A New Documentary Short with Spanish Subtitles Shows How US Literacy Campaigns in the 1950s Grew Voter Participation and Community Organizing


U.S. history is marred with racism and injustice, but it is also full of stories of activists fighting for civil rights, democracy, and equal access to education. For example, in 1947, a Mexican American couple won a court battle to enroll their nine-year-old daughter Sylvia Mendez in a Whites-only public school in Orange County California’s Westminster School District. It was the first time the Supreme Court found segregation unconstitutional. Years later, the family of Black third grader Linda Brown sued the school board in Topeka, Kansas, leading to the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared all school segregation is unconstitutional.

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Cases like these laid the legal foundation for stipulating that all school-age U.S. children have the right to a quality education, but what about older adults of that era? Their voting rights, prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were often denied by state laws using literacy as a requirementfor voting, disproportionately affecting Black and Brown people denied equal access to education. The nine-minute short film They Say I’m Your Teacher,” released this fall with Spanish subtitles, explores how adult literacy campaigns successfully pushed back on voter suppression and mobilizedthousands of people of color to vote.

“They Say I’m Your Teacher” is a collaboration between You Got To Move Films and the Literacy Project, an educational non-profit organization that produces multimedia materials on education equity. The film uses archival footage from co-producer Lucy Phenix’s 1985 documentary “You Got To Move”, archival photos by Ida Berman, and earlier civil rights footage to tell the story of Septima Clark, a prominent butoften overlooked Black leader. Clark was fired from her Charleston Public Schools teaching job for refusing to renounce her membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but continued to educate and organize, setting up what she called Citizenship Schools to help adults acquire the reading and writing skills needed for voting and civic engagement.

This short documentaryis now being disseminated as a get-out-the-vote tool through diverse journalism and civil rights outlets, including the NAACP and the National Organization for Women (NOW). On the eve the historic 2020 elections, ProgressReport.co caught up with Literacy Project Founder and Executive Director Catherine Murphy to learn more about They Say I’m Your Teacher, and its value as a voter education tool.  

Q: What got you interested in the intersection of literacy, voter education, and this moment in U.S. civil rights history?

A: I’ve been working on a film series for 15 years nowlooking at grassrootsempowermentand decolonizingeducation projects. One of the through lines is literacy, but also broader empowermenteducation projects. We’ve been recording storiesaround the Americas and documenting successful experiences of grassroots community-led education. One of the greatmoments of self-determined empowerment education in the United States comes from South Carolina’s Sea Islands in the 1950s. It began when Septima Clark refused to give up her NAACP membership and was fired from the Charleston, SC school district. She was hired by Highlander Center, the much-loved movement catalyst and grassroots organizing hub in eastern Tennessee, to run their education programs. Mrs. Clark began bringing up activists and organizers from around the South, and significantly from the Black communities in Charleston and Johns Island, SC. One of the people that she brought up to Highlander was Esau Jenkins, a key community leader on Johns Island, SC. Mr. Jenkins stood up at the Highlander workshop he attended in 1957 and said, “What I really want to do is start a school to teach people how to read and write—so they can register to vote.” They sparked a strategic alliance with Highlander Center, and it led to what becamethe firstCitizenship School. They recruited Bernice Robinson, Septima Clark’s cousin,to be the first teacher. Bernice Robinson was a Black beautician from Charleston. As an independent Black businesswoman, she could wield a degree ofautonomy that was difficult for the schoolteachers at the time who faced reprisals for activism from the racist South Carolina school board.

Bernice Robinson was a founding member of the Citizenship Schools which taught adults to read so that they could vote in the American South in the 1950s. Photo Courtesy of Literacy Project Films.

I went to Highlander Center in 2014 to show some of my work about literacy campaigns in Latin America,and I stayed for several days to conduct research on Septima Clarkand the Citizenship Schools in their archives. This is whenI first saw the1985 filmYou Got to Move,by LucyMassie Phenix-a feature-length documentary about Highlander Center and the justicemovements aroundthe South and Appalachiathat they worked with.

It took me about a yearafter that to track downLucyPhenix, butthen startingin 2015, we beganworking togetherto digitizeher 16 millimeter film archivesso that they could be made available to wider audiences todayasa series of short filmsfor educators and organizers doing social justice work in the United States today. And to contribute to pulling that history into the present.

Q: So They Say I’m Your Teacher is an extrapolation of that 1985 film?

