Black Lives (and Stories) Matter: Part III

For 15 years, Firelight has produced films that expose injustice, illuminate the power of nonviolent protest, and tell a history seldom told.

We have chosen to document moments in U.S. history when ordinary people displayed extraordinary courage. From Diane Nash coordinating a plan to desegregate bus lines, to Russell Means leading an occupation of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to Fannie Lou Hamer testifying at the Democratic National Convention, to Emory Douglas translating the hopes and dreams of his community into powerful art. People who show us what we are capable of in the face of hatred, fear, indifference and injustice. People who show us that peace is forged through justice, and that we all have a role to play to ensure our society is just.

So in this volatile political climate, we look back at this history for clues to the way forward. Here are five lessons Firelight has learned from the courageous individuals and events we’ve documented.

Support the leadership of young people.

Young people have always been at the vanguard of progressive change in this country. In fact, we have yet to document a social movement that has been led by elders!  Young people need to learn this in school, see it on screen, and hear it from their community so they can recognize their power. And when young people lead, we should offer our wisdom, counsel and support.

Recognize women’s leadership.

History has shown that women bear a unique burden of state and racial violence. Yet too often women are only seen as victims, but rendered invisible as leaders. Women are more than the foot soldiers of social movements, they are quite often the architects and strategists, as we saw so powerfully with women like Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash. It’s time that women’s leadership is recognized, documented, honored, and compensated.

Engage allies.

For every courageous person putting their life on the line for change, there is always an ally willing to stand in solidarity. The Mississippi Freedom Summer Project was a stellar example of how college students in the north risked their lives, and used their privilege, to agitate for the right to vote for disenfranchised southerners. Latino, Asian and white community activists collaborated with the Black Panther Party by helping to raise funds and support protests. From abolition to the movement for Black Lives, confronting racism has never been the sole work of African Americans, or people of color. Social change requires everyone to be involved and find a role.

Use images to catalyze action.

When Mamie Till gave the photo of her dismembered son Emmett to the Black press she understood the power of an image. When Freedom Riders invited journalists on the buses they sought to desegregate, they understood the power of engaging witnesses to document racial violence. And while we understand that images cannot protect communities from violence, they can play a powerful role in inspiring change and paving the way for justice.

Join an organization.

When audiences at screenings ask how they can make change, veteran organizers typically give the same answer – ‘join an organization.’ Any rights or social gains that have been attained in this country have been won through collective action. Whether by the ballot or in the streets, the civil rights organizations we have documented have served to unite people under common goals and channel emotions into action. The best way for an individual to effect a big change is to join, create or donate to an organization working on issues you care about.

Mining history for lessons for our present moment is key to moving us all forward. Let us know a lesson you have learned and applied from a historical documentary. Share your thoughts on Twitter via #ChangingTheStory.

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