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"Some Effects of Repression Films of Hollywood's Golden Age on the Civil Rights Movement": manuscript draft by Roosevelt Fitzgerald




1970 (year approximate) to 1996 (year approximate)


From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Unpublished manuscripts file.

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man000926. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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Movies have traditionally been the most attractive and popular of all tae media. At the same time, because of their extraordinary ability to capture and oresent reality in the most simply understood terms, they have also been the most "worried-about" form of mass communication. Consequently, a strong
■ . 1 censorship interest has shadowed the movies since their beginning.
This scrutiny of the American film industry reached its peak during the period between the mid-thirties and the mid—sixties. Originally, most will agree, the subjects of sex and violence in movies generated the greatest amount Qf attention from the censors. Mae Westisms of the 1930s, such as Is that a. gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me? helped fuel the enthusiasm 2 .
of organizations like the Legion of Decency. Later as the United States entered World War II, emphasis became more political than moral with movies readily port raving Nazis as the evil villains. During the Cold War era, the political concern intensified as moviemakers faced threats of blacklisting or even prison if they did not present pro-American values in contrast to the godless Communist threat. As a result of these prevailing pressures on Hollywood, according to film historian Richard Randall, "an entire generation of Americans (j-gew up with the 'family' film — an artistically immature, morally safe, and 5
highly profitable entertainment."
These family films which were the product of Hollywood's so-called "Golden Age" have been aptly described by critic Tony Thomas who was first introduced to this country by the movies he saw as a child growing up in
The American image propagated by the movies in Hollywood's Golden Age was always more rural than urban. The movie
moguls took their cue from Abraham Lincoln and celebrated the qualities of the common people rather than the leaders of society and the captains of industry. They also saw the value in playing up the virtues outlined in the Bill of Rights, especially those pertaining to individualism and the right of the individual to make his own way in life, and those virtues tended to look better when set in America s hamlets and byways and wide open spaces rather than its cities. . .Fortunately, in that Golden Age, it was good business to play up what was good about America rather than what was bad, and the good American image of personal freedom and fair treatment looked particularly good set in a smal£ town and personified by a genial fellow, like Will Rogers.
During this same period when Hollywood was glorifying American life, Black children, especially in the South, had few avenues of diversion. Most public recreational facilities were off limits to them. They could, however, go to the movies. Even though they sat in the balcony or in theaters where the races were separated by a dividing wall, they watched the same movies and had the same heroes as did white theater goers. They re-lived those movies while at play. They uttered the dialogue and in playing the part of the several heroes, their young lives took on a new meaning and value. Without realizing it, their play was rehearsal for future reality. It is thus the contention of this paper that Hollywood inadvertently played a role in conditioning the Black children of those generations for what would happen in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. By closing its eyes to the shortcomings of the United States, Hollywood helped to dramatize America's failure to bring democracy to all her citizens.
For the generations of Blacks who were born, nurtured and socialized during the half-century between the end of Reconstruction and the Great Depression, there was little occasion to contemplate such notions as linerty, equality and justice. Such opportunities were not present in their everyday
affairs and those who were fortunate enough to attend the schools of that time, rather than learning democratic principles, learned instead of Jim Crowism. Everything which they had access to was segregated and they did not have access to much of value. It was fruitless for people under such circumstances to attempt to determine or even imagine what equality and liberty actually were simply by equating them with the known factors of what they were not. The answers to the questions: "Low should life be?" "Low does it feel to be treated with respect?" "What difference does equality truly make?" "What is the difference between what I am and what a citizen is?" and more could not be
• x. 7 appreciably addressed in reality-
This began to change, however, by the 1930s. Possible answers to such questions would begin to reveal themselves in the movies. Black people would discover that there had been others historically who had also been oppressed. They would learn how those other groups had articulated their perceptions of their circumstance and what, if anything, they did about it. They would see the oprressed portrayed as decent, law-abiding, God fearing people who by the movie's end had triumphed over evil. These characters would become their role models for future action against the oppressor. For those older Blacks to whom oppression was normal, discoveries made through the revelations of the movies would, in most instances, have a minimal behavioral effect, even though their attitudes might be greatly affected. But, for those who were somewhat younger, whose values were just being implanted, who were yet having their personalities and their sense of self defined, those same revelations of the movies would transcend fantasy and become possible reality.
