Freedom Song (2000)

 

 

 

 

Director:     .

Starring:     Danny Glover (Will Walker), Vicellous Reon Shannon (Owen Walker), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Daniel Wall), Loretta Devine (Evelyn Walker), Glynn Turman (T-Bone Lanier), Stan Shaw (Archie Mullen), Michael Jai White (Coleman Vaughnes), John Beasley (Jonah Summer), Jason Weaver (Isaac Hawkins), Rae'Ven Larrymore Kelly (Dora Charles), Marcello Thedford (Tyrone Franklin), David Strathairn (Peter Crowley), Don Henderson Baker (Buddy Stone).

civil rights struggle in a little town in Mississippi

 

 

Spoiler Warning: 

"This is a story about Mississippi in 1961 and what happened when the movement came to town."  Civil Rights marchers are in a prison cell.  The men start singing a protest song that awakens the sleeping day-shift prison staff.  One of the black men is a young man known as Owen Walker.  He comments:  "My mama says I was born angry.   But Daddy says any boy born colored in Mississippi who ain't angry ain't been paying attention."

Owen says his youngest memories are happy one, like the day that his dad came home from World War II.  Dad sees a whites only sign on the bus station window.  He tells his boy that one day they're going to sit in there.  Another happy memory is Friday nights at Miz Colton's roadhouse, called the Cozy Nook.  Owen also liked to go to his father's new gas station and store where he heard the broadcast of Joe Louis boxing on the radio.  He loved the singing in church and the smell of T-Bone's barbershop. 

He remembers how his father would try to get black to organize and go down and vote.  Dad would say that he fought Hitler, so rednecks don't scare him.  Owen says:  "I loved Mississippi but that summer day in 1949 was the last truly happy memory I would have for a long time."  One night, night riders shoot out the windows of Owen's bedroom.  Someone shouts:  "You keep riling things up, nigger, we come back and finish this."  The whites in the community now start boycotting Mr. Walker's gas station and store.   And because the whites are boycotting Walker, the blacks have no choice but to stay away from Walker.

One day Owen walks away from the gas station/store and goes into the white's only section of the bus station.  Dad comes looking for Owen and sees him on the knee of a young white  man at the lunch counter.  Dad just steps into the doorway of the restaurant and calls Owen over to him.  The white man knows who Will Walker is  -- a trouble-maker.  The man says it's not right for the boy to be in here and he tells "Willie" to come on in and get his boy.  So Willie starts to come into the restaurant.  The white man says that the boy could have gotten into a lot of trouble, so he wants the dad to whip his kid.  Or else, they could do it for the dad. 

So dad has to sit down on a chair.  Owen comes over to him and dad administers a whipping to the boy, still saying that some day they're going to sit in here. 

The boy loses respect for his father and starts acting up.  He often disobeys his father and won't let his dad walk him to school. 

Over time Owen learns the rules of the system of racial segregation.  If you broke two golden rules, you could wind up dead.  Colored boys and men were never to even look at a white woman and they better not ever even think of voting.

But now Owen is in a prison cell along with civil rights protestors.   A man takes an interest in Owen and gives him some corn bread that Miz Colton brought for some of the men.

At the Cozy Nook some men and women are playing cards.  An older man named Jonah says to the players that then the sheriff warned him saying that if Jonah didn't quit this civil rights stuff, he couldn't be held responsible for Jonah's safety.  Owen says it was 1960.  His Uncle Jonah was starting a chapter of the NAACP in the backwoods outside the city.  Owen goes out riding and runs into a large signs that says:  "This is Klan country, nigger.  Read and run.  If you can't read, run anyhow."

One night some Klan members show up at the NAACP meeting dressed in their hoods and sheets.  All the blacks get out the back way, but Jonah stays put.  The Klan leader see a list of tonight's attendees at the meeting of the NAACP.  The Klan members say that this chapter of the NAACP is now disbanded.  The leader takes the membership book with him as they leave.

Owen is proud of Uncle for standing up against the Klan, compared to his own father's behavior in the whites only bus station restaurant.   The Uncle tells Owen that his father couldn't have stood up to those white men.  But the important thing is that  he didn't show any fear of the white men. Jonah is armed with a pistol.  He now leaves the school house.  Owen stays behind to straighten up the place.  He acts like he is his Uncle Jonah and repeats Uncle's words to the Klan.  Then he acts like his father, but he pictures his dad saying the words that he wished his father had said:  "No I will not whip my son!"

