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Posted: January 2, 2018

Library’s civil rights film series isn’t just about the past

Written by: MWC Bot

A mother and daughter celebrate on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court after the historic Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling in 1954, in a scene from “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” screening in four parts at the Portland Public Library. Photo courtesy of PBS

The Portland Public Library’s ongoing film series are the smart (and frugal) city film fan’s great little secret.

For one thing, they’re free. But mainly, in an outstanding film town that’s still without a dedicated art cinema, library AV specialist Patti Delois and program manager Rachael Harkness do more than plug in some safe, unassuming crowd-pleasers for movie-hungry Portlanders looking for a warm (or, in the summer, cool) place to spend a few hours.

A library is, among other valuable things, one of the few places left in society where people can partake in an educational and/or entertaining experience and not be expected to spend any money. And the people of the Portland Public Library consistently find creative ways to enhance that truly communal experience, not least with its themed monthly movie programs.

A great library is a hub of thought, curiosity and intellectual challenge, and the Portland Public Library is a great library. As evidence, look to the first monthly film series of 2018, as Delois and Harkness bring in an acclaimed documentary series centered on the ultra-relevant topic of civil rights in America.

All January, the library’s Civil Rights Film Series – taking place, as always, at 6:30 p.m. every Thursday in the Rines Auditorium – will present weekly installments of the celebrated mini-series “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.” Made by prestigious nonfiction distributors California Newsreel, the four-part 2002 miniseries examines the post-Civil War South right through to the birth of the black civil rights movement in the perpetually fraught battleground of the courts, the halls of government and the streets.

Each installment is focused on a particular stretch of time between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, but, in each, I can’t help but see striking parallels to events happening today. Let me explain.

The first hourlong film, “Promises Betrayed (1865-1896),” screening on Thursday, begins when the promise of reconstruction after the Civil War retreated in the face of Southern whites’ re-entrenchment and codification of segregation and discrimination against the newly freed black Americans. Lynchings, voter disenfranchisement and intimidation, and terrorism are countered by activists like Ida B. Wells and Booker T. Washington, as politics, ignorance and violence team up to drive back notions of black progress. Of course, this was all a long time ago. Or was it?

In 2013, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated certain protections guaranteed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prevented voter discrimination, calling the act “no longer relevant.” Since then, states and municipalities formerly restricted by the act have instituted voting restrictions directly targeted at striking a disproportionate number of minority and poor citizens from the voting rolls. (Source: ProPublica)

The second film, showing on Jan. 11, is “Fighting Back (1896-1917),” about the movement of the emerging black middle class and activists, like W.E.B. Du Bois and Walter White, to establish and maintain a foothold in education and the political sphere in the face of an equally emergent white supremacist movement out to assert racist policies – through unjust laws and brutality – in the days leading up to the First World War. Which, again, was a long time ago – right?

In 2016, Donald Trump made multiple claims that “millions” of people who voted against him when he lost the popular vote for president voted fraudulently, specifically citing “illegals.” The information used by the task force he assembled to search for so-called voter fraud has been challenged as baseless, and intended to suppress the minority voter turnout that his Republican Party has traditionally been unable to win. Even Maine’s own secretary of state, Matthew Dunlap, has been forced to sue in order to force the commission – of which he is a part – to reveal its sources and methods. (Source: Washington Post)

On Jan. 18, the library presents the third installment, “Don’t Shout Too Soon (1917-1940),” in which post-war outbreaks of race riots and lynching were met with resistance from returning black war veterans and the NAACP, with legendary civil rights figures like A. Philip Randolph and famed actor and activist Paul Robeson defying continued attempts by both the government and groups like the Ku Klux Klan to crush the nascent movement for equal treatment under the law.

Under the Trump administration, black NFL players making symbolic protests against racial profiling and violence in policing have been called “sons of (expletive)” by the president of the United States. Meanwhile, civil rights organizations like the Black Lives Matter movement, organized after the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, have been labeled “black identity extremists” and possible terrorists by Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whose Justice Department has de-emphasized investigation of violent white supremacist organizations like the KKK. (Source: Splinter News)

The series concludes on Jan. 25 with the final installment of the series, “Terror and Triumph (1940-1954),” which examines how the continuing battle between those fighting for civil rights and segregationists continued to wage in fields like public accommodations, voting, sports and entertainment, the military, and education, as exemplified by the landmark Supreme Court decision banning school segregation, Brown v. Board of Education. That ruling, which established that the idea of “separate but equal” is an unconstitutional fallacy, settled the question once and for all. Right?

Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is currently pushing school vouchers, allowing wealthy parents to use public funds to send their children to private schools. At the same time, her de-emphasis of enforcement of school integration has been called an institutional end-run around Brown in the service of white parents looking to pull their kids out of integrated public schools. (Source: The Atlantic)

Again, a great library is one that allows for us to experience ideas, like searching the past for patterns as they continue in the present. The Portland Public Library is a great library.

The Civil Rights Film Series will screen at 6:30 p.m. every Thursday in January in the Portland Public Library’s Rines Auditorium. As ever, admission is free – and open to all.


Saturday: “Gremlins 2: The New Batch.” Not only is this 1990 horror comedy the rare sequel that tops the original (at least in bananas inventiveness), Joe Dante’s cult classic also offered up the definitive screen takedown of a wealthy, egomaniacal New York media and real estate mogul who suddenly seems awfully familiar for some reason.

Sunday: “Maineland.” Director Miao Wang’s insightful documentary follows two Chinese exchange students at Maine’s Fryeburg Academy as these two very different teenagers adjust to family expectations, educational pressures and life in rural Maine. Co-presented by the Chinese American Friendship Association of Maine.

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