest people in America and average people. However, that isn’t fixed by government seizing the wealth of some and giving it away to others. That does little more than embitter the wealthy and incentivize them to hide their wealth and discourage them from investing in productive economic activity that creates jobs. At the same time, it incentivizes many people to rely on government handouts rather than their own efforts, and it creates inevitable price inflation in areas like higher education and health care because very few people are paying their own way in life.

    The occupiers and many others on the left complain about the rich not paying their fair share. But what, exactly, is a fair share? The wealthiest Americans already pay most of total federal income taxes, and about half of all wage earners pay no federal income taxes at all (and some receive payments from income taxes while paying nothing). Is that fair by any rational measure? I don’t care if the Bush tax cuts are eliminated, even if just for the rich (however that’s defined). The truth is, though, that seizing almost all of their income wouldn’t solve the problem of the huge amount of spending in recent years.

    What we have to do is increase revenue through closing loopholes and raising taxes within reasonable limits while significantly reducing spending, especially in the huge entitlement areas. That, along with reasonable regulation and predictable economic policy, will result in increased investment and more jobs. The problem of income inequality is not the government’s business; if left alone, shareholders and the public in general can exert pressure on businesses and Wall Street to control executive compensation. If that doesn’t happen, then so what — as long as the economy improves and unemployment decreases, everyone benefits.

    Economies — and nations — don’t prosper by seizing the wealth of a few and redistributing it to the many. The facts of history from the Pilgrims to the Soviets have proven this many times over. Occupiers may not understand this because they’ve never been taught the facts.

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