125 Feet Up

When my partner and I first chose the topic for our film project we only had the title “20th century Civil Rights in the Gateway City” and some vague directions encouraging us to look at acts of resistance to various forms of white-Supremacy. At first were lost in the forest of topics and possible directions we could approach this subject spanning an entire century of history. Eventually however, we came across the story of Percy Green, a Civil Rights Activist who first gained notoriety for climbing 125 feet up one of the legs of the arch while it was under construction in order to protest the lack of African Americans working on the federally funded project. We decided to focus on his overlooked story and contextualize it with the broader climb the Civil Rights movement made from the 1940’s up to his climb and the aftermath of it. We chose the late 1940’s as the starting point both to help narrow our search and because this is when some of the most recognizable aspects of the Civil Rights movement began starting with the Landmark case of Shelly v Kraemer, which originated in St. Louis and dealt with racial housing covenants.

         Once we had decided on our main topic, we set about researching as much as we could about the major points our documentary would hit on. While my partner tended to focus on Percy Green and the events surrounding his protest climb, I went about looking into the various protest sit ins that took place in the city during the 1950’s at places like Famous-Barr, Kroger, and various public dining facilities. These sit ins were important for two main reasons. First, they helped connect our first point about the Shelly v Kraemer case to Percy Green by showing how the struggle for equality in the city had evolved over time. Even more important, Percy was personally involved in some of the later sit ins such as the one that occurred at the Jefferson Bank and Trust Co., where African Americans demonstrated in front of the bank protesting the lack of blacks holding jobs as tellers and other skilled labor positions.

         After we were finished with our research we were ready to combine it with the footage from the interviews we did with Percy as well as academic scholars Gwen Moore and Dr. Dowden-White from the Missouri Historical Society and University of Missouri St. Louis respectively. Based on what we had learned in our class, we knew that an expository mode would be the best choice for our documentary. This is because it is a mode well suited to telling a story in a succinct manner. It is also the most commonly used method in documentary filmmaking, with some notable examples being the works by Ken Burns who is famous for his combination of images with narration.

         It is my hope that those who watch this short documentary not only learn about Percy Green and his contributions to the ongoing struggle against White-Supremacy, but also become curios enough to search for other stories either about St. Louis or some other community that is more personal to those who watch it. By reflecting on this films discussion about a small portion of the Civil Rights movement and the way it is depicted, I hope people will better appreciate the ways in which our subject relates to more contemporary issues across the country. Perhaps then, we might as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “reach the mountaintop” and see the true promise of America realized.

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