Counter Histories Connects Food & Freedom
A new film series from the Southern Foodways Alliance honors veterans of the South’s lunch counter protests.
by Jill Warren Lucas
With the Duke Center for Documentary Studies in town, Virginia Lee Williams is never surprised when a young filmmaker asks about her part in the Royal Ice Cream sit-in that roiled her hometown in the summer of 1957. But the out-of-town number attached to the new request piqued her curiosity.
Decades after she and fellow protesters calmly took whites-only seats and asked to be served, Williams is sharing her story with a global audience thanks to Counter Histories, a project of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). Produced by Kate Medley of Durham, North Carolina, the series includes five short films about young people who summoned the courage to lead lunch counter protests — events that preceded President Johnson’s landmark decision to sign the Civil Rights Act just before Independence Day in 1964.
“People need to remember how things got started, in the beginning, to understand where we are now,” says Williams, underscoring the fact that the Durham protest occurred three years before the more famous Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in that forced the Woolworth’s chain to reverse its policy of discrimination in the South. “We weren’t sure what would happen, but we knew it needed to happen. We knew it was time to test the establishment.”
Williams will appear with Medley and filmmaker Jesse Paddock of Carrboro during a February 24 screening and discussion at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. (Update: This event has been canceled due to snow.) Events with other filmmakers have been scheduled, many in observance of Black History Month.
The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which made segregation in public places illegal, was the inspiration for the short films. In addition to Durham, pivotal events in Jackson, Mississippi, Rock Hill, South Carolina, Nashville and Cambridge, Maryland, were interpreted by filmmakers with Southern roots who applied to receive SFA grants. Each short includes “veterans,” people who participated in the protests. Directors had the creative freedom to present the stories in ways that would resonate with contemporary audiences, including hiring young actors to portray historical figures.
After demonstrating in A Spoken Dish how the food we put on our tables defines the evolving diversity of contemporary Southern communities, Medley filmed the first Counter Histories segment in Jackson. It includes reflections of five veterans, including Joan Trumpauer Mulholland — seated at center below in an iconic image from the event. Anne Moody, at her right, was not interviewed and died earlier this month at age 74 following extended illness.
“Jackson is my hometown so I felt comfortable navigating some of the relationships,” Medley explains. “There were times in 2014 where you felt like you were an investigative journalist, even though you were trying to tell a story 50 years ago. A lot of the racial tensions still are pretty raw. It’s not something people want to talk about.”
At the time, blacks in Jackson were welcome to spend money on goods at the five and dime but were not permitted to sit beside white customers and be served at its lunch counter. In May 1963, national news coverage showed irate customers dousing Tougaloo College students with sugar and ketchup, eventually beating one unconscious. Coming soon after a U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing sit-ins, police did little to intercede.
NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, who helped to organize the Jackson event and a broader boycott of downtown shops, was assassinated in his driveway two weeks later.
While Medley’s directorial contribution is produced in a traditional documentary format, the one focusing on protests in Rock Hill is more experimental in its use of clean-cut young actors to recreate key moments. It’s a powerful reminder, Medley says, that “the lunch counter movement really was propelled by young people.”
In this case, nine young men from Friendship College made a pact to take civil disobedience to an untried level. In January 1961, after asking to be served at the McCrory’s lunch counter, they were arrested and fined. With the motto “Jail, No Bail,” they refused to give money to a racist system, opting instead to accept a 30-day sentence of hard labor.
In January, 54 years later, South Carolina Judge Mark Haynes vacated the charges, saying: “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.” Eight of the men were present for the formal apology; the ninth has died.
The Counter Histories website places these five events in compelling context of protests that were occurring across the South. SFA Executive Director John T. Edge says he was glad to entrust oversight of this important project to Medley, who earned her master’s degree at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
“She understands the power or narrative and images to change perspective,” Edge says, “and she believes, as I do, that Southerners bear a responsibility to help Americans understand how our past impacts this present.”
Upcoming Events for Counter Histories:
February 14: Roswell Roots Festival, “Breaking Down Barriers Around the Table: Pound Cake Cook-off and Southern Foodways Alliance Films,” Roswell, Georgia, from 1-3 p.m.
February 17: Anne Arundel Community College, near Annapolis, Maryland, featuring filmmaker Nick Michael at 12:30 p.m.
February 20: Underexposed Film Festival, Rock Hill, South Carolina, featuring Ellen Barnard and Frederick Taylor at 7 p.m.
February 24: Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOPNC) at Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, featuring producer Kate Medley, filmmaker Jesse Paddock and veteran Virginia Williams, at 7 p.m. – THIS EVENT HAS BEEN CANCELED DUE TO SNOW
Photos and videos from Counter Histories website.
Jill Warren Lucas is a writer in Raleigh, North Carolina, who blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.