In Greensboro, North Carolina four college students sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter and ordered themselves a  cup of coffee.  The waitress said they don't serve colored people here, but the students did not leave their seats.  They stayed until Woolworth's closed down. The next day they came back with 20 more students.  Owen is inspired by the actions of the students.  No matter what the white men did the students stayed non-violent.  The civil rights movement spread  throughout the South.  But as of yet, the movement did not come to Mississippi.  Not yet. 

Then the freedom riders came into the deep South.  Owen learns that the freedom riders will be coming down into Quinlan to desegregate their bus station.  He tells his fellow students that they have to get organized and get a plan of action together. 

T-Bone tells Owen to forget his plans for a sit-in because the freedom rider buses are not going to make it all the way down to Quinlan.  He tells Owen and his flock of students just to get ready for the right time to come. 

The freedom rider bus is stopped outside of Anniston, Alabama.  The bus is set on fire.  Owen is intently watching the news until his father tells him to go get ready for bed because the freedom riders are not going to be coming to Quinlan.  Owen says:  "At least, they're doing something."  Dad asks his son what does he mean by that remark, but Owen just says:  "Nothing."  Dad says to his son:  "I moved too soon.   Cost me my job, my house, damn near my family.  Believe me son, you ain't ready for this."

Owen starts to go into the whites only bus station restaurant, but T-bone sees him and stops him.  He tells Owen not to start any trouble today, and go on to school, get a hair cut and start going back to church again.  Owen sits on a stool in the black section.   He sees the civil rights leader from the prison cell Owen was in arrive in town.  The man shakes hands with T-bone.   T-bone puts the leader up in his house. 

Owen asks a smart girl student who is that man with T-bone?  She says he's some big civil rights guy come to Quinlan to start things up here.

The new-comer's name is Daniel Wall and he's from Chicago, Illinois.  He teaches French in school there.  He explains that this will be SNCC's first project in Mississippi.  SNCC is the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.  Owen keeps interrupting the speaker trying to find out just what has Daniel Wall done in the movement.  Daniel humbly says this will be his first project.  Finally, the Deacon has to tell Owen to mind his manners.  Daniel tells everyone that their project will be to educate people on how to fill out a voting form, so they can vote.  Owen asks T-Bone if this is a big joke?  T-Bone asks Owen what's wrong with him?  This is the movement.  Owen calls Daniel's approach just sitting-still.  He leaves the meeting, saying to those staying, that when they get ready to do something serious, call him.

Striking out all by himself, leaves Owen abandoned and lonely.  He sees so many of his friends working for and with Daniel Wall.  He likes Dora, but she tells him if he wants to see her, he'll have to come to the meeting tonight because that's where she'll be.

So Owen walks through the pool hall, goes up the stairs and stops as Daniel explains what they are doing to the volunteers and the people the volunteers are teaching how to register to vote.  One of the older men tells his volunteer:  "I don't know.  People get killed trying to do this, son."  Daniel says that's the way they want you to feel, but if he wants to register they will go down with him to do so.  Daniel then invites Owen to go down with them to help register any prospective voters.  He says the decision is Owen's to make.  And yet, Owen, ends up being rude once again to Daniel for what he thinks is a weak leadership role.  Owen leaves. 

His father is outside working on a car.  He tells Owen he doesn't want him involved in the movement at all.  Owen says all they're doing is registering people to vote.  So, what's dad so afraid of?  Dad says:  "I'm afraid of your hot head writing a check you ain't prepared to cash."

Daniel takes three people who want to vote down to register.  The male clerk is shocked to hear that the three want to register to vote.  He tells Daniel:  "Niggers don't vote."  Daniel says they would like to take the literacy test.  In disgust, the clerk hands Daniel the forms.  All three people passed the test so the next day five people go down to register.  Four of them passed the test.  Word spreads in the black community and 10 more people want to vote.  But word also spreads in the white community that blacks are attending classes run by a student nonviolence group to teach them how to register to vote.  So, the next time they fill out their forms, the white clerk says there's one last test they must pass.  How many bubbles are there is a bar of soap?  Of course, no one knows the answer to that question.  So, they all flunk.  Now they tell the blacks to get out of here. 

