125 Feet Up

As someone who grew up in Saint Louis when receiving the topic “20th century Civil Rights in the Gateway City” I was confused. Granted, I am not naïve enough to believe that the Civil Rights movement did not occur in Saint Louis, but at the same time this city was not a key player in a time when the deep south was burning, right?  Fortunately for our topic and film I was very wrong in my assumptions. While Saint Louis is an often-overlooked city in all things, especially the civil rights movement, it has a history steeped in protests and civil rights activism. While conducting research for the film, one name kept coming up, Percy Green. This is of course where our documentary begins.

            One of the most iconic pieces of Saint Louis is the Gateway Arch. It is typically the first thing anyone sees when they come to town, whether it be via plan, the poplar street bridge, or even the “Stan Span”. This marvelous feat of engineering comes with a very shaky past. When the project became fully funded and construction began, none of the federal contracts were offered to African Americans. In fact, the entirety of the workforce was white. This did not sit well with many civil rights organizations within the city especially the Action Committee To Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION). ACTION was still in its infancy, breaking free from the Congress Of Racial Equality over minor disputes on tactics when it came to forms of protest. This organization, led by Green, needed a grand entrance into the conversation of civil rights. This need, combined with the lack of African American workers at the Arch, created the perfect target of opportunity. Green, along with Richard Daly, would scale the arch on July 16, 1964 and stay in place for over five hours. Eventually, this protest would shift the hiring practices of not only the Arch construction, but also the hiring of other federally funded contracts within the city.

            Given the cliff notes version of the protest one would believe this story is one that is recorded in all history books and is a watershed moment within the fabric of this city’s history. Unfortunately, that is not the case. At 28 years old, this was the first time I have heard of this protest and I have been to the Arch grounds countless times. It is true that Green’s story is told within the museum, but it is not put on display at the heart of the Arch’s narrative. Instead, it is relegated to the “fun facts” section while the rest of the time is spent on the “marvels of engineering”. Therefore, my partner, and I chose Green as the subject of our film. This story should be placed at the forefront our city’s history if for no other reason than to show that the civil rights movement was not just an event that took place south of the Mason Dixon line.

            Within the film, we talk about the storied past of the civil rights movement of Saint Louis starting with the inception of Missouri as a save state and carrying into the famous Dred Scott decision. More time is spent on the Shelly v. Kraemer case as this is really one of the first landmarks of Civil Rights in the 20th century. This case became a key part in not only eliminating racial housing covenants but also shaped the city’s racial divide that still exists to this day. An entire separate documentary could (and should) be made on the divide that exists within the city even to this day in 2021. From there the film shifts to individuals acts of protests starting at lunch-counter sit-ins and moving into full picket lines and civil disobedience. This was the foundation that Green and Daly used to make their historic climb, which is where our film comes to an end.

            In watching this documentary, we hope that viewers learn about the storied civil rights past of Saint Louis. This city, despite its relegation to the sidelines of the movement, has a deep past, one that is only briefly introduced in our film. Upon the conclusion of our research, we learned that picking and choosing our topics would be difficult as there is so much more that was left unsaid. It was done so in the hopes that the viewer seeks out this history. Our film starts with the famous “mountain top” quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and ends with the simple phrase, our climb continues. Percy Green scaled 125 feet up, on a ladder on the North leg of the Arch, J.D. Shelley bought a home in a racially restricted neighborhood, African Americans sat down despite being refused service. These individuals started the climb for equality and in viewing our film we hope to continue the climb. We have yet to reach the mountain top, but our film is an attempt to get one step further.

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