Archive | June, 2013

The Voting Rights Act and “Eyes on the Prize”

28 Jun
John Lewis in "Eyes on the Prize"

John Lewis in “Eyes on the Prize”

This week the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act by ruling that Section 4 was no longer valid. Section 4 was originally created to eliminate the use of an arbitrary “test or device” that often took the form of a literacy test or a character reference required in order to register to vote.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Johnson after a long struggle on the part of civil rights activists to address this issue. President Johnson had previous signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He signed the second 1965 act because he felt the previous one did not resolve all voting rights problems in the Southern States.

Many interviewees in Eyes on the Prize were deeply involved in the struggle to gain voting rights for African Americans. Prior to the act registering to vote was a complicated, byzantine process involving literacy tests or having someone vouch for your character. In the end whether a person was able to register to vote or not was dependent on the whims and decisions of the individuals who were registering people in that area. The Voting Rights Act created federal oversight of elections administration across the country to prevent this unfair and arbitrary process.

Amelia Boynton Robinson and her husband became involved in helping people to register to vote in Selma, Alabama. In her interview she describes the hurdles African Americans had to overcome to register to vote,

During the time before the civil rights movement started, which was about thirty years, between twenty-five and thirty years, before the whole country became interested and registration and voting for the more downtrodden people, my husband and I decided that we were going to help people to register. At that time, they had two pages to fill out. And these two pages were questions that were pretty hard for the average person to fill out. And it was terribly hard for those who were illiterate. We had more illiteracy in this county than they had in most counties throughout the state, or in any other state, but we would teach them how to fill these blanks out. We could not do it by coming in the open and doing it, so we started with the people with whom we worked who were the rural people. My husband as a county agent, and I as a home demonstration agent would have meetings in the rural churches, and even in the homes…At that time, my husband was a registered voter and a voucher. Each person that came down to register had to have a voucher with him.

My husband was very, one of the very few people who was given the opportunity to bring people down there, and as he brought them down…that is he was supposed to tell that he knew these people. He knew where they lived, he knew their ages, or around their ages. He knew that they were, during their lifetime, they were people who had contributed, whatever they could to the, for the benefit of the city, or the county. And if he could tell all of that, saying that they were good Negroes, as it was said, that they would consider letting them become a registered voter. These people were known as vouchers…When he began to bring three and four people at a time, then the registrar became very much upset about [sic] and said, “You’re bringing too many people down here to register, why is it you’re bringing these people down here? We have been registering and voting for them all the time, now, you are doing the wrong thing by bringing these large numbers of black people to register and vote.” So he said, “They would like to be citizens.”

Interview with Amelia Boynton Robinson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 6, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Representative John Lewis, who was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was heavily involved in voting rights efforts. In his interview he describes being in Selma on what became known as “Freedom Day” in 1963,

We had made a commitment. We felt we had an obligation, and really a mandate to go to Selma where only about 2.1 percent of the black people of voting age were registered to vote. And on this particular day, hundreds of blacks lined up and stood at the county courthouse for most of the day and at the end of the day only about five people had made it in to take the so-called literacy tests. I can never forget that day. We met hostile law enforcement officials, Sheriff Clark and others stood there, and later some of us were arrested. But mostly elderly black men and women stood there all day in line and as several people from the outside observed–James Baldwin,  Professor Howard Zinn, a historian, and others–but it was the turning point for the right to vote.

I can never forget Selma. Selma…in my estimation one of the finest hours in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. The March on Washington we left the front line, we left the battlefield and went to Washington. We went to the seat of the national government to, to petition. But in Selma we had a response from the American people. People came there–the days after Bloody Sunday there was demonstration, nonviolent protest in more than 80 major cities in America. People didn’t like what they saw happening there. There was a sense that we had to do something, that we had to do it now. We literally, in my estimation, wrote the Voting Rights Act with our blood and with our feet, on the streets of Selma, Alabama and the Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery. See, we had been told by President Johnson a few months earlier, that it was impossible, it would just be impossible to get another Civil Rights Act, we had just signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Dr. King said, “We will write it.” And he literally brought the moral forces of to Selma and he used it to educate the American community and get a President and a Congress to say yes when they probably had the desire to say no.

Interview with John Lewis, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 5, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Inside the Film & Media Archive – Film Winding

21 Jun

When a Film Archive receives a collection it may have been stored in less-than-ideal conditions. The storage cans might be rusty and the film might be on projection reels. A projection reel is not ideal for long-term storage so one of the first steps in handling film is to remove it from decaying cans and wind it onto an archival film core. The newly wound film will then be placed in a polypropylene can to protect the film. When a film is wound on a core, it should be wound with an even tension and the edges of the film should be even.

Here, Irene Taylor, Film and Media Cataloging and Preservation Archivist, handles a film from the Harry Wald Collection. The film is removed from its rusty storage can, wound off the projection reel onto a film core. The last photo shows the end result with an evenly wound film ready to go into its new can. The Film Preservation Guide published by the National Film Preservation Foundation has detailed information on how to handle, wind, and inspect film.

Irene Taylor, Film and Media Cataloging and Preservation Archivist. Photos by Alison Carrick.

Irene Taylor, Film and Media Cataloging and Preservation Archivist winds a print from the Harry Wald Collection onto a new film core. Photos by Alison Carrick.

Remembering Medgar Evers

14 Jun
Myrlie Evers-Williams in "Eyes on the Prize"

Myrlie Evers-Williams in “Eyes on the Prize”

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers. Evers, a civil rights activist and the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, organized voter registration drives and boycotts in Jackson, Mississippi to fight the segregated system existing at that time. He was gunned down in front of his home on June 12, 1963. The man responsible for his murder, Byron De La Beckwith, was finally convicted of the crime in 1994.

