LOS ANGELES, June 20, 2015—In January 2015, in the town of Rock Hill, South Carolina, the convictions for the 1961 “Friendship 9” Civil Rights protesters were erased in the very same courtroom where they were first sentenced 54 years ago. PBS stations will be showing the documentary Counter Histories: Rock Hill throughout 2015 in recognition of the 50 year anniversary of voting rights.
Named for the Friendship Junior College where most of the young men attended, Clarence Graham, Robert McCullough, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, W.T. “Dub” Massey, James Frank Wells, Willie McCleod, David Williamson and Mack Workman hatched a plan to sit in at a “whites only” lunch counter in the segregated Jim Crow South. The Friendship 9 were promptly arrested for trespassing, and thrown into jail.
The L.A. Times reported on the 2015 trial: “They had been hauled into a nearby courtroom here 54 years ago this week. That time, a white judge, B. Drennan Hayes, convicted them of trespassing for staging a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in this Southern textile town.
“He gave the nine men a choice: a $100 fine or 30 days on the York County chain gang.
“They chose the chain gang. So began the civil rights “jail, no bail” movement, which helped galvanize opposition to public segregation in the Jim Crow South.
“On Wednesday morning, seven of those men faced the judge’s nephew, Judge John C. Hayes III. This time, Judge Hayes threw out their 1961 convictions as an overflow courtroom of blacks and whites erupted in a standing ovation.”
This is but one of the many powerful stories of the individuals of the Civil Rights era: people of unbridled courage, who simply stood up not only for themselves, but for future generations.
Director Frederick “Fr3deR1cK” Taylor speaks with reverence about their sacrifice. “It’s really interesting about 20th century, especially mid-20th century history, so much has changed in our society,” he mused. “There are all of these people that were heroes on a day-to-day basis, from all of these different cultures that were coming from all of these different places, who were just doing their thing. Standing up. Being themselves. And literally during that particular time in history to be yourself was to be a hero. We now live in a world where being yourself isn’t so cool; it’s all about what you can create by making a selfie.”
As the Friendship 9 heroes age, and some have passed on, we find ourselves forgetting their courageous stand and failing to emulate their conviction. With the unrest happening in the state of South Carolina, most recently the murder of 9 Black innocents at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by a white gunman, the story of the Friendship 9 protesters is a stark reminder that prayer, unity, faith, and resilience is the only thing that will overcome injustice.
Fr3deR1cK embodies their story in the documentary: Counter Histories: Rock Hill. Using a fresh approach to documentary filmmaking that includes re-enactments, modern-day interviews weaved with evocative imagery alongside the traditional archival images, and no narration. All the while weaving a riveting jazz soundtrack through the Friendship 9’s monumental words and actions.
Fr3deR1cK was attracted to the story for two reasons: One was an invitation and grant from the Southern Foodways Alliance to tell one “Counter” History story for the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. The other was more personal: his grandmother, Juanita.
“I have a 91-year-old grandmother that I talk to all the time who still has all of her faculties, and tells me stories that just knock my socks off—that are beyond my ability to be able to even conceive or perceive that kind of life.”
Grandma Juanita’s story is one that deserves a film of its own: During the 1930s, she escaped a sharecropper’s life in the Jim Crow South of Memphis, Tenn. to board a train to Chicago. She cleaned floors as a maid while she worked her way through school, and finally became a teacher, forging a new life for herself, so that her son and grandson could have a better one.
“It’s beyond my level of comprehension. And no matter what I’m going through in my life, it’s never going to be that bad. And I wanted to do something before she passed away that honored that.”
Fr3deR1cK is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose projects have spanned the globe from the U.S. to Zambia, Romania, and Mumbai. He has tackled subjects such as the pediatric AIDS epidemic in Romania, a redeemed gangster in Watts, a community in South Central Los Angeles, and now the world of women’s boxing in his latest feature Boxing Chicks. But Counter Histories: Rock Hill changed his perspective on his craft and career ambitions. “I went through a period of time as a younger man, as a filmmaker, ‘Oh, if Bad Boy Records would only hire me,’” He said. “You know, now I don’t care. It doesn’t make a difference. It got me through that crappy cycle of trying to be cool, trying to be hip, trying to be in the mainstream, trying to go for the big money, trying to be on the red carpet. I redefined what it meant to be somebody. Because I knew in my heart I don’t have the guts to wait 54 years for somebody to tell me that what I did was right. I don’t have it in me—at least now. I’m trying. And I needed to get on that path.”