A: Yes, it’s a re-release of a key chapter in the original film, with some added gems.  “They Say I’m Your Teacher”was made from 100% archival material, mostly from Lucy’s own archives and also from materials she collected in the 1980s, including beautiful photographs by Ida Berman, who was one of the few photographers to create work about the Citizenship Schools. Sadly, the four main people in They Say I’m Your Teacherare no longer living,but their story is as powerful and relevantas ever, and it has a lot to teach us about grassroots education, building community power, and the long struggle for voting rights, in the Blackcommunities and all other communities that have faced exclusion from quality education and been targeted by racist voter suppression—Latinx communities, immigrant communities, Native American communities,and low-wealthcommunities.

Q: Where else did you find your information on Septima Clark for this film?

A: Septima Clarkauthoreda number of important, historic pieces including an essaycalled “Literacy and Liberation”that was published in Freedom Teacherin 1964, a book called “Echo in my Soul” in 1962(which is sadlyout of print), and“Ready from Within”from 1986 which is still available today.

There is also a beautiful biographyabout Mrs Clarkpublished in 2009 called Freedom’s Teacher by Katherine Mellen Charron.  There are further materials about Septima Clark and the Citizenship Schools available from Highlander Center and from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Digital Gateway, which is housed at Duke University. Also, Dr. Greg Carr, the chair of Howard University’s Department of Afro-American Studies has been doing a series of briefvirtual lectures duringCOVID-19, and recentlydid one on Mrs. Clark that can be seen online.

Q: As you did your research across the South how much public awareness of the CitizenshipSchools did you find?

A: The mainstream textbook approachtothe U.S. civil rights movement focuses on three or fourbig names,so we get this individualized, great leader narrative, rather than a grassroots people’s movement narrative, which iscloser to the truth, and is how change usually happens. This mainstream reading also tends tofocus on the 1960s without looking at the critical groundbreaking decades before. A wonderful book that engages this and tries to change it is Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching, published by Teaching for Change. This book is a guide for teachers, but really is a wonderful study tool for all ages.

Anyway, a lot of Septima Clark’s work took placein the 1950s, and was cultivating that landscape in the years that followed. The Citizenship Schools had a literacy component, but they were also voter education and registration schools, working to developFreedom Movement leadership, empowerment, andorganizing.Manycivil rights leaders ofthe following decade—such as AnnellPonder, Victoria Gray, and Fannie Lou Hamer—participated in Citizenship Schools.They eventually spread toall 11 Southern states.

While doing interviews in the north and south with veterans of the freedom struggle, especially from organizations like SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress for Racial Equality), was how I got to learn about this history. People like Bob Moses, Dave Dennis, Judy Richardson, Curtis Hayes Muhammed, Maria Varela, and others, talk about this history in a powerful immediate way. I don’t think that enough is known about the Citizenship Schools and they give us huge lessons for today. We open the short film with a beautiful quote from Septima Clark that says, “Learning and purpose for learning go hand in hand.”

A scene from the Citizenship Schools created in the 1950s to teach reading and writing so that illiterate Black adults could vote. Photo Courtesy of Literacy Project Films.

Q: That’s very interesting – and also worthy of note that the first Citizenship School – the one on Johns Island –  started so close to the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, which was one of the first schools for emancipated Black people after slavery. Plus, the Sea Islands are the historic home of the Gullah Geechee, a group of Black Americans who to this day speak a unique language that mixes West African words with the languages of the colonizers. Back in the 1950s, the people in power shunned the Gullah language, but today the Gullah language and culture remain key sources of community identity and empowerment. How might those Citizenship Schools have played a role in promoting this positive and celebratory narrative?

A: Many of the students in the first Citizenship Schools were Gullah Geechee, including Alice Wine, who was one of the very first group of students in 1957 and Mr. William Saunders who was mentored by Esau Jenkins and went on to become one of the main organizers of the Charleston Hospital Workers Strike of 1970, and later started a Black-run radio station and his own organization. But because many of the Gullah people on the island had not been able to finish school, this was a first step to registering to vote and gaining political power over the institutions on Johns Island, in parts of Charleston and beyond. They then fought for better conditions and better pay for teachers in the Black school on Johns Island, Esau Jenkins ran for the School Board, and much more.

