A few footnotes on Oscar-nominated documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

Last night, we premiered the Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro, a film by Raoul Peck. (Missed it? Stream it here!) Over the course of an hour-and-a-half, the film delves deep into race relations and civil rights issues facing America—both past and present. The film is jam-packed with history and facts and many viewers were likely left hoping to learn more. We wanted to answer a few quick questions the film raised for us.

What happened to Dorothy Counts?

In one of Baldwin’s letters, we hear him express regret for the circumstances under which Dorothy Counts became the first African American to attend Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, NC. Baldwin says “Some one of us should have been there with her.”

Counts didn’t last long at Harry Harding. After a now-famous photo circulated showing a mob tormenting and following her into school, the school’s administrators and local police told her parents they could not guarantee Dorothy’s safety. A week into Dorothy’s tenure at Harry Harding, her parents pulled her out and sent her to live with relatives in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Three years later, Dorothy made her way south to Charlotte again to attend Johnson C. Smith University. She has since spent over three decades working in early childhood education. In a 2010 article, Charlotte Magazine said:

“‘What happened on that day really set me on a path,’ says Dorothy Counts-Scoggins, a vibrant sixty-something grandmother. ‘I’ve always wanted to work to make sure that bad things don’t happen to other children.’”

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What was the deal with that Lorraine Hansberry/Bobby Kennedy meeting?

For viewers who didn’t know that James Baldwin knew, or interacted with then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy the circumstances of that meeting may have been a little unclear.

In May of 1963 President Kennedy sent troops into Birmingham, Alabama following rioting and bombings. James Baldwin wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy placing blame for the unrest on some very specific shoulders—FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Senator James O. Eastland (D-MI), and President Kennedy himself. According to the New York Times (May 13, 1963):

“Among other things he asserted that the President had ‘not used the great prestige of his office as the moral forum which it can be.’”

Just a week-and-a-half later, Robert Kennedy met with Baldwin, and a group of activists and leaders Baldwin assembled. (As you likely heard in the film, the group included Lorraine Hansberry, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte, among around seven other individuals.)

In an article adapted from Larry Tye’s book Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon Politico goes into some detail about the meeting, noting that Kennedy opened with a self-congratulatory list of his and his brother’s accomplishments. While meeting attendees received the CV politely, they made it clear they had other things on their collective mind:

Jerome Smith, a young activist who had held back as long as he could, suddenly shattered the calm, his stammer underlining his anger.

‘Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you and your brother,’ he began. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail party patter.’ The real threat to white America wasn’t the Black Muslims, Smith insisted, it was when nonviolence advocates like him lost hope. The 24-year-old’s record made his words resonate. He had suffered as many savage beatings as any civil rights protester of the era, including one for which he was getting medical care in New York. But his patience and his pacifism were wearing thin, he warned his rapt audience. If the police came at him with more guns, dogs and hoses, he would answer with a weapon of his own. ‘When I pull a trigger,” he said, ‘kiss it goodbye.’

When Smith mentioned that he, and other young black men, would not be inclined to fight in America’s overseas conflicts, Kennedy responded with shock, but Smith didn’t back down, which gave an opportunity for his associates in the room to press Kennedy on why the government wasn’t fighting racist laws.

According to the Politico piece, Lorraine Hansberry let Kennedy know: “You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there,” she said, pointing to Smith.

Kennedy did not respond well to the charges lodged in his direction and the meeting devolved from there.

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L-R Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, and Marlon Brando at the March on Washington. Public Domain

Was that Charlton Heston at the March on Washington?

If your only knowledge of Heston is as an actor who also served as president of the National Rifle Association, it may have come as a surprise to see Heston front and center at the March on Washington in August 1963.

Heston supported former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign in 1956—in part to show his opposition to McCarthyism. In 1960, Heston supported John F. Kennedy’s White House run, and in 1963 his commitment to the Civil Rights movement saw him standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial near Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

That’s not all. According to The Independent, Heston opposed the Vietnam War (though he did travel there with the U.S.O.) and he did not support former President Nixon. Heston also served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild—just like his friend Ronald Reagan. And it was the treatment Reagan received after nominating Robert Bork for a Supreme Court seat, that The Independent indicates may have been a turning point for Heston:

In his younger days, Heston might have been there campaigning with them. Instead, he reacted to this public humiliation of President Reagan as if his own face had been slapped, and joined the Republican Party. Heston felt he was still battling for civil liberties, except that now he was standing up for the liberty of the average white middle-class American male against the spread of ‘political correctness.’

In 1999, two years after he was elected president of the NRA, Heston gave a speech at Harvard University, which The Independent described as “a cry of rage against gun control, gay rights, violent lyrics in rap music and other Heston bugbears, opened with the observation: ‘If my creator gave me the gift to connect you with the hearts and minds of those great men, then I want to use that same gift now to reconnect you with your own sense of liberty, your own freedom of thought, your own compass for what is right.’”

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