Stanley Nelson Director of Freedom Summer at AFI DOCS
50 years ago, more than 700 black and white college students from across the United States congregated in Mississippi to confront the terrorism facing the state’s black citizens for trying to exercise their right to vote. Before the effort had even begun, three volunteers were murdered, making the stakes clear and the students more determined than ever to shine a national light on Mississippi’s shameful segregation practices. Over the next ten weeks, they canvassed neighborhoods, started freedom schools, and lived within black communities. All the while, they witnessed the courage of the people who fought for their rights under threat of intimidation, beatings, and death. Before the end of that summer, the native Mississippians formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the official state slate of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. It was the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Freedom Summer tells the story of that historic milestone in the Civil Rights movement, and the documentary airs on PBS this summer in celebration of its 50th anniversary. The topic is an intrinsic one for filmmaker Stanley Nelson, whose first production, Two Dollars and a Dream: the Story of Madam C.J. Walker, was named Best Production of the Decade by the Black Filmmaker Foundation upon its debut in 1989. In the ensuing twenty-five years, Nelson has made multitudes of films that explore and expose America’s history, often bringing to light the untold contributions of African Americans to this country. Those documentaries include the Emmy Award-nominated the Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1999), the Emmy Award-winning “The Murder of Emmett Till” episode of PBS’s the American Experience (1988), and Freedom Riders, which won two Emmy awards in 2010. He has been honored as a recipient of the 2002 MacArthur Fellow Program and has completed fellowships with the American Film Institute, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and Columbia University.
At Freedom Summer’s screening at the 2014 AFI Docs Festival, we caught up with Nelson to ask him about his work on this important film. We were also honored to speak with a few of the student volunteers that summer who had come to view the film themselves. Terri Shaw worked the telephones constantly during her stay in Palmers Crossing, MS. Her detailed account of the intimidation the students faced and the warmth of the black Southerners who housed them served as a primary source of PBS’s Eyes on the Prize in 2006. Larry Rubin was a field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee between 1961 and 1965, and he’s been interviewed by the National Museum of American History and has spoken nationally about his experiences.
His films are regularly funded by national grants, but Stanley Nelson’s allegiance is to his audience.
Despite the national significance of much of Nelson’s work, he maintains that making films that resonant with audiences is his first and foremost goal.
This volunteer is thrilled Freedom Summer focuses on the bravery of African Americans more than on her own.
Shaw found the film to be an excellent portrayal of the events as they happened. She was especially pleased that Nelson captured the feel of the experience and profiled the bravest of them all that summer: the African Americans who lived in Mississippi.
Freedom Summer gives credit for that historical event where it’s due: to the black people of Mississippi.
Rubin gives us his reaction to the film, enthusing over how well Freedom Summer captured that the students’ role was to support the black citizens of Mississippi, not to supplant or lead them.