One of the first films to have such an impact appeared in 1936. ’’Black Legion" did more than point out the evils of intolerance inherent in nativism. While the film addressed the oppression of recent immigrants to the United States who did not readily fit the American mold, what was presented was more than sufficient for Black people to identify similarities between what was shown and what was their private reality.
In the movie, beatings, burnings and murder of foreigners and their sympathizers are shown in graphic detail. Such atrocities were not unfamiliar to Black Americans and in viewing such scenes, substituting themselves for the victims shown was quite easy. Most Blacks had known or heard about other Blacks to whom such treatment had been meted out at the hands of the Klan. Some had even been victims themselves. Klansmen, as portrayed in the film b_^ the Black Legion, drew their membership from the ranks of men who appeared normal enough by day but who, after dark, donned their robes and became night- ^•^.clLng terrorists. In Black communities throughout the country and especially in the South, such nightriders were a common enough sight.
The movie concludes with the conviction of the Legion s membership, out not before the presiding judge makes a pre-sentencing statement in which he points out to the defendants the evils of their ways. The implications of the message were not lost on Black audiences, particularly those who incorporated the movie into their playtime. The complete text of the judge's statement is;
Furthermore, your idea of patriotism and Americanism is hideous to all decent citizens. It violates every protection guaranteed them by the Bill of Rights contained in our Constitution. The Bill of Rights, assuring to us all freedom of religious opinion and security of person and property against the attack of illegal and extralegal forces, is the
cornerstone of true Americanism and must be jealously guarded if we are to remain a free people. We cannot permit racial or religious hatreds to be stirred up so that innocent citizens become the victims of accusations brought in secrecy. We cannot permit unknown tribunals to pass to judgments nor punishments to be inflicted by a band of hooded terrorists. Unless all of these illegal and extralegal forces are ruthlessly wiped out, this nation may as well abandon its Constitution, forget its Bill of Rights,, tear down its courts of justice and revert to the barbarism of government by primitive violence. This would mean relinquishing everything that civilized man has won by the most prodigious efforts over a course of the past five centuries. The American people made their choice long ago. Their blood and their sacrifices secured for us the basic human rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Their wisdom built the whole structure of our democratic form of government expressly to keep sacred and inviolate these same human rights. It is our duty to guard them zealously if we are to remain a nation of free men. As Abraham Lincoln said: "Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has danted in us. Our defense is the spirit that prizes liberty as the heritage of all men in all lands everywhere,; Destroy this opportunity and you wou^d have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors.'
In 1936, to many Blacks in movie audiences, this might well have been
the first time they had heard of the Bill of Rights or its association with freedoms which were not to be denied by hooded nightriders. It might also have been the first time that they saw such characters being brought to justice. The fact that the film had no Black characters is inconsequential.
It was about people without rights and color was synonymous with ethnicity in the Black audience's eyes.
The 1938 version of "The Adventures of Robin Hood," starring Errol Flynn in the lead role, also focussed on oppression. It brought to the screen a hero with whom most could identify. He risked everything in his attempt to overcome oppression. Once again the oppressed, the Saxons in this case, are quickly
identified as being good people, while the oppressors are portrayed as evil. The characters who represent evil in this instance are not factory workers, however, seeking to drive someone off the job or out of town; they do not represent the "common man" who might have been misled by fear and anxiety. In this instance, terror and injustice are in the person of the nobleman who represents authority. His station in life illustrates that authority does not obviate good--that i* is possible for those in authority to themselves be oppressors. Black audiences could identify their reality with the fantasy on the screen. Their experience had been that of local authorities aiding and abetting their oppressors. Often, as in "Rebin Hood," government officials, with their enactment and enforcement of Jim Crow laws, were the oppressors and with them, as with the Saxons, the oppression was constant.
