Archive | December, 2012

Myrlie Evers-Williams and “Eyes on the Prize”

21 Dec
Myrlie Evers-Williams in "Eyes on the Prize"

Myrlie Evers-Williams in “Eyes on the Prize”

NPR recently reported that Myrlie Evers-Williams fulfilled a lifelong dream of performing at Carnegie Hall. Evers-Williams had studied classical music as a young girl but was denied an out-of-state scholarship to be a music major at Fisk University. She minored in music at Alcorn A&M College where she met her future husband, Medgar Evers. Although her life’s work was based around civil rights and her family, she continued to play music and has now reached a goal set by her grandmother who first encouraged her. Evers-Williams is a multi-talented woman who continues to inspire with her life and work.

Evers-Williams was interviewed for Eyes on the Prize and the whole interview can be read online as part of the Eyes on the Prize: The Complete Series transcript project.  In the interview she talks about her upbringing in segregated Vicksburg, Mississippi, how she met her first husband, civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, and their life and work together. Medgar Evers was the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi. He was involved in the Emmett Till case and helped witnesses in that trial leave the state of Mississippi after testifying. Evers was also involved in the James Meredith case and many other campaigns in Mississippi. Tragically Evers was assassinated on June 12, 1963 because of his position and work in the civil rights movement.

Myrlie Evers-Williams talked about their lives and the risks they knew they faced in her interview,

To be born black and to live in Mississippi was to say that your life wasn’t worth much, in that particular point in time. Medgar knew full well when he assumed the position of field director for the NAACP that there were going to be threats and that his life would possibly be taken from him. But certainly during the point of time when the economic boycotts were so successful, and we were having rallies every day and every night,  it became very evident that Medgar was a target because he was the leader. The whole mood there of white Mississippians was to eliminate Medgar Evers and the problem would have been solved. There would be no more uprisings…from the blacks in that community-how wrong they were. But of course, it effected Medgar’s and my life, and our children’s lives, profoundly. I must say that as any couple would argue, we had our arguments, but we also knew that whenever he left that house that we may never see each other again. That it was necessary for us to touch base any number of times by phone with each other, if no more than to reassure each other that the other was all right. We made a pact. Medgar and I said we would never part angry, and as a result of that we decided that regardless of how angry we were, we would always kiss each other before parting. And we did that, even at times when I think we perhaps would like to have walked away from each other in anger.

Darrell Evers, Myrlie and Medgar’s son was also interviewed for Eyes on the Prize and his transcript is available online as well.

Myrlie Evers-Williams was interviewed for the National Visionary Leadership Project. An excerpt from her interview where she talks about her later work as Chairman of the NAACP is available online.

Ten Freedom Summers

14 Dec

Jazz musician Wadada Leo Smith has released a work inspired by the civil rights movement which spans four disks. The nineteen compositions of this ambitious work were created over thirty-five years and Smith has said of the piece, “Ten Freedom Summers is one of my life’s defining works.”

Wadada Leo Smith has accomplished in musical form what Henry Hampton did in his documentaries Eyes on the Prize I and II. The piece linked above, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days,” is inspired by one of the defining moments from the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Other song titles reflect different pivotal moments also depicted in Eyes on the Prize: Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless, Black Church, Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Freedom Riders Ride, Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years’ Journey for Liberty and Justice, The Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957, Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy.

Those titles are not an exhaustive list as Smith also has compositions influenced and inspired by Dred Scott, Malcolm X (Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada), the Space Age, and the events on September 11, 2001. The titles reflect an epic historical journey whose guiding through-line is the civil rights movement, but the songs expand and weave into other major events and stories from the past thirty-five years.

The music on Ten Freedom Summers is played by an orchestral ensemble whose core is made up of Smith’s Golden Quartet/Quintet ( pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, drummer Susie Ibarra and/or drummer Pheeroan akLaaf). Additional players include the eight-piece ensemble Southwest Chamber Music and the entire work was conducted by Grammy Award-winner Jeff von der Schmidt.

The trumpeter and leader himself plays at the peak of his powers at age 70. Smith’s incorporation of the echoing atmospheric aesthetic and tone of Miles Davis in his sound over the last 15 years is now another part of his very own overall recognizable and distinct style. Smith’s sense of human spirituality serves as a grounding point in his approach of the controversial themes on Ten Freedom Summers. – All About Jazz,

Smith wrote the first piece of this work “Medgar Evers” in 1977 as an elegiac tribute to one of the fallen heroes of the movement in Mississippi. He continued composing other works till they evolved into the nineteen piece project. Speaking of the work and its place in his life, Smith has said,

“I was born in 1941 and grew up in segregated Mississippi and experienced the conditions which made it imperative for an activist movement for equality. I saw that stuff happening. Those are the moments that triggered this. It was in that same environment that I had my first dreams of becoming a composer and performer.” – Cuneiform Records

Judy Richardson: Civil Rights Activist and Filmmaker

7 Dec
SNCC sit-in protest in Atlanta. Photo by Danny Lyon.

Judy Richardson at a SNCC sit-in protest in Atlanta. Photo by Danny Lyon.

Blackside, Henry Hampton’s film production company not only produced many award-winning documentary series, but was also a place to foster the next generation of great documentary filmmakers. Judy Richardson was a Blackside alum who went on to make her mark as a film producer, editor, and lecturer.

When Richardson came to work with Henry Hampton in the late 1970s on an early version of Eyes on the Prize she brought a wealth of experience and knowledge to the production. Richardson attended Swarthmore College and became politically active there and eventually joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She worked in the SNCC offices in Atlanta, Georgia where she met and worked alongside James Forman and Julian Bond. She was involved with many of the major campaigns of the civil rights movement including Freedom Summer and SNCC’s efforts to register African Americans to vote in Lowndes County, Alabama.

Richardson began working with Hampton as a series researcher and content advisor for Eyes on the Prize I. Her first-hand knowledge of the events and people of the series combined with her research and producing skills helped make Eyes on the Prize a huge success.  She continued working for Blackside as an Associate Producer for Eyes on the Prize II and then as a co-producer for Malcolm X: Make It Plain (Blackside/ROJA Productions).

After working at Blackside, Richardson went on to make her own films with Northern Lights Productions including the 2008 documentary, Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre, 1968. This film tells the story of a little-known incident from 1968 in Orangeburg, South Carolina. During an attempt by students attempted to integrate the All Star Bowling Lane South Carolina Highway Patrol officers shot into a crowd of protesters. Three men were killed and at least thirty-one people were treated for injuries after the event. Another facet of Richardson’s work at Northern Lights Productions is museum exhibits and installations. She created an exhibit for the National Park Service’s Little Rock Nine Visitor’s Center, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (Cincinnati), the New York State Historical Society’s “Slavery in New York” exhibit, and the Paul Laurence Dunbar House (Dayton). (Source: The History Makers)

Richardson’s work extends beyond film into other projects. She recently co-edited Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts By Women in SNCCan anthology which gathers together the stories of women in SNCC. She is also a lively and exciting speaker who conducts workshops for teachers on how to teach the civil rights movement. The Henry Hampton Collection at the Film & Media Archive contains not just the films by Blackside but also a detailed and extensive record of the filmmakers’ process. Judy Richardson’s correspondence, research notes, and producer’s files are an important and vital part of that history. For more information, contact the Film & Media Archive.

Judy Richardson conducting a Teacher Training Workshop on "Eyes on the Prize" - Washington University

Judy Richardson conducting a Teacher Training Workshop on “Eyes on the Prize” – Washington University