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Lost and Found: Segregation and the South

By Dan Linke and Brenda Tindal

Title screen

Martin Luther King and ___ on bus.
Martin Luther King riding a Montgomery bus after the boycott.

A recently donated film long thought lost has been digitized and is now viewable online.  “Segregation and the South,” a film produced in 1957 by the Fund for the Republic, reported on race issues in the South since the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case.  It examined the slow progress of integration at elementary and secondary schools and colleges, as well as the white backlash to the decision.  It also documented the Montgomery bus boycott.  Much of the footage came from news organizations like CBS and NBC that was re-packaged, but some original material was filmed in Clarksdale, Mississippi, by writer and director James Peck.  Broadcast on June 16, 1957, a Sunday, from 5-6 p.m., it aired on over 30 ABC affiliates, 12 in the South, but none in the Deep South.

Narrated by prominent voice actor Paul Frees, pioneer television journalist George Martin Jr. served as executive producer, and it was Martin’s son who donated his father’s copy of the 16mm film to the Mudd Manuscript Library.

Many notable civil rights figures of the time are featured (though some are not identified) including  Ralph Abernathy (31:56: “No we’re not tired”), UN diplomat Ralph Bunche (16:35: “No one has ever been known to enjoy rights posthumously”), NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall (7:10 and 16:56), Rosa Parks (31:17 where she tells of her refusal to give up her seat on a bus that sparked the boycott), and NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins (7:51 and 10:03).   In addition, the prominent union leader within the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Phillip Randolph, is featured (10:07).

Martin Luther King is featured prominently several times (7:42: “There is a brand new Negro in the South, with a new sense of dignity and destiny;” 34:02; 36:56; 38:30; 38:46; and at 39:07 responding to the violent backlash that followed the end of segregated buses in Montgomery:  “Yes, it might even mean physical death , but if physical death is the price that some must pay to free our children from a permanent  life of psychological death, then nothing could be more honorable.”)

Though a less notable figure in the movement, the film also features Gus Courts (42:15) of Belzoni, Mississippi.  He describes the intimidation he faced after registering to vote, including being shot while in the grocery store he owned and operated.  The co-founder of his town’s NAACP chapter, in the clip here, Courts noted Humphrey County had 17,000 African American citizens, that 400 had paid the poll tax, 94 had registered, but after threats, only one remained registered—Courts himself.

Countering them is a host of southern politicians who defend segregation as a long-standing Southern tradition including:

Gov. James P. Coleman of Mississippi (18:18) who pledges that there will be no changes in Mississippi society; Mississippi Senator James Eastland (13:15:  “You are not going to permit the NAACP to take over your schools;” and at 39:55: his use of the filibuster to block civil rights legislation); Georgia Senator Walter F. George (14:43,reading a portion of the Southern Manifesto to resist Brown), and Georgia governor Herman Talmadge (19:11: “There are two things God never made.  One of them is a mule, the other is a mulatto.”)

Average citizens opposed to any change in racial status are featured as well.  One man (41:06) describes the boycott of rock and roll /Be-bop music in his community.  The boycott was organized by Alabaman Asa Carter (41:36) who states that “We consider it a plot to undermine the moral standard of the Anglo Saxon race and place him on the level with the Negro.”  Another salient moment features a student at the University of Alabama, who states, “Integration is inevitable; however, the South isn’t ready for the step and  feel that that time should be decided by the South. It is their decision to take.” (44:23). In other words, it is the white people of the South as a matter of popular sovereignty —not the federal government—that should determine whether or not integration should be implemented.

Mississippi segregationist Conwell S. Sykes (8:21) proclaims “We have absolutely no intention of integrating in the South those areas that were segregated for at least 100 years.”  Leroy Percy, a Mississippi cotton planter (12:26) states that the Supreme Court told them their way of life is wrong and this created a shockwave in the South.  Another man (16:08) says “Give us time.  You may recall that it took them 75 years to tell us what to do, [they] ought to give us 50 years to comply.”  Another ( 11:51) delivers the stereotypical canard  “Some of my best friends are Negroes… We love our people.”

The Ku Klux Klan is featured throughout the film, with speeches and images of rallies.  When three women members (9:46), one clutching an infant to her chest, are asked why they joined the Klan, they respond because it stands for White Supremacy.

Among all of this overheated rhetoric, the narrator notes that realistic discussions of education and the law were lost, adding that the atmosphere was such that people felt that the choice was the KKK or full out integration.  There was no middle ground.

On another note, the film captures footage of several other important school desegregation cases pre and post-Brown that further illustrate the gradual and varying responses (in the border states) to Brown’s clarion call for the desegregation of public schools “with all deliberate speed,” including that of Autherine Lucy.  She was the first African American to enroll at the University of Alabama in 1952; however, upon finding out Lucy was black, the school administrators expelled her. She re-enrolled in 1956 after nearly three years of challenging the schools decision in court (45:00).

The film tries to end on a hopeful note by featuring Clarksdale, Mississippi (51:00). A town of 20,000 evenly divided between the two races, the inequity between the white and black sides of town are depicted, including a modern school for white children and an overcrowded and dilapidated building with no indoor restrooms for the black children.  Post-Brown, the all-white school board has begun to meet with African American parents to discuss problems and the film states that this is “A new beginning for Clarksdale, the beginning of interracial communication at the community level.”

The film’s epilogue (58:44) notes that race is the “deepest problem of our country,” reflecting W.E.B. Dubois statement in 1903 that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.”  In calling for increased tolerance, the film concludes, “We have seen how far we have come; you know how far we still have to go.”

The film was part of the Fund for the Republic’s Newsfilm Project, but it was also its swansong. Before “Segregation and the South” aired, the Fund’s board had voted to discontinue the program.  During the project’s 22-month existence, its three full-time employees, including George M. Martin, Jr., who served as its director, created dozens of newsclips that it supplied to television stations around the country to further the Fund’s agenda of promoting civil rights and democracy.

A note about the language and images in this film:  The producers of the film were aware that some of the content was raw and they inserted this warning at its start:  “Many people will find certain scenes in this report unpleasant.  They are included because they have a place in the record of a serious social problem.”  Time has done nothing to change this, and if anything, the words used and images depicted bite even harder, but the historical necessity to confront them has not lessened.

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