The movie begins with Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne plotting to over-tax the Saxons. Scenes immediately thereafter show the tax collectors at work-pillaging, enslaving free men and even denying Saxons the right to hunt in Sherwood Forest for food to eat. *obin Hood soon emerges as the leader of the oppressed Saxons. He is a charismatic figure. Not only is he articulate and handsome, but he has audacity and courage. He generates in the minds of the other Saxons that he indeed knows what he is doing.
Robin' s first step as leader is to arrange a meeting with Prince John in order to determine if any resolution to the conflict between Hormans and Saxons can be found. He is willing to help create a circumstance in which John could alleviate some of the hardships being afflicted on the Saxons. At the meeting. Prince John reveals that he has removed King Richard’s appointed Regency,
Longchamps, and assumed the position himself. Robin considers such an act to be traitorious and says so. He informs the Prince that; "We Saxons are not going to put up with this oppression much longer. I'll organize a revolt. Exact a death for a death and I'll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand uo men and strike a blow for Richard ano England. . .From this night on I 11 „10 use every means in my power to fight you.
Robin's action and pledge to fight oppression at any cost provided a new leadership role model for Black youth. In the past, dating back to the end of Reconstruction, Black leaders had followed a policy of accommodation characterized best by the philosophies and actions of Booker T. Washington. The feats of PQjjin Hood, who first tried negotiation and then took direct action, were an inspiration to many growing up during this period, who began to take a new, more active approach to ending discrimination. Consequently, Robin's fiery comment to Prince John would come to be paraphrased and used often during the course of the civil rights movements by Blacks who, when asked how they proposed to get their freedom, responded by saying: "Through any means necessary."
The attempt to negotiate a settlement of differences having failed, Robin calls for a mass meeting, a meeting in which the grievances of the men of Sherwood can be consolidated. By word of mouth the announcement of the meeting is circulated and all those who indeed had been "beaten or tortured" or otherwise oppressed meet at Gallows Oak. They all had shared experiences and Robin articulates their frustrations and anger when he says:
You've all suffered from their cruelty—the ear loppings, the beatings, the blindings with hot irons, the burning of our farms and homes, the mistreatment of our women. It's time we
put an end to this! Now, this forest is wide. It can shelter and clothe and feed a band of good, determined men—good swordsmen, good archers, good fighters. Men, if you're willing to fight for our people, I want you! Are you with me?"
After much conflict, deprivation, loss of property and loss of life, the Saxons prove victorious in overthrowing their oppressors. The good King Richard returns and after exiling his brother, Prince John, once again unifies Normans and Saxons into one people and one country. As was the case with most films of that period, there is a happy ending and good triumphs over evil.
To children in those audiences in 1938 and subsequent years, the Robin Hood character became a staple in their arsenal of playtime scenarios. Swords, bows and arrows and forests became the props and sets of one of their genre of play. For the next quarter-century, whenever and wherever that film was shown, hundreds of thousands of children fought to rid Sherwood of the evil prince and, sometimes, in their reality, they would come upon someone who reminded them of their arch enemy in reality. Negotiation, mass meetings, civil disobedience and confrontation were part of their play and became part of the values which they would carry on into adulthood—an adulthood which, in the 1950s and 1960s, would draw upon those childhood experiences for guidance in confronting their own oppressive society.
1939 brought moviegoers a film which highlighted the evils of political machines. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is a typical film of the period filled with "hooey" and "yokels" and the spirit of America. It focuses on a young, unsophisticated Jefferson Smith who is appointed to complete a senatoral term in Washington. At a dinner in his honor prior to his departure for the capitol, he let it be known that he recognized his inadequacies. When called
upon to make a speech, he says: "I don't think I'm going to be much help down
^Here in Washington but I can tell you one thing I 11 never1 do anything to
„13 disgrace the office of U.S. Senator.
