What the Self-Defense of Black Residents of Natchez Looked Like
In accounts of the Civil Rights Era in the United States, center stage has long been occupied by the non-violent protest championed by Martin Luther King. It was clearly the key tactic in combatting centuries of racial oppression and injustice.
But it was not African American communities’ only way of confronting hostility towards reform. Some groups opted for armed resistance in response to the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan and other domestic terrorists.
The Ed Pincus Film Collection is providing fascinating insights into one community where black activists took up arms in self defense in the 1960s. The Pincus collection is held at the Amistad Research Center, the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive independent archive specializing in the history of African Americans and other ethnic minorities. The Pincus collection provides more than 85 hours of film footage that depicts Southern civil-rights organizing, voter registration drives, a successful boycott of white-owned businesses to press for concessions from racist local authorities, and defiant responses to white supremacist violence.
The footage is now all freely available online via the Louisiana Digital Library. That’s thanks to a 2018 Digitizing Hidden Collections grant of $250,000 from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
In the last decade or two, historians have reassessed some prominent instances of African American groups turning to armed resistance, or the threat of it, to protect their communities. The Black Panthers, who were most active in the northern and western United States, are among groups whose history and legacy have been reconsidered. Far less well known are the Deacons for Defense and Justice who operated in the Southern US, including in Natchez, Mississippi in the mid-1960s.
Reconsideration of the legacy of those groups comes at the same time as various other cultural and political revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s are being reviewed, in part because their practitioners are reaching old age or are dying. The hippies, the Yippies, the arts and music underground, and the pioneers of “guerrilla” access to television and radio broadcasting are among the groups being studied anew.
Long overdue has been recognition of the efforts of groups like the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The Pincus film collection provides extraordinary, detailed vision of the operations of its Natchez branch. In a city that had been established in 1716 and had the largest population in the South of descendants of free blacks, the Deacons led a struggle to end segregation and other more immediately violent and threatening actions including several murders of local black citizens and activists.
The Ed Pincus Film Collection consists of digitized 16mm black-and-white film that Ed Pincus and David Neuman used to create two documentaries, Black Natchez (1967) and Panola (1970) and intended to use for a sequel to Black Natchez that they never completed.
Panola is a 21-minute film that portrays a local black man, perhaps a police informant, as he tries to come to grips with the Civil Rights Movement in the South.
The earlier Black Natchez depicted hostilities towards black citizens in the city. In a cinéma verité style, it included scenes of efforts to organize and register black voters and the secret swearing in during 1965 of recruits to the Deacons self-defense group.
It was a time of disagreements in the black community about how to respond to systemic racism and incidents of violence towards African American citizens. As Black Natchez showed, that played out in intergenerational tensions. Those often pitted members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — the NAACP — against adherents of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was challenging the racist operations of the established Democratic Party in the South. Pincus’s filmed subjects included men and women going about their daily lives and also leaders like Charles Evers, a prominent civil-rights leader whose brother, Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s first field secretary in the state of Mississippi, who had been assassinated in 1963.
Ed Pincus, a white graduate of Harvard University, where he had studied philosophy and photography, spent 10 weeks in Natchez with David Neuman filming the everyday and political activities of black residents. The latter included demonstrations and other civil-rights organizing. They were able to document instances of gross violence against black citizens, including the car bombing and severe wounding of George Metcalfe, the president of the Natchez branch of the NAACP. The bombing occurred as Metcalfe was leaving his job at the Armstrong Tire Plant.
In a followup film, Pincus and Neuman were to have used footage they captured when they returned to Natchez in 1967 following the murder of Wharlest Jackson, the treasurer of the Natchez branch of the NAACP — he, too, while leaving his job at the Armstrong Tire Plant. Pincus and Neuman filmed Jackson’s funeral and events surrounding his murder.
