Civil Rights: How Far Have We Come?
By Craig von Buseck
CBN.com Contributing Writer
CBN.com In the film Blood Done Sign My Name, Nate Parker stars as Dr. Ben Chavis, a teacher in 1970 who stood up to sytemic racism in a rural North Carolina town, risking everything, including his own life. The movie is being released in theaters across America this week. Craig von Buseck recently spoke with Parker on this film and the condition of civil rights in America forty years later.
Craig von Buseck: There is a theme of non-violent protest in the Civil Rights Movement that is threaded through your new movie, "Blood Done Sign My Name." It is almost like the non-violent protest is the anchor of the film. What was it about this movie that grabbed your attention?
Nate Parker: First I want to speak to what you said about non-violent protest. I think we have to remember that non-violent protest, as demonstrated by Dr. King, was based on faith. It was based on an understanding that God is on the side of the oppressed. So you could walk into that intense situation understanding that you are not alone.
When you look at the Greensboro Four; when you look at the freedom riders; when you look at Medgar Evers and the people who were willing to die, I think that their faith got them through. That was one of the things that attracted me to the film, was that understanding -- that need in the community, and stepping into it.
This film is so real because it deals with systemic racism and truth. It deals with hate and truth. It does it in a candid manner, which is rare in "Civil Rights" movies. A lot of times you have the white hero, and the blacks are kind of just pawns shuffling around -- just kind of like, props. You'll see it when you see the film. It deals with the KKK, and how it identified itself as a religious group, but they practiced hate and terror. It shows how that misrepresentation of God and the cross was used to brainwash a community. The film shows the things that the community was fighting against.
So it was a civil rights struggle, but it was a spiritual struggle as well.
Another thing that brought me to this film was the leadership that was demonstrated by Dr. Ben Chavis at such a young age. He was 22 years old and he saw a need in his community and he walked into it.
von Buseck: Yes, that was amazing.
Parker: He walked into it knowing that it could cost him everything -- even his life. When he walked the kids out of the classroom and into the courthouse, he lost his job that day. That's not something that's not talked about in the film, but he lost his job. He was willing to stand up and posture against injustice in a way that most people in 2010 wouldn't be so willing to do.
When I look at films I try to see parallels in the films where I can relate it to today and use it as a teaching tool to inspire, not just my generation, but all generations. I think it's unpatriotic to allow injustice in a community where you reside. I think it's unpatriotic to allow systemic racism. I think it's unpatriotic to not do everything you can to fight against it.
Speaking as a Christian, I think it is un-Christian to allow it to just happen and not be an advocate for change.
von Buseck: The writer and director of this picture, Jeb Stuart, was reading Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham Jail where he writes, "One day the South will recognize its real heroes are those disinherited children of God who sat down at the lunch counters. They were, in reality, standing up for what is best in the American Dream."
von Buseck: I see this coming through in the themes of this movie. Jeb went on to say that people in that small North Carolina community realized that they had allowed themselves to be oppressed.
Parker: That's right.
von Buseck: Talk to me about how the lights came on for these people when they realized, 'we don't have to live like this.'
Parker: That alludes to the final speech that my character gives. The verdict comes in and it's not favorable. Chavis is dealt this enormous pressure and burden of having to face his entire community and give them the next step. He does not strive to create an exception. He strives to create a solution. And what I mean is that he steps up and asks, "Why." Not "why do they do what they do," because we understand that. He says, "Why do we do what we do every day? Why do we support a system and a structure that is based in white supremacy? That treats us as if we are not human, as if we're not citizens, as if we don't count? Why do we support it?"
And the question goes deeper. What do you mean by "support?" Why do we "support" it with our value, in a sense of faith in those businesses and putting our dollars into them? Why do we support these businesses that oppress us? We have to create a solution. What is the solution to this injustice we just experienced? How do we forge a front that will be sustained throughout history, long after we're gone?
They saw that they had the solution in their very hands, which were dollars and cents.
I'm going to go so far as to say we have more to fight for now than we did even then. The struggle back then was overt. You knew exactly what you were fighting. It's like the analogy of the movie "Independence Day." If an alien ship came down and threatened humanity there would be no racism when it came to fighting, because it would threaten us as a human race. So when we look back with analysis what happened then, there was a threat against the very lives of an entire people, so they fought against it with reckless abandon in many instances.
When you fast forward and look at the Civil Rights Movement in 2010, you ask, "What do we have to fight for now?" And a lot of people ask that question, "We have a black president, what do we have to fight for now?" And I would inform those people of the statistics that ail us as a country and as a community. You look at my demographic, 18 to 35 African-Americans, my generation -- one in three of us are in prison. Half of all prison inmates are African-American. There is no coincidence that we came in chains 400 years ago, and most of us are still in chains now.
And I'm just speaking to the physical enslavement. I'm not talking about the mental enslavement, because that's a whole other conversation.
But blacks only make up 12 percent of the population, why is it that 50 percent of the prison population are African-Americans? I'm in New York City, looking down at Times Square right now -- one of the most advanced, progressive cities in the world. Yet 7 out of 10 black males here don’t graduate from high school. That is an epidemic. Can it get much worse? You look at Detroit, where it is one in four.
If we are going to be real with ourselves and say there is a problem, then how are we going to create not exceptions, not just people in office, but solutions to these problems.
von Buseck: So what is your personal role in all of this? You did "The Great Debaters" and now you're in "Blood Done Sign My Name." These are message films. Is this a way that you are able to contribute and hopefully make a difference?
Parker: Brother, it's the same way that you are doing what you're doing there at CBN.com. The reason that we're talking right now. You being a broadcast journalist have taken an interest in this story and are bringing it to the forefront of the Christian community. This is our duty. It says in the Bible that God is on the side of the oppressed. If we really believe that, and we see oppression, then we need to pick a side.
von Buseck: Yes.
Parker: It's as simple as that. So as an actor and as an activist, I try to use my God-given platform not to be the guy that works 60 hours a week for someone that has no interest in my community and then go and do 2 hours of community service on a Saturday. But someone to try to infuse my very platform that God has given me with liberating an entire people.
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