March 12, 2014, “The Florida Civil Rights Struggle: Past & Present” panel discussion
By Emily Nyren, Intern alumni and Volunteer

Event Press Release (PDF)

In the News: “UF students get immersed in the history of civil rights,” The Gainesville Sun, by Jeff Schweers, March 10, 2014, and “Several give stark accounts of segregation-era racism,” The Gainesville Sun, by Jeff Schweers, March 12, 2014.

On March 12, 2014, the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) presented a panel discussion by civil rights veterans to honor the 50th anniversary of the modern civil right movement in Florida. Students read excerpts from SPOHP’s African American History Project (AAHP), providing the audience with more stories of others involved in the movement. AAHP contains oral histories with African Americans in Alachua County, UF, and surrounding areas who grew up during the final decades of legal segregation.

Dr. Ortiz opened the discussion by reflecting on the Florida Civil Rights Movement and asked the audience, “Where do we go from here?” This question was the theme of the evening as panelists one-by-one recounted their individual experiences and commented on the state of civil rights affairs in 2014. The panelists included: Mrs. Vivian Filer, Mr. Dan Harmeling, Mrs. Rosemary Florence, and Mr. John Due.

Reverend Milford Griner delivers the invocation before the panel discussion at the March 12 civil rights panel event. Photo by Cornelius Clayton.

Vivian Filer, a member of Gainesville Women for Equal Rights in the 1960s, became a Professor of Nursing at Santa Fe College, where she worked for 26 years of service before recently retiring. Filer currently serves as vice chair of the Rosa Parks Quiet Courage Committee and as chair of the Board of Directors for the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center. Filer, a self-proclaimed story-teller, reflected on growing up in Alachua County and her daily walk past three white schools to attend Lincoln High School. Filer spoke of wonderful black teachers who were very involved in all aspects of the students’ lives. It was these teachers and her own personal experiences enduring Jim Crow that propelled Filer to organize the integration of health facilities in Alachua County.

Panelists Vivian Filer and Dan Harmeling being introduced by Dr. Paul Ortiz. Photo by Cornelius Clayton.
Panelists Vivian Filer and Dan Harmeling being introduced by Dr. Paul Ortiz. Photo by Cornelius Clayton.

Dan Harmeling, a mathematics instructor at Sante Fe College, remains active in the civil rights movement in Florida. As a UF student in the early 1960s, Harmeling was a member of the Student Group for Equal Rights (SEGR) and organized against segregation in Gainesville. Harmeling recounted the day the SEGR organized a student picket against discrimination at the University College Inn, a popular student restaurant. Remembered by many local civil rights workers, the picket was launched to encourage the desegregation of Gainesville businesses. Harmeling also engaged in active recruitment of black students once he and friends realized that their university was supplying scholarships for students to attend Florida A&M instead of UF.

The activist legacy of Harmeling’s brother, Jim, was also honored in a display that featured family photos and newspaper clippings. A second display highlighting the community organizing work of staff and faculty activists, including Bob Canney, in the 1960s and 1970s was also featured during the reception.

John Due discussing his book, “Freedom in the Family,” on the Florida civil rights movement. Photo by Cornelius Clayton.
John Due discussing his book, “Freedom in the Family,” on the Florida civil rights movement. Photo by Cornelius Clayton.

Rosemary Florence, a retired history teacher, recalled her experiences of being involved in civil rights as a middle school student. Florence told the audience of the overt racism in Ocala compared to Jacksonville, where she attended elementary school. For Florence, civil rights work was a family affair and everyone participated as foot soldiers in the movement. Florence quoted Ron Brown to explain that the struggle continues and it is through our hearts, that change can be realized. “What is race? It is something to be run. There is one race. It is the human race.” This statement aligns with the words of Harmeling and Due who both noted the power of white and black civil rights workers working together.

SPOHP staff and interns watching the panel from the second floor of Pugh Hall. Photo by Cornelius Clayton.
SPOHP staff and interns watching the panelists speak from the second floor of Pugh Hall. Photo by Cornelius Clayton.

John Due graduated from Florida A&M Law School and began actively working in the Civil Rights Movement in 1963. Due took depositions of African Americans denied the right to register to vote in McComb, Mississippi. Like Rosemary Florence, Due emphasized the importance of family in his work for civil rights. While on a book selection committee for K-12 schools in Miami-Dade County, Due and his wife became unsatisfied with the lack of literature on Florida civil rights. Their dissatisfaction spurred his wife and daughter to write a book in 2003. During the Q&A portion, the panelists stressed the need for leadership and personal story-telling to keep the struggle for civil rights alive.