Blackside devoted a segment of “Eyes on the Prize” to Evers’ story, “Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964),” that includes original interview footage with Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar’s widow.

Their son, Darrell Evers was also interviewed and both of these interviews are available in full online as part of the Eyes on the Prize Interviews: The Complete Series digital collection resource.

In her interview Myrlie Evers-Williams talks about her background, growing up in segregated Mississippi, meeting Medgar at college, and their life together.

Medgar Evers was the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi when Emmett Till was murdered and helped witnesses in that trial leave the state of Mississippi after testifying. Evers-Williams describes his role in that case,

Medgar played a very important role, I feel, in the Emmett Till case. As field secretary for the NAACP a part of his responsibility was to investigate murders. He and Amzie Moore and a few others dressed as sharecroppers, would change cars to trucks and what-not, go on the plantations, ask people, go into the communities and ask people information about the murderers or the accused murderers—what had happened—of certainly making contact with the local officials and getting the press out. And it was a very dangerous job at that particular time. Medgar was also responsible not only for finding witnesses but helping to get them out of town. And I remember one very distinct case where he used a casket, and put a person in a casket…in conjunction with a mortuary, and got the person out of town. Out of town, out of the state, across the border, to Tennessee, and then north.

Interview with Myrlie Evers , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 27, 1985 for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Shortly after Medgar Evers’ death, Byron De La Beckwith, whose fingerprints were found on the high-powered rifle used to kill Evers and who was seen near the crime scene that night, was arrested and charged with the crime.  In 1964 there were two trials in the case but both ended in hung juries. At the time of the Eyes on the Prize interview, De La Beckwith was still a free man, and Evers-Williams talked about the first two trials,

Two trials were held for the accused assassin of Medgar; both ended in hung juries. And the whole case was very interesting insomuch as the way the accused killer was treated. He had a large cell that was open for him to come and go as he wanted to. He had television sets. He had typewriters. He had all, almost all, of the comforts of home. This man was also accorded a major parade along the route of the highway on his way home. People had banners that were waved, welcoming the hero. The accused killer also made a statement to the press that he was glad to have gotten rid of varmints. After the—oh, and I must say too, that the then-governor, Ross Barnett, actually made a visit to the accused during the trial, the first trial, and walked in the door when I was on the witness stand, stood, looked at me, turned and went over to the accused killer, sat down, shook his hand, said some remarks, and got up and went out. Also, the accused killer, after the second trial, ran for Lieutenant Governor of the state of Mississippi, and he stated that he was doing this to show his appreciation to the people of Mississippi for what they had given, the support that they had given him while he was incarcerated. Interestingly enough, the man who ran for, Governor was the prosecuting attorney.

It says a couple of things to me and I had mixed emotions about it all. One was that this was the first time in the state of Mississippi that a white man had ever been brought to trial for the murder of a black, and a black man. That was a step forward, a very small one, but a step forward. However, the fact that there were two trials, that this man was treated as a hero, and that everything was dropped, still said to me at that time—and I’m not sure whether it isn’t even at this day in time—that black is black. That perhaps the justice that is accorded other ethnic groups in the United States, and certainly Mississippi, is still not accorded that of blacks. We’re still fighting for first-class citizenship whether it be in life, or whether it be in death.

Interview with Myrlie Evers , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 27, 1985 for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Myrlie Evers-Williams fought for many years to get the case re-opened, and when new evidence came to light about jury tampering and official misconduct in the first two trials, the case was reopened.  In 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the murder of Medgar Evers. De La Beckwith remained in jail until his death in 2001.

Will Campbell, civil rights activist and minister, dies at 88

6 Jun

Image from Interview with Reverend Will Campbell, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 3, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965)

Reverend Will D. Campbell, an unconventional minister at odds with his native segregated South, has died at age 88. Campbell, the son of a farmer, was born in Mississippi and became an ordained minister when he was 17.  He served in the Army during World War II, and went on to attend various universities including Tulane University and Yale Divinity School.

His pastoral career was derailed by his opposition of segregation and his dedication to civil rights. A position as University Chaplain at the University of Mississippi ended with death threats towards Campbell because of his views. According to John Lewis, Campbell was fired because he played ping-pong with an African American janitor.

After leaving the University of Mississippi, Campbell moved to Nashville. From then on, he was involved in almost every major campaign in the civil rights movement, beginning with the student sit-ins in Nashville, the Little Rock school integration crisis in 1957, the Freedom Rides, the March from Selma to Montgomery, and many others. Campbell was also invited by Martin Luther King, Jr. to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Campbell was interviewed for the Blackside’s landmark series on the  civil right movement, Eyes on the Prize. In his interview he talked about the events surrounding the sit-ins in Nashville,

Mr. Z. Alexander Looby, who was a great man, a black attorney, conservative politically, a Lincoln Republican of many years–no  one could accuse him of being a, a wild eyed radical politically–and when his house was bombed or dynamited, I think it, it solidified especially the black community, and it enraged a segment of the white community in a fashion that nothing else had.There was the mass march to City Hall and there was a white Mayor who came out there and who with considerable prodding from that brilliant and beautiful leader named Diane Nash, who kept pushing him, “But, Mr. Mayor, you are our Mayor. Sir, do you think that segregation is morally defendable?” And he eventually had to say, I do not. Now that, in my judgment, was the turning point. That encounter was a turning point.

Interview with Reverend Will Campbell, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 3, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Campbell went on to be involved in the protests against the Vietnam War. He also was the author of several books, including a memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly (1977) which was a National Book Award Finalist.