Little does Smith know about the nature of so-called honorable men in politics. The audience is aware of what is taking place long before Jefferson Smith. They want to warn him but they cannot. In his naivete,-Smith whistles himself into harm's way wtihout any notion of the riptides pulling at him. It bursts upon him with such intensity that all he can do is flee. He goes back to the monuments He visited on his first day in the nation's capitol. He reads all of the inscriptions and reflects on all of the things he has been taught to believe about his country and about what it stands for. Suddenly, he begins to realize that he has been duped. The institutions, the men, the things he had admired the most are shams. His bags are packed and he is preparing to leave town in disgrace when Clarisa Saunders, his secretary, assistant, and undeclared girlfriend, appears:
Saunders: When you get home, what are you going to tell those kids? (Members of a boys club that he sponsored back home). Smith: I'm going to tell them the truth. They might as well find it out now as later. Saunders: I don't think they'll believe you Jeff. You know, they're liable to look up at you with hurt faces and say: "Jeff, what did you do? Quit? Didn't you do something about it?" Jeff: Well what do you expect me to do? An honorary stooge like me against the Taylors and Paines and machines and lies. Saunders: Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines and so did every other man who ever tried to lift a spot up off the ground. Odds against them didn't stop those men—they were fools that way. All the good that ever came in this world came from fools with faith like that. You know that Jeff. You can't quit now—not you. And all the Taylors and Paines in Washington—their kind just throw big shadows that's all. You
didn't just have faith in Paine or in any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, everyday common rightness and this country could use some ox that. Yeah. And so could the whole cockeyed world. A lot of it. Remember the first day you got here? Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln? You said he was sitting up there waiting for someone to come along. You were right. He was waiting for a man who coaid see his job and sail into it. That's what he was waiting for. A man who could tear into the Taylors and move them out into the open. I think he was waiting for you Jeff. He knows you can do it and so do I.
Jeff- What? Do what Saunders?
Saunders: You just make up your mind that you're not going to quit and I'll tell you what. I've been thinking about it all the way back here. It's a^orty-foot dive into a tub of water, but I think you can do it.
They decide to take on the politicians and the machine. They take their stand with the firm belief that good will triumph over evil. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Jefferson Smith makes his appeal to the people. He is certain that once the people back home learn what is transpiring, they will rally to his aid. He holds the floor for over twenty-three hours and is described by a
CBS announcer as "one lone and simple American.
There's no compromise with truth. That's all I got up on this floor to say. When was it—a year ago seems like. Just get up off the ground. That's all I ask. Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this capitol dome—that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. You won't just see scenery. You'll see the whole parade of what man has carved out for himself after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something that’s better than jungle law. Fighting so that he can stand on his own two feet free and decent, like he was created, no matter what race, color or creed. That's what you'll see. There's no place out there for graft or creed or lies or compromise with human liberties. And if that's what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them then we'd better get those boys camps startea fast ana see what the kids can do. And it's not too late because this country is bigger than the Taylors or you or me or anything else. Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They re right lioiso • You just don11 S66 them.
In the end, Smith loses out to the powerful machines, but it is not for lack of trying. On the floor of the Senate, he gathers his last remaining strength to speak about ’’lost causes .
You think I'm licked? You all think I'm licked? Well I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause even if this room gets filled with lies like these and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody'll listen to me.17
-Smith faints, but Black children all learned a lesson. They learned that one cannot ever contemplate defeat. Those concepts conceived in childhood bore fruit fifteen years later as the civil rights movement got underway. Black people realized that not only were they outnumbered but that the national political machine was against them. In the South, where the movement had its beginning, Blacks were not even second class citizens because in order to be a citizen of any kind one needed access to the ballot. Southern Blacks had not been allowed to vote in any noticeable numbers since the close of Reconstruction in 1877. They agreed with Smith that there should be no compromise with truth but the "machine' compromised it consistently. They agreed that people, including themselves, should be allowed to "stand on their own two feet—free and decent, like (they) were created, no matter what race, color or creed." An oppressive society prevented that from happening for Black people, but Hollywood was showing them the way to bring about change.
