Jack Willis Collection

In 2014, the Washington University Film & Media Archive acquired the collection of prolific documentary filmmaker and producer Jack Willis. The Jack Willis Collection contains 700 film reels, 300 audio reels, video, and manuscript material from original, independent productions by Willis.

Jack Willis’ films tackled racism, poverty, and environmental issues and showed his affinity for what he called “unheard voices, unserved voices.” Willis got his start working in television as an associate producer for David Susskind’s interview show, Open End. Many of the guests on this program were civil rights leaders who had become prominent by the early 1960s.

A meeting with Jim Forman, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led Willis to travel to Mississippi and document the voter registration efforts of SNCC during Freedom Summer.

Willis’ experience in Mississippi fanned his passion for civil rights and, after his first independent project, The Streets of Greenwood, Willis focused on making documentaries, writing, directing, and producing films including, Lay My Burden Down (1966), Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People (1968), Hard Times in the Country (1969), Every Seventh Child (1967), Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang (1979), The Uncompromising Revolution (1989), and many others. During the years of his filming, Willis had hostile encounters with Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma, Alabama, and elsewhere as he documented the struggle for civil rights.

Filmmaker Jack Willis at a screening of Streets of Greenwood, Washington University, 2015 (Washington University Libraries)
Filmmaker Jack Willis at a screening of Streets of Greenwood, Washington University, 2015 (Washington University Libraries)

Though his main focus was on documentaries, Willis continued developing and producing television programs such as the satirical news television series The Great American Dream Machine, which featured humorist Marshall Efron and Albert Brooks, and the Emmy Award-winning The 51st State for WNET. Of his work with TV programming, Willis said: “I wanted to be involved in programming that was more informative and entertaining, to try to reach more people.”

Between 1966 and 1971, Willis produced a diverse range of documentaries for National Education Television, a forerunner of PBS. Later on from 1978-1980, Willis conducted interviews with many people who had been deeply involved with the civil rights movement, including Rosa Parks, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, and Ella Baker. Although this project was never completed, a large part of the Jack Willis Collection contains over 81 original interviews from these participants in the civil rights movement that have never been seen publicly.

The Film & Media also holds the Henry Hampton Collection; the addition of the Jack Willis Collection expands the unique and original material relating to the civil rights movement that is housed at Washington University Libraries.