Fr3deR1cK graduated from Temple University’s documentary film program and has an M.A. in Communications from Georgia State University. Through his Atlanta-based Tomorrow Pictures Inc., he is able to produce documentaries, web content, and television features that embody the meaning he sees in the lives of his grandmother, and in the Friendship 9. His interactions with the men of the Friendship 9 was a continuation of a journey that started when he was a child.
“I didn’t even realize at the time. And I didn’t realize it until I was around these gentlemen, and I was hanging out with them,” he said. “To be around these people… it was incredibly profound. And sometimes it wasn’t even talking to them. It was just helping them up and down steps. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is what this is really all about.’ So that was a big part of the inspiration as well. The experience of living and staying alive. It was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. And I hope by the time I’m their age, I have done something that is so noble as well.”
The documentary film has aired in February and March on South Carolina’s local PBS station (SCETV) and in Los Angeles (KLCS-LA), and Tomorrow Pictures has plans to air the documentary on other PBS stations nationwide.
But Fr3deR1cK is acutely motivated to reach the Millennial generation with these stories, and when asked how he planned to do that, outlined his particular formula:
“You trick ‘em. You put it on a CD that has hot mixes on it with beats that they can dance to, and you slip in all that other stuff. You make a film that’s like super cool to look at, you wanna look at it more than one time, it’s got amazing images and pictures in it. You gotta speak to ‘em. You gotta speak to ‘em. And people have lost the art of being able to speak to young people.”
The CD produced by Tomorrow Pictures contains House and Hip-Hop music ribboned with sound bites from the major actors in the Civil Rights movement, including Lyndon Baines Johnson’s speech at the signing of the 1965 Voting Right Act. Ellen Barnard, Fr3deR1cK’s business partner and executive producer of Counter Histories: Rock Hill was very excited about this aspect of the youth focus:
“We wanted to do something that would connect maybe with an audience who wouldn’t listen to the jazz score that we have,” Ellen said. “So we have a friend out here [in Los Angeles] whose a DJ named DJ Unieq, and he works with a really talented group of club kids. It’s all original stuff, they were very inspired. So we’re excited about it.”
The production of this neoteric work echoes the themes of the Friendship 9’s story and helps to carry it into modern-day language. But not only for Black youth, Fr3deR1cK sees the men’s sacrifice as a transcendence of race or gender.
“This story translates beyond just black people,” Fr3deR1cK said. “This story translates into anybody’s everyday life in them trying to figure out how to get it done, how to get their kids educated, how to keep the lights on, how to stay healthy, how to live a decent, long and fruitful life as well.”
If you follow the mainstream news, the sound bites and images reflect that class and race in America is regressing, rather than progressing. From Ferguson, to Baltimore, and now Charleston, the louder voices pointing out injustice and division seem less interested in fostering peace or producing change that elevates a society, and more interested in fomenting violence and payback. They appear to have forgotten the philosophy, tactics, and caliber of individuals who won the first battle, when the battlefield was far worse than it is today. The fault is not in the circumstances of our times—we have seen them before—what appears to be lacking is producing in the next generation the vision, fortitude, and courage found in Juanita Taylor and the Rock Hill Friendship 9.
“There are many individuals that were tremendous sociopolitical leaders, and that were very well-to-do people that sacrificed their lives, Fr3deR1cK explains. “Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, they grew up rich kids. They chose that. It wasn’t like the only job opportunity that they had; they picked that over all these other options in life. They decided to do something with their lives. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m about something that matters. I want to be in a group of people who are moving forward to build a legacy. I’m trying to get people to say whatever you need to do with your life, do it. Don’t sit around twiddling your thumbs.”
Counter Histories: Rock Hill – Slideshow