John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath was made into a movie in 1940. That film gave the American audience desolation, despair and displacement but not defeat. The setting is the dust bowl of Oklahoma and the impact that condition
had on the people who lived there. They are tenant farmers. They are.poor and illiterate. They also have a simple dignity. The "Oakies" are evicted, with no place to go except California where they had heard there was work to be had. They ,.18
leave the land that they "had been born on, died on and buried in. ' It was not easy. The scenes leading up to their departure are filled with melancholy.
Ma Joad is seen burning momentoes of a lifetime and Grandpa Joad does not want to go.
Wherever they go, they are chased off. Black audiences could readily identify with this treatment because they were not welcome anywhere either. A good portion of Blacks who lived in the South were tenant farmers or sharecroppers and could easily imagine themselves being in that same situation. Black people sang the blues to describe their condition and the Joads did the same. At one site where they camped for the night, these lyrics could be heard:
I'm going down the road feeling bad.
I'm going down the road feeling bad.
I'm going down the road feeling bad oh Lordy,
I ain't gonna be a'treated this way.
They fed me on corn bread and beans.
They fed me on corn bread and beans.
They fed me on corn bread and beans oh Lordy,
I ain't gonna be a'treated this way.19
Conditions grow worse. Someone is arrested for "talking oack ana a woman is shot by a police officer and nothing is done about it. Another officer merely sayo: "Boy, what a mess those forty-fives make. Better get the doc." Connie runs out on his wife because things continued to grow worse and worse. Finally, Tom Joad, the oldest son, who has recently been paroled on a murder rap, nears the end of his rope. As though thinking aloud, he says to his mother: "Ma, there comes a time when a man gets mad. If there was a law they was working with maybe we
could take it but it ain't the law. They're working away at our spirit.
„20 Trying to make us cringe and crawl working on our decency.
In another scene, several members of the family are in the truck driving to Tavares when they are stopped by a mob in the middle of the highway. A self-appointed leader shouts: "Just where do you think you're going? We don't want no more oakies in this town. Just turn right around and don't you head north 'til the cotton's , „21
Blacks had had such humiliating experiences for years. They would go into a store and not be served until every white person there had been served. They could not try on clothing. They could not use rest rooms at gas stations. Black men were often emasculated by whites in front of their women and children;u Sometimes it became so overwhelming that they could not contain themselves any longer and would bristle or "talk back" and be beaten, arrested and lynched. Black audiences well identified with what was happening to the Joads and took heart from their strong spirit: "That's what makes us tough. Rich fellows come along and they die and their kids ain't no good and they die out but we keep a'cornin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out, they can't lick
22 us. We'11 go on forever Pa because—we're the people." Such thoughts would become a vital part of the Civil Rights rhetoric in the sixties.
The films of the 1940s were ideal for nurturing among black people those concepts introduced in the previous decade: justice, democracy, liberty, equality and other precepts of the American way of life. The country became involved in the Second World War and part of what Hollywood did during that decade was make propaganda films which highlighted the evils of nazism and
facism and the good of democracy. It outdid itself. Each patriotic film was filled with dialogue espousing democracy and, in effect, merchandising concepts of liberty and equality. From "Casablanca" (1942), "Watch on the Rhine" (1943), "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo" (1944), "To Have and Have Not" (1945), "A Walk in the Sun" (1946), "Dark Passage" (1947), to "Fighter Squadron" (1948), and including others, that decade characterized by Americanism and patriotism helped re-educate a l^rge portion of the population in those terms. Gentleman s Agreement (1947), "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), "Intruder in the Dust" (1949) and "Pinky" (1949) also helped bring about a heightened awareness of intolerance in America.
