All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!
I don’t care how many times I see The March. Every time I see it, I am in it.
I am there, getting on the bus, getting off the train, stapling signs, following directions, listening to Ossie Davis, Joan Baez, Odetta, Marian Anderson, and A. Philip Randolph. When Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech enters public domain in 2038 (fingers crossed), and is returned to the soundtrack, I will hear him as well. I know all the songs. I know them by heart.
It is impossible to watch The March, and not go on the March.
James Blue brings us into the mix, and we find ourselves at home in the crowd, walking, talking, laughing, singing. Waving to our friends. We have found each other! We are together. This is Woodstock without the mud. James Blue, who, in 1963, had never heard of a rock concert, much less attended a rock concert, shoots and edits The March as if it was one. Swap out Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech for Jimi Hendrix’s electrified national anthem. Swap out the Lincoln Memorial for a cow pasture, and a short haired crowd for a long haired one. “We shall not, we shall not be moved” they sing, “Like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” Who are these people, who traveled long distances to stand in the sun and sing together? They are us. James Blue makes sure we understand this. The swell of joined voices we hear on the soundtrack is counterpointed by closeups of individual participants.
“We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday.”
When James Blue began working for USIA in 1962, he was asked to create a film about race in America which would address international criticism of our very evident hypocrisy. The argument Blue made, in an extraordinary memo which is now part of the James Blue Collection at the University of Oregon, was that the best way to disarm the critics would be to honestly confess the problem. He advised against concentrating on the problem of integrating black Americans into the social fabric of their own country. Instead he articulates the real problem: the difficulty of reeducating white racists.
That’s one half of the origin story behind The March.
The other half of the story began when A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin announced plans, in 1941, for a massive grass roots demonstration in Washington calling for the desegregation of both the military and the war industry. Roosevelt said no on desegregating the military, but yes to desegregating the war industry. The full origin story behind The March is that A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were prepared to create a multi racial mass demonstration on the Washington Mall a full 20 years before they actually did it.
Their successful push for desegregation of the war industry resulted in Portland’s first black population which did not work as janitors, maids, waiters or red caps. African American workers arrived to work in the shipyards during the same wartime boom year as Harry Blue, James Blue’s father, arrived in Portland to work as a housing inspector for the Federal Housing Authority. The city, accustomed to decades of institutionalized racism, did not adjust quickly to forced change. In the movie theaters James Blue attended, black ticket buyers were directed to the balcony. He likely sang the state song, which enshrines the vision of white supremacy, and all but name checks the deified missionaries, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, whose deaths at the hands of Native Americans finalized statehood.
Land of the Empire Builders,
Land of the Golden West;
Conquered and held by free men,
Fairest and the best.
Onward and upward ever,
Forward and on, and on;
Hail to thee, Land of Heroes,
Land of the rose and sunshine
Land of the summer’s breeze;
Laden with health and vigor,
Fresh from the Western seas.
Blest by the blood of martyrs,
Land of the setting sun;
Hail to thee, Land of Promise,
The yearbooks for James Blue’s four years at University of Oregon contain hundreds of pictures of white students. But black skin? The only black skin I saw in UO’s yearbooks, for the years James Blue attended, was from black makeup applied to white skin for a student minstrel show. Later, Ken Kesey himself wore blackface for a student skit at the university. Blackness in Oregon was something which we performed. Blackness was a white thing in Oregon. We did black. We owned black. In other words, black didn’t exist.
By 1963, the year of the March On Washington, Portland’s Albina neighborhood, where James Blue had attended Jefferson High School, was redlined. We all knew the boundaries. I grew up eight blocks away from the street which divided black from white. At high school dances, we had two bands, one white and one black. We would take turns dancing. White and black students sat separately in the lunch room. All of this was unofficial, and enforced by custom. The one black grade school classmate I had lived directly across the street from the front door of the school. It was as if his parents, determined not to have a line redrawn to exclude them, moved as close as humanly possible. We all knew their house was rented, not owned. No black family could own in a white neighborhood. When I ventured into Albina, as a teenager, on a bike, rocks were thrown at me.
THE MISSION OF A UNIVERSITY
The university process +++ is a social process that does not stop short of transforming men +++ to achieve such profound results it must utilize the principle of all for each and each for all directed to the highest ends of life +++ its organization must evoke the most intimate interplay of thought and purpose it must amount to a life process fully socialized ++ from now on it must be a climb if our nation is to hold its position among the nations of the earth ++ it means conservation and betterment + not merely of our national resources but also of our racial heritage and of +++ opportunity to the lowliest +++ this must be our passion +++ and the universities must be its prophets +++
Frederick George Young BA LLD, 1858-1929
Professor of Social Science and Dean of Sociology, 1895-1928
I include the full text of this message, permanently engraved onto the walls of the very beautiful 1937 University of Oregon building now known as the Knight Library, because it conveys the exact tone of our regional racism. “We” are white. The nature of “our” racial heritage is assumed. Non-white Oregonians are forgiven for their shortcomings, and generously extended honorary whiteness. This is how we keep Oregon white. If a non-white person has, due to circumstances beyond their control, failed to be white, we, the mighty majority, will extend to that person the privileges of citizenship anyway. In spite of their skin color. Because we are kind. Because we see beyond skin color to a non-white person’s essential, inner, whiteness.
James Blue calls out this racism in his USIA memo about the film he wishes to make.
The March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom was always conceived as a media event. The organizers, a tense coalition of labor, civil rights and church leadership, knew they were orchestrating an enormous photo op, so primary credit for the images which are so powerful – the peaceful assembly of 200,000 freedom loving, politically empowered, human beings – belongs to them.
But what does it take to create the filmmaker who can cover that event with Zen like simplicity? One who conveys, in every image, his high regard for the nameless marchers?
“Keep your eyes upon the prize, hold on.”
I will write again about The March. Too much to say in one post!
Coming up in the James Blue Tribute:
At 8:00 PM on April 25, 2014 at the Whitsell Auditorium, Richard Blue, Gerald O’Grady, Dennis Gill, and Christina Kovac will introduce The March and A Few Notes About Our Food Problem.
Tickets can be purchased here.
Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute. The six month long Tribute celebrates the bequest of James Blue’s films to the University of Oregon by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue.
Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.