The protests of Mike Brown’s murder by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson have angered and electrified young activists. And the very recent Supreme Court decision to uphold voter registration laws that set out to disenfranchise, disrupt, and discourage African Americans from participating in the country’s democratic process have sparked wide debate. These events and others in the news made the recent screening of Freedom Summer at CCNY all the more appropriate.
The documentary, by CCNY alum and Macarthur “genius” award winner Stanley Nelson, explores the summer of 1964 when sharecroppers and other African Americans decided to fight back against systematically being denied the right to vote. Among the group of both Black and white people who banded together in solidarity, Fannie Lou Hamer, sharecropper turned political activist, became the most outspoken of all.
Throughout the documentary the trials and tribulations of getting African Americans registered to vote without suppression culminated in Hamer giving a speech at the Democratic Convention held in Atlantic City. The passion and directness when Hamer spoke humanized the plight of African Americans in Mississippi. Eventually in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which abolished voter suppression based on color or literacy.
Nelson draws parallels between past and present movements while acknowledging that the world has changed. His documentary addresses a time before social media and the power of grassroots organizing.”It’s much more complicated now,” says Nelson, who spoke about his film at the screening. “Everybody knows about Ferguson because of the protests in Ferguson.”
Still, the same organizational structure the documentary depicted of both Blacks and whites coming together to fight voter suppression in Mississippi, exists today in contemporary movements like Occupy Wall Street and protests over Eric Garner’s death.
Although African Americans have made tremendous strides since the 60’s, Nelson points to the ugliness of bias and prejudice that still persists today. “There is a whole legacy of racism in this country,” says Nelson. “Even if you wanted to be generous and say for the last 30 to 40 years things have been great, or even perfect, well they weren’t perfect for 400 years before that.”