Sitting-In History 

Film highlights forgotten civil rights story.

As Black History Month continues, so do the stories of Rosa Parks' ride on the bus, Martin Luther King's marches, and Malcom X's famous "by any means necessary" statement. But it's a lesser-known segment of black history that will be featured when the Memphis chapter of the National Black MBA Association hosts its second annual Black Film Festival.

The festival's main film is February One, a documentary chronicling the events of February 1, 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina, when four freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University helped jump-start the civil rights movement.

Disenfranchised by the segregationist rules of the Jim Crow South, the Greensboro Four -- Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair Jr.) -- took seats at a Woolworth's lunch counter and asked to be served. The store management allowed black people to purchase school supplies and toiletries but forbade them to eat at the counter.

Although the four were unsuccessful (they remained at the counter without food until closing), their resolve intensified. They returned the next day with more students, and the act sparked a sweeping, nonviolent protest. Hundreds of students staged sit-ins in more than 35 Southern cities. And while the Greensboro incident was the first of its kind, it hasn't received the recognition of sit-ins in other cities, including Nashville.

"I believed it was a story worth telling," says Rebecca Cerese, a producer of February One. Cerese will be speaking about the film at the festival.

"It's unbelievable, even in North Carolina, how little people know about it," she says. "We felt it was a really important, North Carolina story and one that impacted an entire nation."

Cerese and colleagues at the Durham-based production company Video Dialog worked on the film over a five-year period and released the documentary in 2002. Executive producer Steven Channing originally developed the project as a historical drama, which was picked up by Showtime. After that project was shelved, Cerese suggested remaking the film as a documentary.

Cerese did most of the research and interviews for the 61-minute film, includes interviews with three of the Greensboro Four (Richmond died in 1990) on their decision to rebel and the impact it had on their lives. Narration and interviews with historians are included only to provide context, making February One more personal. According to Cerese, "That's one of the reasons it resonates with people, because it's just these ordinary folks talking about their extraordinary experience. I'm proud and humbled that they entrusted us with their story, and I think we did right by them."

 

The 1960 sit-in at Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina

During and since the production, Cerese has noticed a new appreciation of the Greensboro Four sit-in. The men's alma mater erected a statue of the four activists and hosts campus-wide conferences each year. In a city that once rejected the sit-in as part of its history, the Greensboro Four have become heroes.

In selecting films for its festival, MBA members wanted to highlight African Americans during the month, but content was also key. "Diversity is important and inclusion is important, and this film is about both," said association president Ann Strong-Jenkins. "We wanted to get the message out that the more we know about each other, the more we can begin to embrace different cultures." To push this idea along, the organization is inviting middle-school students to the screenings as a black-history field trip.

February One was screened at last year's IndieMemphis Film Festival but received limited interest. IndieMemphis organizers, however, were taken with the subject matter and put Cerese in contact with the MBA.

The film implies a call to action. "I really believe that folks need to start participating in our democracy and let their voice be heard," says Cerese. "And that's what these guys were doing. There's a line in the film that says [the four] were teaching America how people deserved to be treated. I think it's that simple."

In addition to February One, the festival will include the 1996 film Soul of the Game, a documentary/drama about the rivalry among three Negro League baseball players and their shot at playing major-league. Cerese will be joined by retired major leaguer and Memphis native Reggie Williams for a discussion on race relations and black history.

The Black Film Festival runs Tues.-Wed., February 17th-18th, at the Malco Paradiso.

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