Their credentials are impeccable — John Egerton, the well-known writer on Southern issues; Steven Channing, the historian, author and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker; Rex Miller, the talented documentary and editorial photographer.
They’ve been in Little Rock working on a documentary film titled “We Are All Little Rock.” If full funding can be secured — and I’m hopeful it will be — the film will be offered for broadcast nationally on PBS and distributed to schools statewide along with a web-based teaching guide.
Here’s how they describe the film: “For half a century, Little Rock has been asked to bear the burden of America’s eternal conflict over race. From the day that troops of the 101st Airborne Division crossed the Arkansas River to redeem the Supreme Court’s promise of equality ‘with all deliberate speed,’ Little Rock — and all of Arkansas and the South — was compelled to assume the weight of the nation’s sins against its people of color. … It has been a heavy responsibility for one small Southern city to be the symbol of an entire nation’s discredited myth of white supremacy.
“As filmmakers and longtime students of the South, we came to Little Rock earlier this year with the idea of detailing for a new generation the story of Central High: the faltering end to Jim Crow, a restaging of the Civil War contest between a governor and a president, the courage, the tragedy and the lasting wounds.
“Instead, we come to you today to say that the demonization of Little Rock and Arkansas can end. We say this not because the city has found a ‘post-racial’ solution to the dilemma of race in America. Arkansas and America continue to wrestle with that challenge. That story, as one Arkansan remarked to us, is ‘halfway there and a long way to go.’ In Little Rock, and America, the creeping re-segregation of schools, neighborhoods and minds continues to entrap not just blacks and whites but newcomers in many hues. The past is not dead, as Mississippian William Faulkner famously wrote, it’s not even past.
“But as C. Vann Woodward of Vanndale, Ark., — perhaps the greatest Southern historian of all time — wrote in his 1960 classic, ‘The Burden of Southern History,’ Little Rock and the South can now acknowledge the burdens and lessons of their history: war and defeat, poverty and racism and in doing so, move on.”
Before you yawn and tell yourself, “Oh no, yet another look back at 1957,” understand that these men plan to also take a look at the years after 1957 — the Winthrop Rockefeller administration, Dale Bumpers’ legacy and more. The film even will examine the Little Rock of today.
They write: “Little Rock does have that unique history, both a burden and a redemptive promise. Our greatest ambition for this new film is to underscore how deep and alive the past is in the present, and how accepting our history can truly be liberating. … Now, after more than fifty years, the Little Rock crisis has the potential to be seen more clearly — not distanced through silence and denial, not mythologized through memorials and statues, but embraced in all its glory and pain as one of the most profound moments of change in American hsitory. That is a message needed in every school in the country, and by an Arkansas and national television viewing audience.”
Having read Egerton’s “Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement In The South,” which won the 1995 Robert F. Kennedy book award, I have high hopes for this documentary. Egerton, who was raised in Cadiz, Ky., has written or edited almost 20 books. He wrote one of the true classics on the cuisine of the region — “Southern Food: At Home, On The Road, In History.”
Channing has taught at the University of Kentucky, Stanford and Duke. His television documentaries have explored many Southern stories during the past two decades.
Miller is a New York native who in 1997 completed “All The Blues Gone,” a book/CD package documenting Mississippi blues culture.
The sponsorship of the project is being lined up by a nonprofit corporation known as the Southern Documentary Fund. The Southern Documentary Fund is dedicated to encouraging the production of media projects about the history and culture of the South. For more information and to make contributions, go to www.southerndocumentaryfund.org.