A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
“The Moral March on Raleigh is part of a love and justice movement. We fight for an intersectional agenda to support public education, economic sustainability, workers’ rights and livable wages, health care for all, Medicaid expansion, environmental justice, equal protection under the law without regard to race, income, immigration status, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation, voting rights for all, and criminal justice.” —North Carolina NAACP
“Black, white, Latino, native & Asian. Lesbian, gay & straight. Trans & cis. Urban & rural. Old & young. This is the NEW south. #MoralMarch” —Tweet from @ncnaacp on February 11, 2017
In the 1970s, there was a big push on the part of many journalists and scholars to ensure that the stories of people on the so-called bottom rail of history—women, members of the gay community, black and brown liberation movements, indigenous rights movements—were amplified and made accessible. Building and contextualizing those archives remains a vital part of what documentary work is across the world today.
In 2013, veteran civil rights activists of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Legacy Project began a collaboration with the Center for Documentary Studies and Duke University Libraries. One of our hopes was that we could take that idea of “history from the bottom up” and add a new dimension. We wanted to engage in a horizontal partnership with those activists who had made the history to tell us what the history meant—so that they would help us contextualize and frame how they had undertaken to make the country hew more closely to its mission statement of liberty and justice for all.
Around that same time, there was an upsurge of youth activism around voting rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Dreamers. It felt very important to involve some of those young people in the project, to put them in conversation with the SNCC veterans, who really wanted to share what they called their “informational wealth” with subsequent generations. It was just our incredible luck that North Carolina Central University student Kenneth Alexander Campbell came here to the Center for Documentary Studies as an intern after his junior year, and has stayed with us.
That gave us a chance to develop two archives simultaneously. First, working with the SNCC veterans to create the SNCC Digital Gateway, we explore how the only youth-led national civil rights group organized a grassroots movement in the 1960s that transformed the nation. And second, supporting the documentary work that Kenneth and his collaborative were doing to ensure that today’s young people, and young people of color in particular, got to tell their own stories, and that those stories were shared, starting with Millennials of the Moral Movement: Prelude. Kenneth and co-directors Kelly Ann Sims and Ambria McNeill centered their short documentary film around three young activists at the Moral March on Raleigh in February 2017, organized by the North Carolina NAACP and the Reverend Dr. William Barber II. The eleventh annual “people’s assembly” drew tens of thousands of attendees to the state capitol, and the attention of the national press.
It’s been thrilling to be able to facilitate this work, and I’m very hopeful that both of these projects will provide models for people going forward—for all of us to see the ways that young people must be an essential part of our civil society, and for those young people to feel empowered to stand forward with their full voices and be heard.
Following is an edited excerpt of a recent conversation between Wesley Hogan and Kenneth Alexander Campbell as they discuss how these two projects empower and inform one another.
Kenneth Alexander Campbell: When I first started here last summer, I was really excited to learn more about the SNCC project; the way you described it was maybe the last thing I expected. You talked about bringing SNCC veterans here to tell history from the “inside out,” and it was the first time I had ever heard that phrase. Your description of the SNCC project in terms of allowing the actors and the players to express their experience and viewing that as a part of the historical record made a big impact on the way I started to think about how I could do film.
With the community of filmmakers that I’ve found at CDS, maybe we can really start to refine and develop this way of telling history in real time from the inside out. I’m going to Howard this fall [MFA program in film], and hopefully I’ll find other documentary filmmakers, documentary photographers, writers, oral historians, who are interested in what’s happening here in North Carolina. Not just documenting the organizing, but also the development of a moral compass and a language around morality, and framing political ideology in those terms. So, documenting how millennials are figuring out how to do that, especially with all of the cynicism around even the word, “morality.” How people are developing that morality among themselves and actually living it, not just talking about it. That, for me, can actually move some of the very difficult conversations between people who, while they might not consider themselves as being on opposite ends of the political spectrum, still don’t really see how much overlap there is in their own values. The kind of documentary work I’m interested in doing can connect those people and highlight those connections, and it can also serve as a record.
Wesley Hogan: One of the parallels that I’m seeing as you’re talking is that in 1960, there was a halt to all of the momentum that had been created after the 1954 Brown v. Board decision and then the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and then the 1957 Little Rock crisis. People didn’t know what to do next to change the way things were in the Jim Crow South or North. The people who came into that impasse and figured out a new way forward were young people, students at historically black colleges across the South who really took a new approach in 1960 because they hadn’t been burdened by all of the “you shoulds,” and “you shouldn’ts.” They just decided, “We’re going to do it. We’re going to live the morality that we feel.”
There are some significant parallels to today, where we have the two major political parties in clear disarray and there’s an enormous lack of clarity about where the country is headed—and what we value as a country together. So I cannot tell you how exciting it is to see this surge of young people saying, “We’re pretty clear on what our values are. We’re pretty clear on what we want our futures to look like, and here are some ways we’re getting there. And we’re not asking permission. We’re just doing it.”
I’d love to hear how you’re working with other filmmakers as a documentarian, as an artist who’s telling these stories. What kinds of conversations are you all having about that intersection of art and activism?
KAC: We’re having that conversation constantly, about how to be a collaborative filmmaker when there aren’t exactly long-standing models that we can look to, and still be able to bear witness in a way that we feel is completely honest. Whoever I’m speaking to, the more personal that I want to get, especially if I’m asking questions around morality, my thought process is—first, do no harm. And so, to understand how to work with the millennial activists we’re documenting who are from very different groups that do come together for the Moral March, for instance, but don’t necessarily work in the same spaces all throughout the year . . . lately, I’ve been [describing it as] being in the same book but not necessarily on the same page. A friend of mine calls it the philosophy of collaborative filmmaking—working on how to work with activists or communities and sharing with them ways to document themselves and how we can use that to contribute to the story that we see.
