The NAACP on Film: Three Documentaries from California Newsreel

By Campbell, Marne L. | The Journal of African American History, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The NAACP on Film: Three Documentaries from California Newsreel


Campbell, Marne L., The Journal of African American History


The Road to Brown, directed by William Elwood and Mykola Kulish, California Newsreel, 1990. DVD, $26.95.

Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story, directed by Bill Kavanaugh, California Newsreel, 2008, DVD, $49.95.

Tulia, Texas, directed by Cassandra Herman and Kelly Whalen, California Newsreel, 2008, DVD, $49.95.

California Newsreel has produced many important documentaries films on African American history, culture, and politics over the last several decades. One of the best known is the late Martin Rigg's 1987 award-winning Ethnic Notions (1987). California Newsreel has given us important film material for use in the classroom and other educational purposes to document the diversity within the African American experience in the United States. While earlier films such as The Road to Brown released in 1990 chronicle the NAACP's long struggle to desegregate the school systems and other public accommodations in the United States, two recent films, Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story and Tulia, Texas, both from 2008, highlight the social justice issues that arose more recently surrounding housing segregation and the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The common thread that ties these three documentaries together is the significant role the NAACP played in remedying serious and formidable racial injustices.

Founded in 1909, the NAACP has fought to end racial discrimination and legal segregation, Jim Crow or "American apartheid." Without the work of the NAACP, schools in the South might have remained segregated for many more years; the city of Yonkers, New York, would have remained racially and physically divided; and forty-six people in Tulia, Texas, would still be incarcerated after being targeted by corrupt police officials. When we consider all three documentary films together, they recount much about the broader history of the NAACP and its legal engagement with the judicial and criminal justice system on behalf of African Americans who otherwise would have remained oppressed victims of the white supremacist practices and racial injustices.

The Road to Brown is one of the best documentaries to chronicle how, beginning in the 1930s, African Americans attacked legal segregation. While the film focuses on the life of Charles Hamilton Houston, the central figure in NAACP litigation plans, it also documents the long history of racist practices that kept African Americans from receiving the same levels of economic resources and funding for public education as whites, particularly from the 1890s through the 1950s. While Houston's vision for the United States was one of equal rights for all citizens, he along with others set an agenda to fight segregation in the public school system, and ultimately, in all public accommodations. His approach was to use the legal system to equalize teachers' salaries in southern school districts, and to desegregate publicly funded professional and graduate schools, colleges and universities, and eventually public elementary and secondary schools. (1)

In the film The Road to Brown, the narrative begins with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision in which people of African descent were denied citizenship in the United States, which at its founding was to be "a white, Christian nation." The ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in the years immediately after the Civil War symbolized the significant gains African Americans made following the general emancipation in 1865. Unfortunately, by 1877 at the latest, the southern states were again controlled by white supremacist politicians in the Democratic Party who began passing legislative measures to enforce racial separation and to rescind citizenship rights legally granted to African Americans. The Jim Crow laws and governmental practices were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, thus making racially separate public facilities legally necessary. …

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