‘Freedom Song’ parallels civil rights activism

Aug. 03, 2014 @ 07:24 PM

In 1961, the first Freedom Ride headed South from Washington, D.C., to test the ruling of Boynton v. Virginia, which declared segregated facilities in interstate bus terminals to be unconstitutional.

And while the Freedom Riders never stopped in the fictional town of Quinlan, Miss.,. Adriane Lentz-Smith said the story set in Quinlan through the film “Freedom Song” is a largely accurate representation of the issues of the time.

The film follows African Americans in Quinlan as they try to balance exercising rights with the imminent danger of doing so.

The Durham County Library screened “Freedom Song” Sunday. Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history and director of undergraduate studies at Duke University, introduced the film and spoke briefly afterwards.

Told in flashbacks from the perspective of Owen Walker, a high school student in Quinlan, the film traces the progression of the town’s residents as they move from attempting voter registration, to sit-ins to non-violent demonstrations.

“Voter registration was not simply about getting the vote,” Lentz-Smith said. ”It was about breaking a system…that controls the resources and the power and holds it in the hands of a certain view.”

The film captures the spirit of the non-violent demonstrations of the time, directly referencing the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, an organization of the Civil Rights Movement sparked by the Woolworth’s sit-in on February 1, 1960, in Greensboro.

Met with crippling violence, the non-violent demonstrators never retaliated.

“Non-violence as a tactic complete reverses the script,” Lentz-Smith said. “(It) shocks people and wakes them up.”

Lentz-Smith discussed the impact integrated sit-ins and sit-ins with children had on casting national light on segregation.

By the end of the film, Owen and his father eat in a “whites-only” bus terminal waiting room, something they were denied at the beginning of the film, set in the early-to-mid 1960s.

But Lentz-Smith said while some historians believe the violence and opposition quelled with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and Civil Rights Act of 1965, everything only intensified from there.

“If you thought people were exercised when African Americans were trying to get the vote without federal laws to protect them, they were even more exercised when federal law said that they could have it,” Lentz-Smith said. “But making that political power a reality required them actually acting on the laws that had been passed down.”

The library will screen “Freedom Summer,” a 2014 documentary about student activists and the voter registration throughout Mississippi in 1964, in the coming weeks.