WH: This idea of getting close and telling stories from the inside out means that you have to figure out as a filmmaker your relationship to the people that you’re interviewing or that you’re documenting. A more traditional documentarian isn’t necessarily going to give creative control or editorial control to anybody else, but particularly not the people they’re filming. I would love to hear how you’re addressing that issue. Have you guys had any conflicts over editing or what to cover or what it means to document in this way?
I’ll back up for a second and say that last summer when we did the critical oral histories with the SNCC veterans, I felt that we had a moral imperative as people based at a university to get a more nuanced, complex representation of Black Power out there from the people who had been most responsible for bringing that term into political light in 1966–67. And yet it was nerve-wracking to know that there were tremendous disagreements among the SNCC people about the term, how it came to be, how it traveled, and what role they each played in that. I had trepidation about putting the microscope and the camera on them as they did that sorting-out work. People are human, and we can’t romanticize them if we really want to understand the depth of their commitments and their sacrifices and their passion. But it’s scary because you don’t want your work to then travel in ways that you don’t expect.
KAC: In terms of this documentary project, we’re not moving at breakneck speed. Even though we realize that this is a story that’s happening and unfolding still, we want to make sure that we’re fulfilling our responsibility to understand what the consequences of distributing the kinds of stories that we are seeing and that we want to share.
I think that there is a risk for all of us involved, when documenting different groups and really trying to get close to these activists, but I think that everyone can see the opportunity in learning about what motivates someone, even if you disagree with them. Maybe you can understand the community that someone comes from and you can understand what someone cares about and why they care about it. I think a conversation about morality is only possible if we understand the humanity of the other person that we’re speaking to.
There have been some apprehensions about how close do you want to get, how honest can we be? We can explain what we think the opportunity is in sharing understanding, but we can only respect the boundaries of people who are willing to share with us. But we continue to have that conversation with these activists, because there is a lot to be learned from conflicts. There’s a lot to be learned from failures. I think that’s a negotiation, that is a live thing. We are just building the relationships that will be able to withstand turbulence and be able to withstand challenges, so that we can have a sustainable project.
WH: I would like to hear more about what you want the film screenings to do in the world as the movement is building. Particularly as we gear up for 2018 with the Poor People’s Campaign and the mid-term elections and a very uncertain future for student loans, healthcare, the environment, and other things that so many young people who are part of the Moral Movement have prioritized.
KAC: The film screenings have become my favorite part of this whole thing; they’re giving people a reason to come together who otherwise might not have had a reason. And every screening that we’ve had so far has been inter-generational. It hasn’t just been millennials. For me, that’s the goal, to have people coming together and having more conversations about the moral dilemmas that are facing us and really thinking about it in those terms, and being able to explain it in those terms. Because I think that one of the more difficult things to do is to explain your ideology and your motivation. The only way that we can identify errors in logic is if people are really able to have that space and that time to talk it through.
WH: Your project and the SNCC project both have such relevance to the political moment that we’re in. We started the SNCC project when it felt to me like voting rights were an established fact, so we did not expect to see the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby v. Holder pulling out the legal teeth of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. What is quite astonishing to see is how fast state legislatures have since moved in over twenty states to dramatically restrict people’s access to the vote, access to this single thing that the country is founded on—the idea that the government doesn’t make the government. “We, the people,” make the government.
If there’s one hope that I have for the [SNCC Digital Gateway] project, it is that it lifts up the voices of young people who risked everything to work side by side with local people who risked their jobs, their homes, their communities, to establish that simple principle for people across the South between 1961 and 1965—the essential right to self-determination and a say in the decisions that are at the core of our lives. It’s a mixed bag. I feel proud of the site and hopeful about the future of voting rights, but also quite shocked that we’re at this moment now, where it is so unbelievably necessary to have that history in front of us again.
So I can’t tell you how important this is that you are documenting the activism that you see in front of you. The fact that you’re asking people now to explain who they are and why this is important gives people fifty years from now a better chance at knowing what young people were capable of, were doing, were achieving. And I want to affirm not only the stories you’re telling but also the method and the reflection and the carefulness with which you’re laying down this future archive.
KAC: A part of what’s been so interesting to me about the Moral Movement is that there’s a tradition to that. The movement that SNCC was a part of was about nonviolent power, which I think is the natural forbear to what we’re seeing today in the question around morality; the work that I’ve been doing with the SNCC project has really been and continues to inform me and the questions that I’m asking with the millennials of the Moral Movement. During the critical oral history sessions, the SNCC veterans would always turn to some of the younger people in the room listening and taking notes and say, “Well, what do the millennials think today? What are the young people doing today?” I hope this film is going to be a part of the response to that.
I think you should know that these millennials who I’m documenting are more and more aware of the work that SNCC has already done and is actually continuing to do. And with increasing access to the expanding record at our fingertips, even on our phones, I’m interested to see how that impacts the courage that millennials have and the strategies that we’ll develop in responding to the shocks of what we’re seeing today.
This installment of The By and By is curated by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS). CDS is dedicated to documentary expression and its role in creating a more just society. A nonprofit affiliate of Duke University, CDS teaches, produces, and presents the documentary arts across a full range of media—photography, audio, film, writing, experimental and new media—for students and audiences of all ages. CDS is renowned for innovative undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education classes; the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival; curated exhibitions; international prizes; award-winning books; radio programs and a podcast; and groundbreaking projects. For more information, visit the CDS website.