Tag Archives: voter registration

The Jack Willis Collection

17 Dec

Film & Media Archive acquires materials of civil rights documentarian Jack Willis

Filmmaker Jack Willis

Filmmaker Jack Willis at Washington University

In 2014 the Washington University Film & Media Archive acquired the collection of prolific documentary filmmaker and producer Jack Willis. The Jack Willis Collection contains film, video, and manuscript material from original, independent productions by Willis. His films tackle racism, poverty, and environmental issues and show his affinity for what he called “unheard voices, unserved voices.”

A native of Milwaukee, Willis was born in 1935. He grew up in Los Angeles and attended UCLA. He got his start in television as an associate producer for David Susskind’s interview show, Open End. Many of the guests on the program were civil rights leaders who had become prominent by the early 1960s. A meeting with James Forman, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led Willis to travel to Mississippi to document the voter registration efforts of the SNCC in 1963 leading up to Freedom Summer. The film that resulted, The Streets of Greenwood (1963), was Willis’ first independent project and one of the most important documentaries of the period. Willis returned to the South to film Lay My Burden Down (1966), which chronicled the lives of tenant farmers in Selma, Alabama a year after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Throughout the 1960s, he wrote, directed, and produced a number of documentaries, including Every Seventh Child (1967), Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People (1968), and Hard Times in the Country (1969). During these years, as he documented the struggle for civil rights, Willis had many hostile encounters with local authority figures, including one with Sherriff Jim Clark in Selma, Alabama.

Between 1966 and 1971, Willis produced a diverse range of documentaries for National Education Television, a forerunner of PBS. He continued developing and producing television programs such as the The 51st State, which ran on WNET in New York from 1972 to 1976. Winner of four Emmy Awards, The 51st State was a groundbreaking news program that often served as a platform for heated debates between audience members and local politicians. Willis also served as co-executive producer of The Great American Dream Machine, a satirical news program that aired on PBS from 1971 to 1973. The show featured Albert Brooks, Chevy Chase, and humorist Marshall Efron and won two Emmy Awards. Of his television work, Willis said, “I wanted to be involved in programming that was more informative and entertaining, to try to reach more people.”

In 1970, a surfing accident left Willis paralyzed from the neck down, but he regained mobility after six months of physical therapy and eventually returned to work. He co-wrote and co-produced the documentary Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang (1979), which investigated the government concealment of health risks connected to radiation and the testing of atomic bombs in the 1950s. The film won an Emmy Award, a George Polk Award, and a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award.

From 1978 to 1980, in preparation for a documentary, Willis conducted interviews with Rosa Parks, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, Ella Baker, and other people who had been deeply involved in the civil rights movement. The project was never completed, and the Jack Willis Collection contains more than 81 original interviews that have never been seen publicly.

The Film & Media Archive also holds the Henry Hampton Collection. Hampton was an acclaimed documentary filmmaker whose many projects included the 14-part television series Eyes on the Prize, which chronicled the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. The addition of the Jack Willis Collection to the archive represents a significant expansion of the unique and original material relating to the civil rights movement that is housed at the Washington University Libraries.

 

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A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer [director’s cut]

31 Oct

Director, Cinematographer, Editor: Richard Beymer
Producers: Richard Beymer and Council of Federated Organization Film (COFO). Copyright © 1964 Richard Beymer. All rights reserved.

A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer

Washington University Film & Media Archive is excited to make Richard Beymer’s A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer [director’s cut] available in full to the public. As part of a National Film Preservation Foundation Grant (NFPF) awarded this year to the Film & Media Archive, the original version is currently undergoing preservation.  Once the preservation work is complete the original version will be available for scholars and fans.   Thanks to the generosity of the filmmaker, the director’s cut is currently available to view.

Filmed in 1964 during the Mississippi Summer Project, a campaign to register black voters, provide educational opportunities, and build the movement for integration, Beymer’s film is unique as he was one of the few filmmakers working side-by-side with the activists and volunteers who made up the massive movement that was Freedom Summer.  In 1964, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella group of civil rights organizations that included SNCC working in Mississippi, issued a call for volunteers, and nearly 1,000 responded. After receiving training, the volunteers, mostly white, northern college students and recent graduates, joined the existing group of predominantly black activists. But it wasn’t just students who heeded to call to come to Mississippi that summer.