Q: Today, people identifying as Latinx or Hispanic are one of the fastest growing communities in the United States, including in the same Southern states and historically Black communities where these activists carried out their work. The UnidosUS Affiliate East Coast Migrant Head Start has served and hired people from both communities, which have faced historic exploitation, discrimination, and systematic racism, with literacy and language used as a barrier for democratic inclusion. Is this why you decided to subtitle the film in Spanish before the 2020 elections?

A: The literacy and language issues you mention are huge because both can be wielded as systematic barriers to keep people fully participating in the world around them. It’s important to say that literacy is not a measure of intelligence, but rather just the result of educational inequities… and then it is both a result and continuing element in exclusion from employment opportunities—and of course from voting.

There are important parallels to attempts at exclusionary language practices, which luckily have been losing ground as more and more jurisdictions move to become officially bilingual or multilingual, create voting materials and more in Spanish and also other languages. Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the United States.

It’s important to understand that the literacy tests were an arbitraryandinstitutionalized mechanism to prevent Black people from exercising their right to vote. And there’s so much voter suppression going on right now in the current electoral cycle with voter purging, redistricting, gerrymandering, voter intimidation, crazy new ID laws, and reducingthe number of polling centers. Then there are the attacks on the postal system at a time when we should be expanding it for those who want to vote without taking COVID-19 risks by voting in personat a polling station. Also, for mixed-status families there’s a lot of intimidation, which is certainly a form of voter suppression. All of this seeking to exclude Black and Brown and Indigenous people from exercising their fundamental right to vote.

So, I’m glad we got the film out in time for the 2020 elections—and to honor the long history of voting rights activism in the face of voter intimidation and voter suppression. It’s important to know the history and the current reality of voter suppression so that we can keep fighting against it.

In terms of why we made sure the film was available in Spanish, I should say that our last three films were initially released in Spanish, with Spanish-speaking protagonists, and only two of them were subtitled into English. So, we have a strong audience of Spanish speakers in the United States and Latin America, and it was important to us that they be able to see this film in Spanish too.

Our films are produced by multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-generational teams. We are Latinx, Black, White, and Asian. Several members of our core team are Afro-Latinx so their own lives bridge communities. Several have Spanish as a mother tongue, growing up in Spanish-speaking or bilingual households. We are committed to language justice on principle but also to make sure our work is accessible to our multiple communities. I should also say that this work grew out of a landscape of social justice organizations that are deeply committed and doing intentional work toward what they call “Language Justice”—including Highlander Center, the Poor People’s Movement, and others.

Q: Some of our readers or their family members may be not be able to vote because they aren’t yet old enough, they’re undocumented, or they just don’t have U.S. citizenship. What democratic ideals would you like audiences in these circumstances to take from They Say I’m Your Teacher?

A: Voting is not the only way that we can  make a change or participate in advancing a democratic process, but it is one very important tool. It’s like so many civil rights activists are saying,“If yourvote didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be fighting so hard to take it from you.” Talking about and honoring the long struggle for voting rights and continuing to fight for that as one of our many tools to make change and build a more just nation is crucial. But beyond that, working together, grassroots organizing, and power-building is crucial. That is one of the lessons from this film. And that we all have something to learn—and to teach.

Q: Unlike six decades ago, today many people assume that literacy is nearly universal. How does this film help to drive the conversation about that misperception and how does it remind us of the fundamental values attached to basic literacy?

A: Illiteracy is a massive unsolved global problem, and it remains a huge problem in the United States today. According to the last major national study by the National Center for Education Statistics, one in five U.S. adults cannot read or write at a basic level, meaning they cannot read well enough to do things like filling out a job application—or a voting ballot.

So literacy is a critical social justice issue, connected to many other aspects of functioning  in the world and participating in a democratic process. While not being able to read and write is largely theresult of inequities in theeducation system, it also then becomes a factor in social exclusion.

But while illiteracy is around us all the time, if you don’t struggle with literacy yourself or know someone that does, it is largely invisible, and we see it as an individual problem. As a society, we blame people who can’t read and write adequately. We blame them and they often blame themselves. But really it is the responsibility of all of us to take more collective measures toward a solution.The legacy of the Citizenship Schools shines light on literacy as it connects to building personal and collective power.

Literacy Project Films Crew poses with Sylvia Mendez (left). Executive Director Catherine Murphy, Producer Gary Wright, Director of Photography Stephen Farrier, and Mendez’s niece Johanna Mendez. Photo Courtesy of Literacy Project Films.

The Literacy Project’s Catherine Murphy is now working on a documentary featuring Sylvia Mendez. It’s expected release date is 2021.