Owen is back with the group, but he's still as rude and clueless as he ever was.  One day Daniel and his students, including Owen, are driving in Daniel's car and he is tailed by a policeman in his car.  All of a sudden, the policeman turns on his siren.  Daniel stops and gets out of the car.  The policeman asks Daniel if he's that nigger teaching the other niggers how to vote?  Daniel starts writing down the policeman's badge number and for that he gets taken to jail.  They allow Daniel to make one telephone call and Daniel calls the FBI.  He asks the sergeant what his name is and the sergeant pulls the phone away from Daniel.  He asks who the hell is this?  The FBI agent says he's Peter Crowley, assistant attorney general for Civil Rights at the Justice Department in Washington.  The sergeant hangs up on Crowley and tells Daniel this has been just some kind of misunderstanding.  Therefore, Daniel can pay a $5 dollar fine and go home.  Daniel says he shouldn't have to pay the fine at all, since he didn't do anything wrong. 

So now Daniel is in jail and on a hunger strike.  And now other SNCC teachers jump in for Daniel to continue voter registration.  Daniel suddenly shows up.  He says the NAACP posted his bail, but he didn't ask them to do that.  Daniel says that he's now going out in the backwoods country to teach people how to register to vote.  One of the student volunteers warns Daniel:  "It's deep Klan country, my brother.  They kill people."  Daniel says it wouldn't be right not to go just because it's dangerous.  If anyone needs him, he'll be at Jonah Summer's house.

Uncle Jonah asks Daniel if he is sure he wants to do this because ". . . there ain't been but one Negro voter since Reconstruction.   And we can't find him." 

The SNCC teachers start training the students how to survive a sit-in.  They verbally taunt the students, curse at them, insult them and then pour ketchup, sugar or milk over their heads.  Owen starts to fight back, which is what they don't want the students to do. 

In the backwoods Daniel's work is very difficult.  People are afraid of the Klan and the White Citizens' Council.  Many people warn Jonah and Daniel that the whites know about them and may do something violent to them.  Daniel just keeps on working. 

In Quinlan the students try to desegregate the while library.  They get thrown out and warned that if they come back they will be arrested.  The students are going to come back tomorrow.

On the day of the sit-in, dad takes Owen down to a new piece of land that he has purchased.  He tells his son that he took out a loan from the bank to buy the land, and he doesn't want his son to be involved in any sit-ins because the bank might renege on the loan.  So Owen agrees not to sit-in.  But the guys who are going to sit-in at the library say that Owen can serve as a sort of look-out.  If they are arrested, he can tell the others about what happened to them.   But when they get to the whites only library, they find the gate locked.

The next morning they go down to the lunch counter at the Woolworth store and begin their sit-in.  The police are called.  The policeman tells them to get out of here.  They refuse and get arrested.  Owen runs down to the pool hall to tell Tyrone that Isaac and Charlie did a sit-in and got arrested.  Tyrone tells Owen to find Archie and tell him to meet them at Ma Sugar's house.

The SNCC group meets.  Coleman tells the people that the bail is $400 dollars to get the two fellows out of jail.  They don't have that kind of money.  So the trial will be on Monday.  And now everyone starts arguing about what should be SNCC's next action.  It's not until the next morning that they finally reach an agreement on what to do.

Owen goes down to the high school kitchen where his mother works.  He says he's going to do the next sit-in, but mother says his father won't allow that.  They argue until mother's white boss comes in and starts complaining that the other day there was almost a riot down at Woolworth's.  Owen and his mother just have to keep agreeing with her until she finally leaves.

Owen and mom try to talk to dad, but his answer is "hell no".  Dad says if Owen jeopardizes this family, Owen is going to have to fight him.  "And you will not win."

Owen comments that his friends Luther, Dora and Alice attempted Quinlan's second sit-in.  But the train station was all locked down.  So they went to Woolworth's, but the store staff sat in all the available seats at the lunch counter.  So his friends then went to the bus station and into the whites only lounge.  There the three protestors were arrested and put in jail.  So now there are five protestors in jail. 

Daniel found two rural people who wanted to register to vote.  Daniel gets beat down by a white man.  Two days later Tyrone and Roland went back to try again.  Roland and Tyrone get beat up.  Then Vida Scott tries to register voters. She is turned away and, as she walks out the door, the registration clerk knocks her out with the butt of his pistol.  Vida gets arrested for inciting to riot.