After gaining notice in films such as The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Richard Beymer became a major star after appearing in West Side Story in 1961. He continued to work in Hollywood but was riveted by the news reports coming out of the South and Mississippi during the turbulent years of the early sixties. After being challenged to do something about his convictions by his agent during a cross-country trip to New York, Beymer decided to go to Mississippi during Freedom Summer.

At that time the I.F. Stone Weekly was an independent publication that covered the activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Since SNCC was one of the main organizers of the Mississippi Summer Project Beymer contacted I.F. Stone, the journalist and publisher responsible for the newsletter, and asked on advice on how to get to Mississippi. Stone’s advice, “You get in your car and drive to Mississippi,” while practical did not provide much detail on how to make contacts or find activists. When Beymer arrived in Mississippi, he asked people in town where the closest SNCC office near Jackson, Mississippi was. When he found the office, he explained his presence by saying, “I want to be part of this.” A SNCC volunteer handed him a broom and said, “Fine. There’s a broom, you can start with that.”

After a few days, Beymer attended an out-of-state orientation and it was during this time that the idea of making a film came to him. He had done a lot of still photography and had wanted to make a film before and proposed the idea to the organizers of a piece that could be shown to volunteers so they would have some idea of what they were getting into. They agreed and Beymer returned to Mississippi armed with a 16mm Bolex camera and a supply of black and white 16mm film.

Group photo of students and volunteers with Richard Beymer at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964

Group photo of students and volunteers with Richard Beymer at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964, © Richard Beymer Collection.

During the summer, Beymer worked doing voter registration, canvassed neighborhoods, and in between doing this work filmed the daily lives and activities of the volunteers and the local people and children. He explained that he had his camera with him at all times and,”When I saw something that struck me, I had it there ready to go. I was making a film of my experience, wherever it took me.”

“I had no idea what I was getting into. Until you walk into it, you don’t know all of that.” — Richard Beymer

Speaking of the dangers of doing the work SNCC was engaged, Beymer said, “We were out in the boonies. It was kind of scary and where are you going to go–to the police? Anyone could have been killed at any time.”

Beymer describes the time as both positive and negative. Within the world of the volunteers and the African-American Mississippians, “We ate together, we went to these crummy little bars, we were all together there, it was great.” But he was shocked by the conditions that existed for black Mississippians at that time and that brutal poverty is captured in the film.

In addition to the poverty, the threat of racist violence haunted Freedom Summer from the beginning. On June 21, one week after the first volunteers arrived for training, three activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, disappeared. The FBI conducted a massive search and found their corpses on August 4. All of the work the volunteers engaged in was done with the threat of something similar happening to them hanging over their heads.

Beymer didn’t develop the film until he returned to Los Angeles at the end of the summer, and then spent the next year editing. The footage Beymer captured has a naturalistic, spontaneous quality that evokes cinema vérité techniques at times. The impact of this footage showing the work of Mississippi volunteers and the local people who had not been given an opportunity to share their stories has carried through till the present day. As a result, other documentary filmmakers frequently seek his footage. Most recently, filmmaker Stanley Nelson relied heavily on A Regular Bouquet when completing his film, Freedom Summer, which premiered in June 2014 on PBS and footage from Beymer’s film appeared in Henry Hampton’s seminal documentary series, Eyes on the Prize (1987), episode five, Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964).

Participants at an organizational meeting during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964.  © Richard Beymer Collection.

Participants at an organizational meeting during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © Richard Beymer Collection.

A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer is part of the Richard Beymer Collection at the Film & Media Archive. In addition to the film elements of A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer, and a collection of black and white photographs that were shot during filming, the collection contains other titles by Beymer including The Innerview, Point of Departure and Perfect Movies. It also includes a taping of part of show 3 of Midnight Snacks by Andy Kaufman on which Richard Beymer appeared.

* Note: Quotes for this article are from a telephone interview with Richard Beymer, from August 18, 2014.

Remembering Mississippi Freedom Summer

28 Aug
Group photo of students and volunteers with Richard Beymer at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © The Richard Beymer Collection.

Group photo of students and volunteers with Richard Beymer at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © The Richard Beymer Collection.

Remembering Mississippi Freedom Summer

An exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer is now on view in Olin Library, Gingko Room.

Remembering Mississippi Freedom Summer highlights primary source materials from the Washington University Libraries Film & Media Archive’s newly acquired Richard Beymer Collection and inaugural Henry Hampton Collection.The exhibit also celebrates the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) grant awarded to the Film & Media Archive in 2014 to preserve Beymer’s documentary A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer.