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, UF Professor and friend of SPOHP, and panelist John Due. Photo by Cornelius Clayton.
Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, UF Professor and friend of SPOHP, and panelist John Due. Photo by Cornelius Clayton.

Throughout the event, the audience audibly affirmed their appreciation and agreement in the points and stories expressed by the panelists. The Ocora room in Pugh Hall was filled with different generations of civil rights workers, teachers, and community members who coalesced in their appreciation of the efforts of many in the room fight inequality. After the panel, audience members gathered over delicious food and drinks to continue the discussion on “where do we go from here?”

Many thanks to SPOHP’s co-sponsors, Center for Humanities and the Public Sphere Rothman Endowment, UF’s African American Studies Program, UF Center for Women’s Studies, UF Smathers Libraries, Bob Graham Center for Public Service, UF’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Affairs, Institute of Hispanic-Latino Cultures, and the UF Office of the Provost for contributing to the engaging event.

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march 2014 cotton clubGet to know the Cotton Club Museum with Vivian Filer to prepare for next week’s big event, “Florida Civil Rights Struggle: Past & Present” on March 12. From NCNCF.org.

Joel Buchanan, a longtime Gainesville resident and noted local historian, reflects on the circumstances and experiences of his high school education, when he participated in public school desegregation by being among one of the first students to integrate Gainesville High School. He graduated from GHS with honors and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UF, later teaching in Alachua County public schools and also working in Smathers Library at the University of Florida. Edited by Chelsea Carnes. For more information about the African American History Project and the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, visit Oral History Program.

January 15, 2014, “Trouble the Water” Film Screening & Symposium
By Emily Nyren, Intern Alumni and Volunteer

march 2014 tia
“Trouble the Water” Screening & Symposium Event Poster

 On January 15, 2014, SPOHP hosted renowned documentary filmmaker Tia Lessin for a film screening and symposium related to her award-winning film, “Trouble the Water.”  In the afternoon, the UF Center for Women’s Studies held a symposium discussion, and SPOHP held a screening of the documentary that evening. In the film, Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott document the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina with their own original footage, as well as their struggle to recover in the following months.

Panel Event: Tia Lessin with Prof. Sharon Austin, Prof. Barbara Mennel, Prof. Churchill Roberts, and Prof. Judith Page in Ustler Hall

Panelists included the following UF faculty: Professor Sharon Wright Austin, Director of the African American Studies program and professor of political science, Professor and film scholar Barbara Mennel from the English Department, and Professor Churchill Roberts of the College of Journalism. Professor Judith W. Page, the Director of UF’s Center for Women’s Studies, moderated the panel. During the discussion, Dr. Austin described New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm: the city had the highest rate of childhood poverty and was the murder capital of the United States.

Background: Hurricane Katrina

Despite knowing this, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and other members of New Orleans local government did not provide public transportation for those without vehicles or the money needed to evacuate. The Ninth Ward, the neighborhood where the film’s heroes emerge, is the poorest section of New Orleans and subsequently, the recipient of the least amount of aid.In the film, Kimberly Rivers makes note of the lack of transportation and says, “If I had wheels I’d be gone too. I’m not leaving because I can’t afford it.” According to Dr. Austin, New Orleans’s political problems can be explained by the lack of a cohesive political regime. Because the mayor did not have a good relationship with other city leaders, political infighting occurred, causing miscommunication and lack of effective action.

As discussed during the panel by Barbara Mennel, “Trouble the Water” exposes the blatant contrast between on-the-ground footage like Kimberly’s and the biased media coverage. According to Mennel, the film documents the socioeconomic inequality faced by residents of the Ninth Ward while also displaying the forms of resistance used to expose the political power structure of the local and federal government. Kimberly’s neighbors looked to her for community and strength in a neighborhood that was already accustomed to waiting for help and change. At the end of the symposium, Lessin describes her purpose for traveling to Louisiana ten days after the storm. Wanting to know why the aid was so late, Lessin traveled to Alexandria, LA to film the return of Louisiana National Guardsmen from Baghdad. While there, Kimberly found Lessin’s camera crew and the two struck up a partnership that led to the creation of the film.