“What Pincus captured were the protest marches, community meetings, and general public sentiment following Jackson’s death,” Brenda Flora, Amistad’s curator of moving images and recorded sound, wrote in a note on the Amistad website. “The rolls of film he shot are genuine, often candid, portrayals of a city at a time of turmoil.”
When it came to digitizing the Pincus material, she and her colleagues found it to be in “surprisingly good shape,” she said in an interview. The CLIR grant that was awarded in 2018 enabled Amistad to more forward on the Pincus project, which it had begun in 2011. Along the way it had rehoused the material, cataloged it, and prepared it for digitization. The material had come to Amistad directly from Ed Pincus in 2001, several years before he died in 2013. He was motivated to give it to Amistad in part by his desire to keep the material close to the events depicted, Flora said. In turn, Amistad has made it freely available online because “we want to make all this footage accessible for people in Natchez to view because it’s such an important part of their history,” she said.
The Amistad Research Center, an independent nonprofit historical and research repository housed on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans, collects materials related to the United States’ social and cultural history as it relates to race and ethnicity, the African Diaspora, civil rights, and associated subjects. In addition to film collections, it houses more than 800 collections, including 15 million original manuscripts and rare documents; thousands of periodicals dating from the early 19th century; 250,000 photographs dating from 1859; more than 400 oral histories by musicians, civil rights activists, writers, military figures, and community members; and a large library of monographs, books, articles and dissertations on the history of African-American and ethnic groups.
The posting of the Pincus collection is particularly timely given heightened public attention to persistent racial injustice in the United States. Events such as numerous police killings of black youth are causing historians to hark back to the civil rights era and its legacy, including such seminal events as the 1964 Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, when activists sought to reform Mississippi’s segregated political system.
Ever since the 50th anniversary of that drive, Flora said, Amistad has received numerous requests for footage from the Pincus collection, but to preview it “people would have to come to the Center and an archivist would supervise and set them up on the Steenbeck to view it, in person. It just wasn’t practical.”
Despite Covid, the Amistad Center was able to mark the launch by hosting a live event, Unseen Natchez: 1960s Community Activism; Films from the Ed Pincus Collection at the Amistad Research Center. The Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture was able to bring together a local audience to view the event. “I was really struck,” said Flora, “by a lot of comments from local people in Natchez, that this was all very fresh with them; they still bear the wounds of events of that era. This is all very much in the forefront of their minds. Some of the people who were there are still around, and family members, and people who were kids when this happened. And they still remember the events.”
One outcome of the public posting of the footage has been to provide those participants in fraught historical events with perspectives on the events, emotions, and thoughts they experienced, Flora said. Under attack and constant threat, black residents of the city “still marched publicly, made speeches, and worked to foster communication with the white community, despite the jeopardy it put their lives in, because they knew that it needed to be done,” she wrote in her online post.
One particularly expansive use of the Pincus Collection was the 2022 documentary American Reckoning, which screened in the PBS Frontline series. It drew heavily from the footage that Pincus and Neuman shot in 1967 for their never-completed follow-up to Black Natchez. Directed and produced by Brad Lichtenstein and Yoruba Richen of 371 Productions, American Reckoning examined the Wharlest Jackson cold case as an example of both the murderous brutality of the racist regime of the time, and the failure of law-enforcement authorities to adequately prosecute scores of such cases in Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s.
Pincus and Neuman were able to use verité footage that showed Jackson joining the Deacons, the shocking aftermath of the bombing of his car, and community reactions to the attack, which has long been assumed to have been the work of local Ku Klux Klan hit men. Indeed, American Reckoning makes a strong case for who likely murdered Wharlest Jackson, and also contends that the United States still must undertake what the film’s title implies. (PBS has also posted a film about the making of the film.) That, said Flora, “was an ideal outcome for us: people were immediately able to use that footage in such a thoughtful way to tell that story.”
For more on Ed Pincus’s startling life in film, see this account from the Harvard Film Institute, which holds additional material from his career.
— Peter Monaghan