Last Thursday night, The Brooks screened At the River I Stand, a documentary by University of Memphis Professor David Appleby. The film features rare interviews and news footage by local and national stations during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and the days leading up to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death.
After the film, Professor Appleby answered a few of the audience’s questions. Here are five questions I asked the Professor in an email the day after the film.
1. Why did you decide to make this documentary?
After watching hours of news footage shot during the strike that had been collected by the “Search for Meaning” committee and placed in the University of Memphis library, Allison Graham, Steve Ross and I decided to try and raise the funds to do a film based on that material. The more research we did, the more important we felt the film would be. It was clear to us that what had happened in Memphis was about more than the tragic death of a great leader. The Memphis movement was an important chapter in civil rights history and it had been overlooked in that regard.
2. What were your biggest obstacles in making the film?
Two really – raising the money and finding the time. We all teach at the university and filmmaking is a very time consuming endeavor.
3. Was there any footage or interview segments you wish you had included looking back 14 years later?
We actually have a longer cut of the film. In fact, it aired in Memphis when the shorter version was broadcast nationally. But, over the years, we’ve come to prefer the shorter one. There was a lot of interesting material we left out but I don’t regret it.
4. Do you see any parallels between Memphis’ past and present? Has Memphis progressed, digressed or not moved at all from where we were 40 years ago?
We’ve come a long way from 1968. When we finished the film, Mayor Herenton had just been elected and we screened it for him in his office – the same office occupied by Mayor Loeb in the film. The juxtaposition wasn’t lost on any of us. But race still divides us, economically and socially, and we have a long way to go.
5. The film talks about the manipulative role the press played during the sanitation worker’s strike. Do you feel the media today still has that power?
Of course. We are all products of information. The agenda for any public conversation is affected by media attention or inattention, and by bias –political or commercial. So it’s up to us – the consumer- to be aware of that and hold our news sources accountable when they’re not serving our best interest.
For those of you who missed it, the Brooks will be screening At the River I Stand again this Thursday, April 17 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $5 for members and $7 for non-members. Please visit brooksmuseum.org to purchase your tickets online or for more information.
Below is the print the strikers used during the movement and part of our permanent collection.
American, b. 1960
Condition Report, 2000
Iris print, 8/20
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; Memphis Brooks of Art Purchase with funds provided by Blanchard and Louise Tual, Paul and Phyllis Berz, and Jef and Babs Feibelman in honor of Kaywin Feldman and Jim Lutz 2003.2a-b
Invisible Man by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) alludes to the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and the plaques worn by the strikers (as seen above) as they picketed for fair working conditions. The assertive IM in the painting is inspired by and evokes the powerful lettering on the demonstration plaques. Invisible Man is currently on view through May 18 at The Brooks in the exhibit A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival)
American, b. 1955
Invisible Man, 2001
Book pages, gesso, acrylic on canvas
74 1/4″ x 72 1/4″ (188.6 cm x 183.5 cm)
Signed and dated: verso left
Gift of the Deupree Family Foundation and the Turley Foundation 2001.3