Standing on My Sisters' Shoulders. Prod. by Joan Sadoff, Robert Sadoff, and Laura Libson. Sadoff Productions, 2002. 61 mins. (Women Make Movies, Inc., 462 Broadway, Suite 500WS, New York, NY 10013.)

Reviewed Rhonda D. Jones

Until recently, the literature on the Civil Rights movement did not acknowledge, much less analyze, the efforts of black female activists. Their commitments and sacrifices were largely overshadowed by the charismatic images of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Stokely Carmichael, and Andrew Young. In the last decade, however, scholars like Barbara Ransby, Vicki Crawford, Cynthia Griggs Fleming, and Chana Kai Lee have demonstrated that men led the national movement, but it was women who shouldered the all-important burdens of local organizing. The 2002 documentary, Standing on My Sisters' Shoulders, offers rare film footage and on-screen interviews that further establish the crucial role played by local African American women and their white female allies in the key civil rights campaigns of the mid-1960's.

Director Laura J. Lipson focuses her film on the oppressive Mississippi Delta, which produced well-known grassroots leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray, who are featured in the film alongside local heroes like Unita Blackwell, Flonzie Goodloe Brown-Wright, Mae Bertha Carter, and Arnell Ponder. The documentary uses taped interviews, photographs, and archival footage, to focus on key moments in the civil rights struggle in Mississippi--including the Emmett Till murder of 1955, the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Woolworth's sit-in of 1963, Freedom Summer of 1964, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party of 1964. Lipson shows the daily risks local women took to challenge segregation, become registered voters, and organize voter registration drives. Those interviewed on screen point out that lynch law put men at greater risk than women if they defied racist rules, and women's historic involvement in the black church gave them a safe and sacred space from which to disseminate information, form committees, and train community leaders. These local female leaders mobilized at a particular moment in history, despite limited monetary and political resources.

Using both contemporary and historic footage of Mississippi, the film opens with the chilling images of the segregated Jim Crow South during the 1950s and 1960s. Lynchings, Klan demonstrations, unchecked violence, limited education, economic reprisal, poll taxes, literacy tests, and abject poverty presented formidable obstacles to an African-American uprising. But, inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott that stretched from the end of 1955 through most of 1956, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the passage of the Civil Rights bills of 1957 and 1960, and the Freedom Rides in 1961, women in Mississippi's local communities were galvanized into action. Standing on My Sisters' Shoulders depicts these grassroots female leaders as organic intellectuals who drew on their own experiences with the repressive system of Jim Crow and the egalitarian theology of their churches to fashion a simple demand for blacks' inalienable right, as American citizens, to self-determination.

From Mamie Till Bradley's insistence that the "whole world" see her son's beaten body to the Congressional testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray against the exclusionary practices of the Mississippi Democratic Party in 1965, Sisters offers an excellent film companion to the emerging literature on women's civil rights organizing. Lipson illustrates how local black organizers like Anne Moody and Fonzie Goodloe Brown-Wright worked with white allies like Joan Trumpauer and Winifred Green to integrate lunch counters, schools, and elections and to acculturate young SNCC activists unfamiliar with the ways of the rural South. Lipson also shows how local women both initiated and enacted the agendas typically associated with male-dominated national organizations like SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, COFO (Council of Federated Organizations), CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), and SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference).

While all of the women profiled in the film serve as a source of inspiration, two of the most renowned figures in the film are Mae Bertha Carter and Fannie Lou Hamer. Carter's poignant struggle to keep seven of her thirteen children in the all-white Drew High School was captured in Constance Curry's award-winning book, Silver Rights (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1995); and Hamer's defiant leadership of the voting rights campaign in Montgomery County has been chronicled in For Freedom's Sake by Chana Kai Lee (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999). Both of these women's stories are effectively portrayed in this film, which includes interviews with Carter and two of her children. Hamer's story is better known than Carter's but this film makes impressive use of interviews to argue that Hamer was a charismatic leader because she operated without an ounce of vengeance, instilling in others a capacity to turn their fear and anger into optimism and determination.

Lipson's film takes care to show the gains that these civil rights activists made, not only for the whole nation but in their own lives. Unita Blackwell, for example, became the first black female mayor in Mississippi; all seven of Mae Bertha Carter's children attended college; and Constance Slaughter Harvey was the first black woman to graduate from the law school at Ole Miss, in 1970. Standing on My Sisters' Shoulders also shows how the 1964 efforts by Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray within the progressive, multi-racial Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party altered forever the Democratic Party's acceptance of political segregation in the South. Footage and interviews recall the MFDP's challenge to the state's all-white delegates at the Democratic National Convention, capturing Hamer's historic appearance at the 1964 convention in Atlantic City. The film also traces the three women's appearance before the U.S. House of Representatives to testify that state representatives were elected illegally. In calling for open elections, their actions pressured President Lyndon B. Johnson into signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated among other things the literacy tests and poll tax. By 1968, Unita Blackwell was in the company of fifty-four African American female mayors in the state of Mississippi.

Standing on My Sisters' Shoulders has received a Special Jury Prize at the Savannah Film and Video Festival, the Audience Award at the Atlanta Film Festival, Humanitarian Award at the Long Island Film Expo, and was a Finalist at the USA Film Festival.

Rhonda Jones, a research associate for the Behind the Veil project at the Center for Documentary Studies, received her doctorate in U.S. history from Howard University. She previously taught survey courses in U.S., African American, and Colonial history at Howard University and Bowie State University. In addition to teaching, research, and administration, she is currently engaged in documenting indigenous philanthropic agency within the African-American community and documenting the culture of African-American quilt makers. Her dissertation is titled “Tithe, Time, and Talent: An Analysis of Fund-raising Activity for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1957–1964.”

 

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