- State of Alabama:The Story of a Film
MARCH 1965: MONTGOMERY AND SELMA ALABAMA.
Close up images of civil rights marchers and their leaders in Selma and Montgomery. The scene is overlaid with an outline map of the state of Alabama.
Marchers are singing:
"Black and white together, Black and white together, Black and white together. Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.
We are not afraid, We are not afraid. We are not afraid today. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.
We shall overcome.
Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom, now! Freedom, now! Freedom, now! Freedom, now!
Who is our leader? Martin King! Who is our leader? Martin King! Who is our leader? Martin King! Who is our leader? Martin King!"
Inspiring images, inspiring music. these are familiar scenes which are instantly recognizable to those of us sitting here in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2016, as events which took place in Alabama at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Yet, when this film was made, the filmmakers did not mean to inspire—they meant to feed on the fear and paranoia already felt by many white Alabamians and others across the nation. [End Page 3]
The seeds of the movement and the seeds of that paranoia were planted and fed in Montgomery in 1956. The success of the boycott gave hope to many African Americans that equality and justice were attainable goals, while many white Alabamians saw only a changing society and an assault on long held traditions. The events and societal changes of the next ten years only added to their anxiety, fear, and paranoia. This was the world that created State of Alabama, a curious little film produced by the Alabama Sovereignty Commission in 1965. This is the story of that film.
I first became aware of this film about thirty years ago, when I started working at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. It is part of a larger collection of records created by the State Sovereignty Commission. In the mid–1980s, we were contacted by producers at Blackside, Inc., who were working on a documentary history of the Civil Rights movement, which would become known as the groundbreaking PBS series, Eyes on the Prize. According to former ADAH staff member Alden Monroe, they had a small piece of a film produced by the State of Alabama about the Selma to Montgomery march and wanted to know if we had the rest of the film. Interestingly, we had a film with a piece missing. Alden made arrangements for them to borrow our film to use in the film series. In return they added the section we didn't have and provided us with restored use copies.1
I vividly remember a group of Archives staff members sitting in my living room watching the VHS tape for the first time after we received it, anxious to see what this film was all about. And what a curiosity it was—amazing scenes of marchers in Selma and Montgomery and all points in between, a script that could be both comical and offensive (sometimes at the same time), crude graphics, and a bizarre ending. At that time it was the only film footage we had of the Selma to Montgomery march, and it has since been used countless times in the production of documentaries on the Civil Rights movement. Last year, during the 50th anniversary of the march, we pulled the film back out to watch again. A new generation of archivists watched with [End Page 4] amazement, horror, shock, and shame. At that moment I realized that I wanted to tell the story of this film.
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The Alabama State Sovereignty Commission was created in late 1963, following the creation of its sister agency, the Legislative Commission to Preserve the Peace. These agencies, like similar government organizations in other southern states, were set up to protect the "sovereignty" of states' rights, to fight desegregation, and...