Black history is the cornerstone of Memphis’s story. The city is home to the National Civil Rights Museum and will forever be linked to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 and the 1968 Sanitation Strike that brought him here. Since that time, issues involving civil rights and activism have changed both within Memphis and beyond. These issues are highlighted in a new documentary examining the past, present, and future of Memphis activism.
Once More At The River: From MLK to BLM premiered at the University of Memphis in January 2019. The documentary explores how activism has evolved since the Civil Rights Movement and contemplates how life for African Americans living in Memphis has been affected as a result.
Dr. Roxane Coche, the film’s director and one of its producers, said the idea for the documentary came in 2016 upon the realization that the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination was approaching.
“Social justice and civil rights are such an important topic that I decided to pitch the idea for a full-length documentary instead of a single class,” said Coche,” I talked to the National Civil Rights Museum first, then found colleagues to collaborate with at the U of M—Joe Hayden and Aram Goudsouzian—and that was the start of the project. Everything happened pretty quickly. I decided on the theme in late 2016, and by early February 2017, we submitted our first grant proposal.”
Faculty and students of the University of Memphis’ Department of Journalism and Strategic Media and Department of History produced the film through a grant and support from various organizations including the National Civil Rights Museum and Humanities Tennessee. Coche said that a total of 28 people were interviewed for the documentary.
“We interviewed ‘activists’ in the large sense of the term,” said Coche, “Some people called themselves organizers rather than activists. Others may be journalists or professors. Yet others are or have since become politicians. But all fight for social justice in Memphis. They are of all ages, so we had interviewees who marched with Martin Luther King and others who were not born when Dr. King was assassinated. Ultimately, we wanted to focus on their story to uncover how activism has evolved in the city, and how it has shaped it too.”
Caleb Suggs, a journalism student and one of the documentary’s producers, said this documentary highlights Memphis history because it is Memphis history.
“Memphis history is the foundation of this documentary,” said Suggs, “All it does is showcase and put on display what Memphis has been through and where it started, and it does that through not just the images of the past, but the people that lived through them.”
Nearly 300 people attended the premiere. Otis Sanford, a journalism professor at the University of Memphis and columnist for The Daily Memphian, said that the documentary serves as a portrayal of the activism that still exists in Memphis as well as the motivation young people possess to keep striving for equal rights.
“I think they’ll benefit by understanding that it’s okay to be an activist,” said Sanford,” to get involved, to let your feelings be heard, to exercise your First Amendment Right, to peaceably assemble and to protest. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Dr. Coche said that a teaching guide is being produced by the U of M Department of Education that will soon be available on the documentary website, and other schools across the country are being asked if they would be interested in screening the film for their local areas.
Caleb Suggs said that the documentary is in the process of becoming public domain so that anyone who requests use of it will be able to do so freely.
“People can request viewing across the country,” said Suggs, “Anyone who wants to educate people or inform their community can use this around the country and probably even around the world just to show people not just what’s going on in Memphis, but things they can do in our world to make it better.”