The deputy assistant attorney arrives at Jonah's house and urges Jonah and Daniel to stick to trying to register the vote because that's a federally protected activity.  Daniel tells Peter Crowley that he's worried about a possible assassination attempt on Jonah's live, but the problem is that Jonah has not been officially threatened yet. 

The next day Jonah drives off to work at the lumber yard.  There he is shot dead by his next-door neighbor, Klan member Buddy Stone.  No charges were ever filed against Buddy Stone.  Daniel comes to the funeral, but Jonah's wife starts crying saying that Daniel killed her husband.

At the next SNCC meeting, Mr. Walker shows up to complain about the kids being in jail,  the several people who have been beaten up and his Uncle Jonah, who was recently killed.  He then says to Daniel not to send his son out to the frontlines, defenseless, as cannon fodder for your theories. Daniel admits that at least part of the responsibility for the death of Jonah and the beating up of the students is his responsibility. 

Good news arrives.  All of the students involved in the movement that are now in jail will be released tomorrow.  A big cheer goes up for that news.  They will, however, make an example out of Dora.  She will not be allowed to re-enroll in school.  She has been declared a delinquent and sent to  the Oakley Reform School.

That night the NAACP withdraws its support from the SNCC project.  Everyone was scared. 

The students in school stage a walk-out of school to protest the fate of Dora.  A new, fresh recruiter comes to Quinlan from SNCC.  The existing  SNCC staff says the new man has come at a bad time because they are just about to close up shop here in Quinlan.  But just then the the student protestors start marching up the street clapping their hands and singing a protest song.  The SNCC staff warns the students against marching on city hall, but the students say they are not asking for their permission.  So the SNCC staff joins in with them and gets the students in a nice, orderly procession.

The police at city hall get ready to stop the students.  The students start praying to God one by one.  And they get arrested one by one.  After a short while, the sheriff just tells his police to throw everyone of the protestors in jail.  Now that's a lot of people.  The white SNCC leader gets beaten up badly without the police stopping the assault.  Owen throws his body over the white man's body to take some of the blows, but Owen gets arrested too.  A policeman pushes Owen down a flight of stairs. 

The young ones are released from jail, but not the others.  At night the police take Daniel outside.  Later, the police take two more protestors outside.  Everyone is afraid the police are going to kill the protestors. 

Now there are only four male protestors left in the jail.   They take out Tyrone and Owen.  A bunch of rednecks are in the hallway and they start harassing the two black protestors until the police come after the two again.  The two are taken out on a lonely road.  The policeman tells the two protestors to get out of the car and start running.   The two stay right in the car.  So the policeman has to  take the two to the county jail where they are reunited with their fellow prisoners. 

Peter Crowley comes to check on the men, who want to know if Crowley can get them out of jail. Crowley says right now he can't get the men out of jail.  The protestors all get four months in jail.

Big mouth Owen now starts whining about their not having accomplished anything.  The other guys say that Owen is wrong.  Daniel says that the group known as C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality) from New Orleans, heard about the efforts of the civil rights movement in Quinlan and they're coming to Mississippi to continue the work.  He says C.O.R.E. saw the light of the torch in Quinlan and now they're coming to continue the work.  "So, you're not on your own, Owen.  You're part of something bigger than you.  You're part of the movement." 

And more civil rights people come to Quinlan.  And this time they come in the company of U.S. Marshals.  They integrate the whites only bus station lounge.  Then the NAACP posts bond for the Quinlan civil rights workers and they are all released from jail.

Now Owen and his father go into the once-segregated bus station and get something to eat.  Owen tells his father that he was so bitter about the incident of the spanking in the bus station was that he knew all along it was his fault for causing the ugly incident in the first place. 

The SNCC group now goes out to other sites to work for civil rights.  Mr. Walker now shakes hands with Daniel and they part on friendly terms.  Owen continues to work on getting black people in Quinlan to register to vote. 

 

Good story of the coming of the Civil Rights Movement to the small town of Quinlan, Mississippi.  There are lots of heroes in the little town who join the movement because anyone of them could be killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan or any group of activist rednecks.  Most of the action centers around the young fellow Owen, but the story itself is all about what happened in Quinlan and the very negative response from the whites in the town, which included lots of beatings and even murder.  And yet the murders created martyrs for the movement and more people joined the Civil Rights Movement.  The ensemble cast did a good job of acting. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

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