Best known for his roles as “Tony” in the film adaption of West Side Story (1961) and “Ben Horne” in David Lynch’s series Twin Peaks (1990-1991), actor Richard Beymer’s documentary film, A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer (1964) offers a rare portrait of segregated Mississippi during this historically significant time in American History. Beymer was one of the few filmmakers to spend significant time working with Freedom Summer volunteers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As a result, other documentary filmmakers frequently seek his footage. Most recently, filmmaker Stanley Nelson relied heavily on A Regular Bouquet when completing his film, Freedom Summer, which premiered in June 2014 on PBS. Beymer’s footage was also included in Henry Hampton’s seminal documentary series, Eyes on the Prize (1987). Featured in episode five, Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964) Hampton combined stock footage and first-hand accounts to retell the events of Freedom Summer.

Portrait of three boys during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964.  © The Richard Beymer Collection.

Portrait of three boys during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964.  © The Richard Beymer Collection.

 

In 1964, civil rights activists launched Freedom Summer, a project in Mississippi to register black voters, provide educational opportunities, and build the movement for integration. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella group of civil rights organizations that included SNCC working in Mississippi, issued a call for volunteers, and nearly 1,000 responded. After receiving training, the volunteers, mostly white, northern college students and recent graduates, joined the existing group of predominantly black activists.

Richard Beymer set out to film these activities in order to create a training tool for COFO’s future volunteers.  Comprised of testimonials from volunteers and Black Mississippi residents, A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer consists of rare and historically significant primary source depictions of segregated Mississippi against the backdrop of violent opposition. The film also includes footage of Freedom Schools, which provided instruction to over 3,000 black students. The schools directly challenged Mississippi’s segregated education system by offering instruction on black history and constitutional rights. Portraying the intimate relationship between teacher and student, the film includes interviews, class instruction, sing-alongs, and a discussion of the student-written Pleasant Green Magazine

Students at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © The Richard Beymer Collection.

Students at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © The Richard Beymer Collection.

The threat of racist violence haunted Freedom Summer from the beginning. On June 21, one week after the first volunteers arrived for training, three activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, disappeared. The FBI conducted a massive search and found their corpses on August 4. Despite the threat of violence, Freedom Summer volunteers engaged in door-to-door voter-registration efforts. Beymer filmed the registration drive and interviewed participants. One resident discussed the economic tactics used by segregationists: “When you put ‘By whom are you employed’ [on the application form], you’re fired by the time you get back home.” Mississippi officials rejected the vast majority of voter-registration applications submitted by African-American residents that summer. But the events of Freedom Summer increased public support for new civil rights legislation, leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

When Henry Hampton made Eyes on the Prize one of his main goals was to include the voices of people who had not been recorded or widely recognized before. Many local activists in remote areas of Mississippi who had organized early on to gain voting rights, often at great risk, were featured in the episode Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964). Hampton interviewed Robert Moses and Amize Moore, two of the main architects and planners of Freedom Summer, Unita Blackwell, local activist who became one of the delegates in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), Casey and Tom Hayen, Freedom Summer volunteers, and Myrlie Evers, civil rights activist and widow of slain Mississippi leader Medgar Evers. Hampton also interviewed segregations, including William Simmons, a member of the Citizens’ Council—a pro-segregation organization that operated in Mississippi—to show what the prevailing political climate was like in Mississippi in 1964 and what the Freedom Summer volunteers had to combat. By interviewing people from both sides of the issue, Hampton brought a multifaceted portrait of Mississippi to viewers.

Together A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer and Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964) create a complex portrait of life in Mississippi during Freedom Summer and an understanding of the social and political pressures that existed during this volatile period in our nation’s history.

 

 

“A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer” to be preserved with National Film Foundation Preservation Grant

27 Jun
Photo from the Richard Beymer Collection.  © Richard Beymer

A young man attends a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © Richard Beymer.

Washington University Film & Media Archive is excited to announce that we have received a National Film Preservation Foundation Grant (NFPF) to preserve Richard Beymer’s documentary A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer. Beymer, an actor and filmmaker, traveled to Mississippi in 1964 to document the efforts of voter registration activists and the daily life of African American Mississippians. Beymer shot the film in black and white with a 16mm Bolex camera and captured unique footage of the daily life of children attending what were called Freedom schools-alternate schools set up by voter registration activists-as well as the political activity and the violent response from segregationists in Mississippi. “A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer” has become a touchstone and primary source for Freedom Summer, and footage from it attracted the attention of filmmakers and has been reproduced in many documentaries, including “Eyes on the Prize,” and more recently in Stanley Nelson’s “Freedom Summer.”

