On the evening that the first African American President of the United States was giving his State of the Union Address, a panel of civil rights activists questioned how much progress we’ve actually made.
The point of comparison was made by Henry Schleiff, Pres & GM, Investigation Discovery, Military Channel and Destination America, in introducing a discussion at the Paley Center for Media about ID’s film series “The Injustice Files.” “’The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’” said Schleiff, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. “But does it? Maybe that arc needs to bend a little more.”
The films “March to Justice” (premieres Feb 25) and “Hood of Suspicion” (premieres tonight, Feb 13) question how far civil rights have actually progressed. And they do so—quite convincingly—by looking at instances of intolerance in the past and present. “Hood of Suspicion,” in part inspired by the Trayvon Martin case nearly a year ago today, revisits the case of Robbie Tolan, a victim of a nearly fatal incident of racial profiling in the predominantly white community of Bellaire, Texas. The facts presented are as follows: He had no prior run-ins with the police. He had lived in the home where two policemen approached him—and ultimately shot him—for 15 years. The car the officers claimed was stolen was his own. “I hadn’t really had any encounters with the police. That’s why it was so crazy,” Tolan told the crowd. Moreover, the officers were veteran policemen. “You know who your residents are,” said Tolan. “I don’t buy for a second that they don’t.” Shockingly, the cops were acquitted and back on the force the following week.
Civil rights activist Carolyn McKinstry, one subject of “March to Justice,” was strongly affected by Tolan’s experience. “It could have very easily been my son,” she explained. In the U.S. we still have a “tremendous occupation” with color, she said. “In 2012, this is where we are,” and that state she finds very troubling. And she should know. As a child she survived two civil rights-era bombings, the first of which made her the only survivor of a group of 5 friends. Since it was never talked about in her town, her young mind attempted to deal with the tragic events in silence. “I figured I would die by a bomb, some day,” she said. “As a child, you look for an answer.” One consequence of her living through the bombings was a long period of survivor’s guilt and depression. “I asked myself many times why I was still here,” she said. Since then, she’s realized her mission is to talk about reconciliation—precisely that which was denied her as a child.
A particularly compelling portion of “March to Justice” comes from John Seigenthaler, a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy and First Amendment crusader, who in 1961 was asked by RFK to escort the student activist Freedom Riders to New Orleans safely. He suffered a serious blow to the head inflicted by an angry mob in Alabama. Despite the chaos, Alabama Gov. John Malcolm Patterson refused to accept a call from both JFK and RFK, Seigenthaler told the Paley Center crowd, because he believed the students to be “outside agitators.”
For “The Injustice Files” filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, the captivated audience before him was nearly too much to handle. Choking back tears, he shared two promises he had made to Emmett Till’s mother when working on the documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” a film which ultimately led to the reopening of the case by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2004. He promised to get her son’s case reopened and to provide a platform for these stories. He’s succeeded at both. “Civil rights is relevant today,” he said. “Filmmaking is my vehicle to do it.”
One concern expressed by the panelists was how best to reach young people and communicate the story of civil rights. Beauchamp said he tried to make the videos shot within his films “almost sexy.” It’s a different type of footage for this generation, he said. Harnessing the power of social media is also important. McKinstry suggested trying to put together a “real curriculum” in schools, which tells the story of how we got here today. And panelist Kerry Kennedy, human rights activist and one of RFK’s 11 children, said the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights has created the global “Speak Truth to Power” initiative, a program that encourages standing up for civil rights by making difficult decisions on a daily basis.
In 1968, Kerry Kennedy told the crowd, her father said we’d have an African American president in 40 years. And exactly 40 years later we did. “We’ve come a long way,” she said, “but we’ve a long way to go. People are still suffering.”