Among the movies seen during the opening years of the 1950s was "Wagonmaster" (1950) with Mormons being oppressed by gentiles. It was a remake of "Les Miserables" with Jean Valjean being hounded and oppressed by police inspector Javert. In the 1935 version, which was better, its implications might have been more elusive, but by 1952 when it was remade, Black people were better positioned to consider how it related to them. The movie starts with a group of Mormons being chased out of town and the Elder saying to them: Well folks, looks like 23
we're going to have to leave this hospitable community." The Mormons soon meet up with a traveling medicine show troupe which has also been chased out. Inter— estingly enough, now the Mormons take on many of the qualities of intolerance which they have just experienced from the townfolk. In the end, the divergent groups are forced to unite against a common enemy.
The movie "Shane" which appeared in 1953 also provided a valuable lesson on oppression. The story is a familiar one, sodbusters versus cattlemen. Then
Shane, the outsider, comes in to rally the downtrodden and make them realize how powerful they can be if they really want to make the effort. Speaking at a farmer's funeral, he tells the men:
You know what he wants you to stay for? Something that means more to you than anything else—your families your wives and kids. Like you Lewis: your girls. It was the same with the Toreys. You've got a right to stay here and grow up and be happy. That's up to you people to have nerve.enough to not give it up.24
As that movie was shown and re-shown, it hammered into Black consciousness that they had rights and that if. those duly elected officials would not protect their rights, even if they were "three days ride away,' Blacks would do it themselves.
They would ride into Grafton's Saloon and take care of the Rikers like Shane
did if they had to. They would take care of the Cleggs if they had to. They would take care of the evil Princes if they had to and the Black Legions.
"The Ox Bow Incident" (1953) presented yet another view of lynchings which only punctuated what had appeared two years earlier in "Storm Warning" (1951).
Lynchings were common in reality for Black people and they discovered that there were others whose lives were also at risk. "On the Waterfront" (1954) brought yet another dimension to the widening sphere of oppression, with longshoremen being terrorized and oppressed by the mob.
By the late fifties, most of the Black children who had been weaned on these American films about oppression were adults and had begun to put into practice the values they had internalized from the movies. Like Robin Hood, they first sought resolution through negotiation, pursuing the protection of their basic rights through the courts.25 Like Jefferson Smith they went to the
ballot box and even ran for office themselves to effect needed legislation.
Like the Joads and the sodbusters, they staked out territory on buses and at 27
lunchcounters and they held their ground. Like Shane, some resorted to violence.28 And like all their heroes, they did not give up; they were willing to fight for what they knew was right. Thus, Hollywood, although it did not directly address the questions of Blacks in American society in the films of this era, served to instill some basic impressions and models among young Black viewers which would later surface and shape the Civil Rights Movement in this country.
End Notes
Richard S. Randall, Censorship of the Movies (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970) p. 3.
Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1975) p. 185
Roger Maxwell, Films and the Second World War (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1974) pp. 197-199.
Victor S. Navasky, Naming Names (New York: Viking Press, 1980) p. viii.
Randall, p. 185.
Tony Thomas, Hollywood and the American Image (Westport, Conn.: Arlington House, 1981) pp. 19-20.
See John Hope Franklin, The Negro in 20th Century America (New York: Vintage Books, 1967); and From Slavery to Freedom (New York: A.E. Knopf, Inc., 1980); and C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974) .
Archie Mayo, director, "Black Legion," (1936).
Michael Curtiz, director, "The Adventures of Robin Hood," (1938).
Lerone Bennett, Jr. , Before the Mayflower (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970) pp. 278-279.
Frank Capra, director, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," (1939).
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
181 John Ford, director, "The Grapes of Wrath," (1940).
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid.
John Ford, director, "The Wagonmaster," (1950).
George Stevens, director, "Shane," (1953).
The climax came with 1954 school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Topeka.
During the sixties, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Sitkoff, Harvard, The Struggle for Black Equality: 1954-1980, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981) p. 189, 69-71, 100.
C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (New York: Beacon Press, 1960) p. 205.