In a recent New York Times article, Beymer talked about his time in Mississippi during that turbulent, violent time,

“I was just filming everything that appealed to me,” Mr. Beymer, now 75, said in a telephone interview from his home in Fairfield, Iowa. “The only audience I had in mind, I suppose, was the next generation of people who came down here, so they could see what they were getting into. That gave me total leeway to just do my experience.”

The film used animation, photographs, black and white footage along with voice-over interviews with volunteers and African Americans residents who were organizing on multiple levels. The striking black and white footage shot by Beymer is lyrical and shows the unguarded moments of  the children who attended the Freedom Schools and the volunteers who had come down from the North. Often showing joyful scenes of children singing and playing the film is simultaneously an impressionistic portrait of life in a very specific place and time, segregated Mississippi, and also a challenge to people who tried to maintain that system by denying the vote and other basic human rights to African Americans.

In 2013, the Film & Media Archive acquired the Richard Beymer Collection. In addition to the film elements of A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer, and a collection of black and white photographs that were shot during filming, the collection contains other titles by Beymer including “The Innerview,” “Point of Departure” and “Perfect Movies.” It also includes a taping of part of show 3 of “Midnight Snacks” by Andy Kaufman on which Richard Beymer appeared.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the preservation of A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer, an exhibition and screening is planned for later this summer. As part of the NFPF grant, after the preservation work is complete the film will be made available online. 

For a full list of the awards see the National Film Preservation Foundation’s press release.

 

 

 

Lawrence Guyot and “Eyes on the Prize”

30 Nov

guyot_lawerenceLawrence Guyot, civil rights activist and interviewee for Eyes on the Prize, died this week at age 73. Guyot was involved in several civil rights groups beginning in the 1960s in his native state of Mississippi. He began working in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1962, and was heavily involved in the activities of Freedom Summer in 1964, and was the founding chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a group which included fellow activist, Fannie Lou Hamer. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s goal was to have African American delegates included in the Democratic Party. The challenge was rejected but the Fannie Lou Hamer spoke on national television and brought attention to the plight of African Americans in Mississippi.

Along the way, Guyot endured beatings, threats, and violence. Mississippi was notorious for the amount of violence against civil rights activists and Guyot was arrested while trying to bail Fannie Lou Hamer out of jail after she and a group had entered a “whites only” section of a bus station in Winona, Mississippi. When Guyot arrived to bail out Hamer, he was arrested and beaten severely for many hours. He was only released after Medgar Evers, a fellow activist from Mississippi, was murdered in the same time period.

Guyot was interviewed for Henry Hampton’s series, Eyes on the Prize in 1979. Guyot spoke about his work with Amzie Moore, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the incident in the Winona jail, and how he became politically active through his father’s efforts to register people to vote. In this quote from his interview he described the strategy of Mississippian civil rights activists during the campaign to register African Americans,

We had recruited new people and had brought them into the fold. We were organizing in Greenwood. We were catching hell in every form. People being arrested. People were being threatened. People were bring kicked off farms. People were being beaten. People were being fired if they even associated with us. But despite all of that we were able to get people to go down and attempt to register to vote in the Delta where there’d been a whole history of violence and deprivation and peonage really. It wasn’t slavery but it certainly was peonage…we conducted the freedom election and one of the lessons we learned from the freedom election in 1963 was that the FBI was very, very concerned about providing protection and public cover to all of the volunteers who were white, who were northern and who were well, relatively well-educated. We learned pragmatically that the way to bring protection to our people was to bring whites in. We wanted to bring the national attention to what we were doing, to protect people who we could not protect—we never lied to anyone—we never said come register to vote with us you won’t get shot, you won’t get fired from your job, your social security won’t be cut off. It—despite the fact that social security is a federal payment, a federal fund, I saw a notice in the social security check sent out from Jackson, Mississippi, that a warning to everyone—if you register to vote, your check can be cut off. The pervasiveness of that state in preventing political activity even of that nature was so complete it is very hard to recapture for people who wasn’t [sic] involved in it.

This interview and many others are available at the Film & Media Archive and are part of the ongoing Mellon Project which will preserve the original film interviews from Eyes on the Prize I.