Occurring from July 15-25, 2015, the March on Washington Film Festival enters its third year. Originated in Washington D.C. on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the march itself, it now exists with the express goal of maintaining a social and cultural link to the civil rights movement. Now, three years later the festival’s goals — much like the civil rights movement’s goals — encompass everything from creating positive spaces to discussing troubling issues surrounding race and racism to improving the presentation of the movement as an educational tool.
Brightest Young Things had the opportunity to speak with Beth Lynk, a Senior Associate at The Raben Group and an Associate Producer at the March on Washington Film Festival. With a compassionate eye aimed at awareness, education and preservation of the movement’s legacy, she does well in addressing the importance of the festival.
If so motivated after reading this interview, visit the festival’s website for ticketing and event information.
How does one go about starting a civil rights related film festival?
So, the March on Washington Film Festival started three years ago and was the brainchild of Robert Raben, who’s not only the founder of the March on Washington Film Festival, but also the president and founder of the Raben Group which produces the Film Festival. It was started as a way to increase awareness of the civil rights era and to inspire a renewed passion for activism. Three years ago was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, so the name was initially related to that.
That same year, we had Congressman John Lewis and a few other notable [civil rights movement] footsoldiers from inside the Washington D.C. area, but was also the first iteration of the idea of being able to bring in footsoldiers and organizers on the ground at that time to D.C. so that people could hear and see and get a fuller picture of the events that were happening 50 years ago. Last year we expanded to three cities — D.C., New York City and Atlanta — and we held screenings over three weeks in each of those cities. We really reached some great audiences in each of those cities. One of the things that we want is to create that “destination film festival” feel, and we wanted to bring a community of civil rights icons together in one place and really invest in that community.
That brings us to this year, where we’re holding 12 events over 10 days in Washington D.C. We’ve got some great writers, scholars and civil rights icons coming to speak. We’ve got Claudette Colvin on July 24th, an original bus boycotter. Also we have Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, the daughter of one of the only white women to be killed in the civil rights movement after the Selma march. On the 25th, we have conversations with Sarah Collins Rudolph and former Attorney General Eric Holder, too. The ability to bring together foot soldiers and feature stories with film and music is something that we’re really excited about.
Obviously, the civil rights movement for African-Americans is in the news yet again for this generation. How did this impact how you planned this year’s event?
I think it did. So, one of the secondary goals of the film festival is to really influence the way that civil rights are taught and to encourage students to be engaged in civil rights issues. In January, the film festival partnered with Selma for Students to fundraise over $12,000 to send over 10,000 students to see the film Selma in the D.C. and Maryland area. We partnered with DC Public Schools to allow that to happen. That was really spectacular.
Also, regarding the recent violent massacre at Emmanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston, SC, we actually kicked off this year’s film festival at Metropolitan AME Zion Church here in D.C. To discuss the legacy of [Mississippi-born black voting rights activist] Fannie Lou Hamer at an AME church and to bring together everyone there puts forth a powerful message. The other thing is that, unplanned regarding recent events, we’re having a conversation about South Carolina and the civil rights movement which will be a particularly compelling and relevant conversation. We’ll be showing the film I Am Somebody, which is about the 1959 nurses’ strike in Charleston. Emmanuel AME is featured in that film when Corretta Scott King speaks there and it’s two-to-three minutes of very compelling footage.
Also, this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, so we’re also discussing what the march towards voting rights [for black people] looked like. Those are the aforementioned conversations with [1963 bombing of Birmingham, AL’s 16th Street Baptist Church survivor] Sarah Collins Rudolph and former Attorney General Eric Holder that we’re having on the 25th.
The festival seems to be broken down by a subset of themes regarding issues deeper than just civil rights on the surface. How do you undertake this process of breaking down to movement, and why do you feel it’s important to do so?
That’s a really important question. In the early days when we were concepting what the film festival would look like for this year, we started with 30 different themes that people wanted to address, and we whittled it down from there to about 15. We then decided to dive into what was relevant at the time and would engage with the audience, then we thought about what type of films, art and music would be able to tell the stories compellingly. Our team at the Raben Group who produce the film festival work very very closely in that process.
In terms of the themes, we want to help broaden the understanding of what civil rights education is. We don’t want civil rights to be taught like, “Rosa sat on the bus, Martin Luther King stood up, and now we have rights!” We want to dive into the sub-pockets and the intricacies. Also, we want every voice in this discussion to matter. We want people to tell the stories of the individual voices that protested, the feet that marched and spotlight each component of the civil rights era.
Women’s stories were an important piece of the civil rights era. We had to do something about a person like Fannie Lou Hamer. We also really wanted to talk about people like black historian Isabel Wilkerson and stories like her books dealing with the role of women in the Great Migration. We’re trying to tell a lot of snapshots of stories of the fabric of the civil rights movement.
We’ve also included and family component and have events where children discuss what it meant to be a “child of the movement,” too. Dick Gregory’s daughter Ayanna is a great person to have tell that story. I went down to Selma for the 50th anniversary march and heard her speak and sing along with her father and it was compelling as not a lot of people get to hear that. To hear about the sacrifices is important, but then also to realize that they were worth it is, too.
As a native Washingtonian, I was really glad to see that black-owned and operated WOL Radio host and TV personality Petey Greene was included in this festival through the showing of the 2007-released film about his career, Talk To Me. Your thoughts on Greene and radio’s involvement in D.C.’s civil rights movement in particular?
Radio in the civil rights movement isn’t something we necessarily think about when we think of the role of media. However, radio was intricately involved and a part of that. A lot of people don’t know about Petey Greene, so we’re excited to be showing the documentary about his life. Cathy Hughes spoke on that panel, and it was a really dynamic event, telling stories that people didn’t know.
On Saturday, July 25, the festival is closing with what looks like an amazing conversation involving the legacies of judges Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley. As well, overall, your final thoughts about the event’s goals and how they’re executed?
We’re closing this whole festival at the Supreme Court in a conversation about freedom and the law, talking about Justices Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley and screening the film The Trials of Constance Baker Motley. That should be a great way to ground the film festival in legal work that was so intricately involved in moving the movement forward. With everything that’s going on, one of the goals is to allow students and families to have space to have hard conversations about race. It’s a little bit easier to do it over a film, conversation or performance. That’s something that we’re really excited about.