Jack Willis and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement

In 1981, the Ford Foundation wrote celebrated documentarian Jack Willis with a pointed question: what had become of the film they had funded? In 1978, the Foundation awarded Willis and his team from the Center for Documentary Media a grant to produce a film on the legacy of the 1960s civil rights movement.

Willis’ reply is extraordinary not for the details of the letter itself, which is correspondence testifying to the proper and complete use of the Foundation grant.  Rather, it is Willis’ account of the making of the film which provides an invaluable window onto the evolution of the civil rights movement in America.

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(click here for full transcript)

The full report of Willis’ research for the film over the course of  two years (1977-1979) is remarkable for the light it sheds on the complicated histories of race in the United States, and the divisions and differences between the northern and southern fight for equal rights.

 

Although Willis had spent nearly the entire 1960s in the south filming documentaries about the movement, his long experience did not prepare him for the new kinds of questions his team would need to ask when he began research for 1978 project.  “And the question, ‘Is the movement dead?’” writes Willis, “is seldom asked by black southerners. The general feeling of the people we talked with, a number of them still very much activists, is that the tactics of the movement appeared obsolete by the end of 1968 and inadequate with the realization that economics had always been at the heart of the country’s treatment of blacks. They believe that the movement is very much alive and that it will again crest.”

 

“And the question, ‘Is the movement dead?’” writes Willis, “is seldom asked by black southerners…”

 

In Georgia, Willis and his team interviewed two former activists, John and Amanda. He wrote: “Amanda described in vivid detail what it was like to grow up poor and black in Americus, and the sixty days she and several hundred other young people spent incarcerated at the county farm. Listen to her talk about the singing:  “We spent the days and nights singing, and that gave us courage. The guards ordered us to stop, then threatened us, then punished us. But we had to keep on. Our singing was like the movement. We couldn’t afford to let it stop.”

As Willis’ team moved further into the rural south, they attempted to re-assess the developing legacy of the 1960s movement.

“Everywhere we went in the Black Belt we found the same situations, all confirmed by studies and reports provided us by the Mississippi and Alabama offices of the NAACP, the Delta Ministry, the VEP and national agencies. And everywhere the criticisms of the movement of the 60’s were the same: First, that it had failed to tackle the economic issue. And second, that it had failed to create radical institutions that would survive the temptations of the federal anti-poverty programs and continue to develop leadership that would address the deteriorating economic status of the masses of blacks.”

Willis’ film was never made, but the process of researching the film produced an extraordinary collection of recordings, written interviews, correspondence, and other material documenting the struggle for legal and social parity in the United States. Willis leaves the reader with an impression of the enormity of their undertaking – and more poignantly – makes clear the pressing need for these kinds of projects to promote a better understanding of the history of civil rights in the U.S. and emphasize how much work remains to be done.

 

“We may not be able to answer conclusively our original questions concerning what happened to the movement…But our research has led us to view the 1960’s struggle in the context of the historical struggle of black people for dignity and equality; it is therefore difficult to imagine the struggle is over. What we can do in this film is to suggest and reveal the obstacles the movement faced within its own ranks and in the society at large. We can reveal its strengths as well as many of its weaknesses. Like all mass movements, it was very complex, sometimes contradictory, and often heroic. Looking at it now, it seems amazing that it managed to happen at all, for despite its internal struggles and its external pressures, despite the contradictions between its life and its public image, it was never static, never immobilized through fear or factionalism. Perhaps the fact that the movement as we knew it in the 60’s appears to be over suggests far more about the nature of this society than about the limitations of the moment itself.

-Jack Willis, 1981.

 

Filmmaker Jack Willis at Washington University

Filmmaker Jack Willis at Washington University

More about Jack Willis

Willis was born in Milwaukee in 1935. After attending UCLA, he produced a number of revolutionary, award-winning documentaries on the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, including The Streets of Greenwood (1963) , Every Seventh Child (1967), Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People (1968), and Hard Times in the Country (1969). He continued to produce influential films through the 1980s. His Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang (1979), an investigation into the U.S. government’s cover-up of radiation poisoning from the testing of atomic weapons in the 1950s, won an Emmy Award, a George Polk Award, and a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award.


This post is part of an occasional series, “Special Delivery – Letters from the WUSTL Archives and Special Collections.”

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About the author

Lisa Lillie is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis.