Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A Perfect Storm of a Movement: A People's History in Film


After the Tennessee legislature made it illegal to remove Confederate monuments -- even from parks owned by cities such as Memphis -- it felt like any local initiative to remove them was just another Lost Cause.

But as white nationalists and neo-Confederates, emboldened by Trumpism, came out of the woodwork, it seemed as though the Civil War had never ended. The battlefield from Charlottesville, to New Orleans, to Dallas, to Memphis became city-owned parks and monuments to Confederate generals and leaders.

'Whose Park? Our Park.' Tami Sawyer leads a rally

After racist murders inside a South Carolina church in 2015, a movement began to take Confederate stars and bars out of state flags and to remove monuments honoring military leaders who had defended slavery and defied the United States.

That movement had waned going into the 2016 Presidential election -- but with the improbable election of Donald Trump and a white nationalist movement Trump inspired, the battle was full on to remove Rebel symbols and repudiate the racist sentiments which were put on America's front porch.

Although the Memphis City Council and mayor were in favor of removing statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest, city leaders felt handcuffed by the Tennessee Historical Commission, which had been granted supreme powers over municipal parks.

In Memphis, there was a unique impetus to remove the Rebel figures. The city was heavily promoting the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination -- April 4, 2018 --  as a tourist extravaganza. City Council approved $2.4 million in marketing, and private donors and other pockets of city money raised the stakes. They even painted "I Am a Man" on garbage trucks, in a strange recognition of the sanitation workers' strike that had brought King to town.

The backlash to Trumpism fueled a national movement to take down the Confederate symbols. Statues were removed in Baltimore, Dallas and New Orleans. Even Birmingham boarded up a statue of Jefferson Davis. Activists in New Orleans had rallied around #TakeEmDownNOLA, hash-tagging into social media organizing, and other cities picked up the #TakeEmDown banner -- among them St. Louis, Dallas and Jacksonville.

Educator Tami Sawyer, who works as director of diversity and cultural competence for Teach for America, picked up the baton from past efforts to remove the statues from Memphis parks and organized #TakeEmDown901, a reference to the city's telephone area code.

The pressure was on city leaders to remove the Confederate monuments before, as they were fond of saying, "The world comes to to our doorstep for MLK50..."  If there was any way to remove the statues and skirt the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, it surely would be snuffed by the time the legislature convened and tightened up the law, which had already been amended once to close a possible loophole.

The clock was ticking.

White nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017 -- carrying torches and chanting, "Blood and soil..." and "hail Trump" as they gave Hitler salutes -- to oppose the removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The next day one of them drove a car into a gathering of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.

One week later, the battlefield moved to Memphis. Police arrested citizens after some had tried to drape a "Black Lives Matter" banner over an equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The city and #TakeEmDown901 were squarely at odds. Mayor Jim Strickland lashed out at protesters the next day -- then within days, Strickland took steps to "own" the movement, staging a photo-op and starting an online citizen petition -- although #TakeEmDown901 had just presented the city with a petition signed by almost 5,000 people.

City leaders were not only responding to activists and the bad image it gave the city to be arresting those who practice civil disobedience as King had done more than 50 years before. They were getting pressure from the business community which told the mayor that the city would not be able to attract headquarters of progressive corporations -- such as Amazon -- with this cloud of racism and unrest hanging overhead.

Brad Watkins, executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, reiterated an offer he had made in May to remedy the city's quandary that they did not want to break state law but sure wanted those statues gone. Watkins offered to take title to the park in the name of the nonprofit, then remove the statues, taking the city off the legal hook.

Behind the scenes, City Council was scheming something of the sorts -- while #TakeEmDown901 kept the issue in front of the public with events such as a die-in before an NBA game at FedEx Forum. Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale added his voice to the call to "take those things down," and journalist Wendi C. Thomas drilled into the story as part of her MLK50: Justice through Journalism project.

The drama and tension were unrelenting as citizens and the city, working along different tracks, sought to TakeEmDown.
Fannie Lou Hamer

Our feature documentary, #TakeEmDown, chronicles the nationwide movement and the People's History of the Memphis movement -- a side of history that has not been entirely shown before, including the personal struggles of Tami Sawyer, who picked up the nickname "Tami Lou" for 1960s voting rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer.

Just weeks before the state legislature was to convene, the city of Memphis maneuvered a sale of two parks to a nonprofit, which removed the statues within hours of a City Council vote on a drizzly evening Dec. 20, 2017.

Would this be the end of it? Sons of Confederate Veterans filed two lawsuits, and once the legislature convened, the State House awkwardly sought to rescind a routine resolution honoring four black sorority women -- because it included Sawyer. Later, that same state body pulled $250,000 from its budget for Memphis to help fund its bicentennial in 2019. 

We are reaching out to explore audiences and outlets for the film. How about its educational value for high schools and colleges? It's a civics lesson and a history lesson. Law offices? Business groups? Broadcast TV (PBS etc.)? Non-profits? 

As this project is unfunded, and all of our costs are out of pocket, we are open to any support for this extraordinary people's history. We need funding for marketing and also could upgrade the graphics and music with the right talents on board.

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