Voice lessons: An oral history of the Civil Rights Movement
Written by Noel Holston
The times in the 1960s, they were indeed a-changin’, but now they are slipping into the fuzzy past. Teenagers who marched at Selma or boycotted in Natchez are 60-something now, and the adults who inspired them and led them are likely as not in nursing homes if they’re still living.
That’s one of the reasons Save Our History: Voices of Civil Rights was and is so important and why it won a Peabody Award in 2005. Another is that the documentary preserves the remembrances of the anonymous foot soldiers, not the famous, and the oppressors as well as the freedom fighters.
The film grew out of a 2004 mission cosponsored by the AARP, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights and the Library of Congress. A group of journalists dispatched to roam the country spent more than two months collecting people’s personal remembrances of the years of Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights struggle.
While director and co-executive producer Jeffrey Tuchman and cinematographer Andy Bowley occasionally fold in iconic images and news footage from the era to establish context, they mostly just give us everyday folks—men and women, white and black, most all of them graying—making the most of their opportunities to bear witness to what they experienced, what they saw, what they felt, what made them afraid, proud, ashamed or angry.
Other than something like Shoah, it’s hard to recall a documentary in which talking heads have been used to more eloquent or moving effect. A black woman recalls her ordeal as the first student of color at a previously all-white high school. A white man describes how, as a child, he was spanked for kissing his beloved black nanny on the cheek. In one of the most riveting sequences, the recollections of the children of a murdered voter-registration activist are juxtaposed with those of a Ku Klux Klansman who participated in the firebomb attack on their home.
Though it’s shorter and more modest in scope, Voices of Civil Rights is a worthy companion to the great PBS series Eyes on the Prize. It preserves remarkable first-person accounts of a crucial period in our nation’s life.