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56 minutes, 1993 Directors: David Appleby, Allison Graham and Steven Ross
ABOUT THE FILM
1994 Erik Barnouw Award for Best Documentary, Organization of American Historians
THE 1968 MEMPHIS SANITATION WORKERS STRIKE AND THE ASSASSINATION OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING
Memphis, Spring 1968 marked the dramatic climax of the Civil Rights movement. At the River I Stand skillfully reconstructs the two eventful months that transformed a strike by Memphis sanitation worker into a national conflagration, and disentangles the complex historical forces that came together with the inevitability of tragedy at the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This 58-minute documentary brings into sharp relief issues that have only become more urgent in the intervening years: the connection between economic and civil rights, debates over strategies for change, the demand for full inclusion of African Americans in American life and the fight for dignity for public employees and all working people.
In the 1960s, Memphis' 1,300 sanitation workers formed the lowest caste of a deeply racist society, earning so little they qualified for welfare. In the film, retired workers recall their fear about taking on the entire white power structure when they struck for higher wages and union recognition.
But local civil rights leaders and the Black community soon realized the strike was part of the struggle for economic justice for all African Americans. Through stirring historical footage we see the community mobilizing behind the strikers, organizing mass demonstrations and an Easter boycott of downtown businesses. The national leadership of AFSCME put the international union's full resources behind the strike. One day, a placard appeared on the picket lines which in its radical simplicity summed up the meaning of the strike: "I am a man."
In March, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis as part of his Poor People's Campaign to expand the civil rights agenda to the economy. The film recreates the controversies between King's advisors, local leaders, and younger militants - debates that led to open conflict. When young hotheads turned King's protest march into a violent confrontation with the brutal Memphis policy, King left.
King and the nation realized his leadership and nonviolent strategy had been threatened. King felt obliged to return to Memphis to resume a nonviolent march despite the by-now feverish racial tensions. The film captures the deep sense of foreboding that pervaded King's final "I have been to the mountaintop" speech. The next day, April 4, 1968, he was assassinated.
Four days later, thousands from Memphis and around the country rallied to pull off King's nonviolent march. The city council crumbled and granted most of the strikers' demands. Those 1,300 sanitation workers had shown they could successfully challenge the entrenched economic structure of the South.
Endemic inner-city poverty, attempts to roll back gains won by public employees, and the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us make clear that the issues Martin Luther King, Jr. raised in his last days have yet to be addressed. At the River I Stand succeeds in showing that the causes of (and possibly the solutions to) our present racial quandary may well be found in what happened in Memphis. Its riveting portrait of the grit and determination of ordinary people will inspire viewers to re-dedicate themselves to racial and economic justice -----------------------
RESOURCES Visit www.we-r-1.org for April 4 actions in support of the rights of working people. -----------------------
PRODUCERS David Appleby began making and producing documentaries 30 years ago with his first film, Remains (1979). His independent and collaborative film work has earned him a Peabody Award, a duPont-Columbia Award, three CINE Golden Eagle awards, as well as a regional Emmy and a national Emmy nomination. He is currently a professor at the University of Memphis. Other titles by the producer: Hoxie: The First Stand
A professor of Media Studies in the Department of Communication at The University of Memphis, Allison Graham currently researches and teaches American culture, and media. Her work spans documentary film production, journalism, and scholarly publication, for which she has received several national awards, international and national grants, and an Emmy nomination.
Steven Ross writes, produces, and directs documentary and fiction films. He is currently a Communications professor at the University of Memphis. His films have been broadcasted on PBS, the Arts and Entertainment Network, and have been screened at several international film festivals.
"One of the most clearheaded, evenhanded documentaries about the civil rights movement you'll ever see, and a piece of gripping story-telling as well."
"An excellent film on the movement which drew Martin Luther King to Memphis and his death. It reveals how the black and labor movements both win by struggling together!"
Julian Bond, Chair, NAACP
"The struggle and triumph of dignity over injustice is the luminous tapestry of all great social movements. At the River I Stand is an inspiring visual testament and a call to witness to every viewer."
Gerald McEntee, President, AFSCME
"More than any other Civil Rights documentary, this is a deeply emotional, riveting narration of black working-class resistance that speaks to the current crisis and jars our collective memory. To see these determined, dignified sanitation workers and to witness the Black Memphis community's solidarity with the strikers was enough to bring tears."
Robin D.G. Kelley, Columbia University
"Has all the impact of Eyes on the Prize. It would seem almost inconceivable not to acquire this video. Beautifully conceived, produced and presented."
Video Rating Guide for Libraries
"An eloquent and powerful work of history...offering new insight into the intersection of race and class."
1994 Erik Barnouw Award, Best Documentary, Organization of American Historians