Primary Source Documentaries

The Story of How the Documentaries on Mississippi Voter Registration Drives Were Made.

In 1963 and again in the spring of 1964, Harvey Richards made two trips into rural Mississippi to make documentaries in support of civil rights movement activists working on the voter registration campaigns of SNCC and the NAACP.  (We’ll Never Turn Back and Dream Deferred). The story of how these films were made is the subject of my essay Primary Source Documentaries: The Making of We’ll Never Turn Back (1963) and Dream Deferred (1964)(PDF).  The essay provides background information about Harvey Richards and Amzie Moore who was Harvey’s main contact in Mississippi and enabled the making of the documentaries.  The article also recounts what it took to make these documentaries and then put them to work in support of the movement.

I once asked my father why he went to Mississippi and risked his life for people he did not even know.  He looked at me blankly and said, “Because I could.”  That was a conversation stopper at the time so I did not pursue it any further.  Now, many years after he passed away, I ponder what he meant by that phrase.  For one thing, I believe it reflected the deep convictions he held about fairness and justice in our society.  These convictions compelled him to action much like having eyes compels one to see.  It was as simple as that.  It also reflected the conditioning his background as a worker and labor organizers had on him.  My father stopped being a worker when I was 8 years old and he took up photography.  His organizing days were before I was born.  He never talked about those days so it was hard for me as a child to understand him.  But now, being a retired worker myself, and thinking back on that conversation, I can see the meaning of his words in light of his background and beliefs.  The research and writing of this article about how these documentaries were made helped me to flesh out this understanding of my father.  It helped me see what he meant by “because I could.”  It meant he could out fox police.  He could move easily among poor uneducated workers.  He could escape danger.  And he could shoot film and record sound, edit and produce a movie about it.  And those were exactly the qualities needed to carry it off.  Friends of his remarked to me years later that they could not believe he could go into Mississippi in those years and not only shoot the film, but also get out of there in one piece.  These friends knew what Mississippi was like and what a challenge he faced.  Understanding this context helps one to appreciate the simple portraits now available in the Civil Rights photo images galleries, and the testimony of activists like Fannie Lou Hamer that appeared in his films.

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