Screening Presentation: “Trouble the Water” with Tia Lessin in Pugh Hall

Justin Hosbey, a graduate coordinator for SPOHP’s African American History Project and a third year doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at UF, introduced Lessin to the audience. Hosbey’s doctoral research focuses on post-Katrina New Orleans and the social consequences of the privatization of public schools and prisons. Many members of the audience showed agreement for Hosbey’s claim that calling Katrina a “natural disaster” is a misnomer because the human response to the hurricane is more responsible for the disastrous effects. Hosbey’s claim is proven after watching the film because it takes you through the many steps taken by Kimberly, Scott and their new friend Brian as they attempt to carve out a new life without help from anyone in power.

One of the most shocking aspects of the film was the blatant lack of response by the federal government and FEMA to the crisis. After the storm, President George W. Bush claimed that the U.S. could simultaneously defend the country via the War on Terror while also aiding victims of Hurricane Katrina. Evident in the film was the lack of help from the National Guard as it took days for them to arrive from far-away states like Oregon. 6,000 of Louisiana’s National Guard, including their high-water vehicles, were serving in Baghdad during Hurricane Katrina. This information caused vocal disbelief from the audience during the film. If the federal government had not sent the vast majority of Louisiana’s Guardsmen overseas, the citizens of New Orleans would have undoubtedly received more expedient help in the immediate hours after the storm instead of enduring 100 hours without food or water.

During the Q/A, Lessin explained the formatting of the film. Lessin wanted to mirror the way that PTSD occurs by continuously returning to the location of the disaster. Her method inspired deep empathy from the audience as well as outrage that so little help was provided for vulnerable groups, including the poor, elderly, and hospitalized.

Event Gallery

“Trouble the Water” illustrates the concern of New Orleans’ economic and political leaders for increasing tourism rather than rebuilding neighborhoods and communities that still need aid, almost ten years later. While certainly not the first or last time that a local and federal government has acted with the interests of the powerful and wealthy in mind, the situation of Katrina is particularly upsetting. At the end of the film, one and a half years after the storm, Kimberly says, “Here in New Orleans its like they’re preparing people for prison.”

The response to Hurricane Katrina, as depicted in “Trouble the Water,” is both an instructional how-to for governments that wish to perpetuate inequality for its citizens as well as an inspiring story of perseverance and mutual-aid for those like Kimberly and Scott who did not give up.

Sponsors

The “Trouble the Water” symposium and film screening was free and open to the public, organized by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and co-sponsored by the Center for Humanities and the Public Sphere Rothman Endowment, African American Studies Program, UF Center for Women’s Studies, UF Smathers Libraries, Bob Graham Center for Public Service, Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations and College of Journalism and CommunicationsPleasant Plain United Methodist Church and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

“Keep Your Trash” 1971 Documentary on Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike Newly Released for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebrations on UF Digital Collections

Gainesville, FL—Award-winning PBS documentarian Churchill Roberts was a doctoral student at the University of Iowa in 1971 when he produced the first documentary film recounting events of the historic 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers strike and assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Four decades after its original release, “Keep Your Trash” is now newly digitized and available on the UF Digital Collections through the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and George A. Smathers Libraries.

Roberts became personally involved with the strike when he began working with a group called Memphis Search for Meaning Committee as a young graduate student, collecting footage and interviews about the strike shortly after Dr. King’s death.

In subsequent years, Churchill Roberts became an award-winning film maker and a prominent professor in the College of Journalism at the University of Florida. His films include, “Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore” (2001), and “Negroes With Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power” (2006).

Thinking back over four decades after the making of “Keep Your Trash,” Professor Roberts recalls:

“The events in Memphis changed my life completely. Before attending Iowa, I had taught communication for a year in a vocational program funded by the Manpower Development Training Act, an act of Congress to help people at the bottom of the economic ladder, particularly minorities, develop job skills. Teaching in the vocational program made me realize how unfair society had been to the less privileged. Dr. King’s assassination brought a sense of urgency to the problem.

 

At Iowa, I took a course on race relations and focused my early research on the portrayal of minorities on television. Later, I had an opportunity to make several PBS documentaries about unsung heroes of the civil rights era.”

To commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Roberts released a copy of “Keep Your Trash” to the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program for educational use, and the film is now available to the public through the generous support of George A. Smathers Libraries.

UF’s 2014 celebrations of Martin Luther King Day are organized by the Multicultural & Diversity Affairs program.

For more information about “Keep Your Trash” and additional oral histories of the civil rights movement, please contact the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

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