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‘American South’ film uncovers unsung heroes of Civil Rights

Award-winning film “The American South as We Know It” screens August 28, 2018 from 6-8 p.m. at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture. The documentary was written, directed and shot by Frederick Murphy, a former JCSU staffer, and Andrew Smith ’15, JCSU’s first graduate to major in film. The feature-length film paints a picture of the African-American experience from slavery to the 1960s through the eyes of people who lived it—everyday American heroes.

Murphy graduated from Tennessee State University and Bethune Cookman College before working at JCSU from 2010-2015 as director of Counseling Services and assistant dean of Health and Wellness. He describes himself as “HBCU to the bone.”

“I was always drawn to researching black history,” Murphy said. “I knew there had to be more to my history than Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.”

Murphy and Smith charted their route based on tips from history buffs, elders and scholars, researching well-known people in the towns and building an organic network of sources via word of mouth. JCSU graduate Edith Strickland DeLaine ’60 was one such resource. She sent the pair to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, an all-black town founded by freedmen that had been enslaved by Jefferson Davis’ brother.

In all, the two traveled 12,000 miles through small towns in Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Alabama. It took a year and a half to film the documentary. Although Smith and Murphy had the opportunity to interview some well-known people, their real focus was uncovering the stories of unsung civil rights heroes.

“We sought stories of local activists,” Murphy said. “We didn’t want big-names, but people who were fierce in their own community. Every town had their own little MLK.” But sometimes, the stories didn’t have happy endings.

The two were filming in rural Alabama and needed to refuel their vehicle. They had been recording 60-second shorts of residents speaking about why history was important to them. An older Black woman working at the gas station volunteered to speak on camera. Three white men intervened.

“They were in their 60s or 70s, all in overalls and dipping snuff. I understood the rules of engagement,” Murphy said, “so I asked the guys if they’d like to take part in the interview too, knowing I probably wouldn’t use their portion.”

The men replied, “We don’t and she doesn’t either.” One of them looked like he had a gun in his pocket. The woman dropped her head immediately. Retelling the story still makes Murphy angry.

“This was probably how it had always been; she had no voice. Inside the store she had all the agency and gumption in the world, but the second she stepped outside I saw her hesitation. They shrunk her,” he said. “That’s why I’m telling these stories. I owe these individuals, to amplify their voices. I’m trying to spread the message for our ancestors.”

Smith edited the documentary and handled the bulk of the filming. It was one of the first major projects by his company, Nova Initia Productions. Coming from Largo, Md., in Prince George’s County, this was the first time he’d ever traveled through the Deep South. He found the journey eye-opening.

“During the process of filming this documentary, I learned that many blacks who grew up in the Jim Crow era did not necessarily have it ‘bad,’ based on the area in which they lived. Many lived pretty comfortable lives,” Smith said. “This spoke to me because all too often, blacks are seen to have only suffered in America and never prospered. The other thing I got from that is even the blacks who didn't face the blatant racism that many others did were still aware of what was going on in their country. They were still activists, striving to fight to make America great for all disenfranchised groups. It just goes to show that even if your struggle isn't the same as your brother’s or sister’s, the ability to empathize and mobilize was still strong across the South among blacks. We have always had a fighting spirit and will continue the fight.”

Learn more about the project at www.americansouthfilm.com.

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