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You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South cover image

You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South 1985, DVD re-issue with special bonus features 2011

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Milestone Films & Video, PO Box 128, Harrington Park, NJ 07640-0128; 800-603-1104
Produced by Lucy Massie Phenix
Directed by Lucy Massie Phenix
DVD , color, 86 min.

College - General Adult
Civil Rights Movement, Environmental Justice, American South

Date Entered: 12/21/2011

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

This DVD version of a classic 1985 documentary provides a nostalgic look back at an era when grass roots activism seemed capable of making the world a better place. Recounting the efforts of the Tennessee Highlander Research and Education Center – which celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2011 – You Got to Move tells a happy tale of successful efforts to protect Southern communities from racism, discrimination, environmental blight, and the indiscriminate dumping of toxic wastes.

One of the film’s great strengths is to show the connections between civil rights, economic injustice, gender discrimination and environmental degradation. Seeing those connections allowed the Center to move from defending black southerners to advocacy for poor Southerners in general. It also has allowed the Highlander activists to create a broad-based progressive agenda that ties together environmentalism, the struggle against racism, and the quest for economic justice.

The Highlander Research Center began in 1931 with a focus on union organizing. By the 1950s its efforts had shifted toward civil rights. Blacks and whites lived and worked together at the Center – one of the few places in the South, or in the United States, where that was possible. Activists taught southern blacks how to read and write, an essential first step toward overcoming voter registration restrictions and raising awareness and consciousness. They called these efforts a “citizenship school,” which aimed at grooming local leaders and teaching communities how to organize themselves. The effort, of course, faced sustained oppression from Southern state authorities. During a show trial in 1961 a judge called Highlander “an integrated whorehouse” and a “cancer of communism spreading over the South” and had the facility shut down. But the Center found a new headquarters and continued to challenge the status quo, despite hysterical claims that it was some sort of communist cabal. Building on its legacy of civil rights and union activism, Highlander branched into environmental justice in the 1960s and 1970s. It began to organize communities against strip mining, toxic waste dumps and nuclear power. Sadly but predictably its many enemies once again accused the Highlanders of being a Soviet plot to undermine American civilization.

The documentary features interviews with activists who played a key role in the Center’s various programs. Most – white and black – were poor and uneducated. Through their activism they went from having no sense of self worth to a feeling of pride in their ability to articulate their community’s fears and defend it against powerful state and corporate interests. But perhaps their greatest challenge was to convince their own neighbors to join them and make a sacrifice for something greater than themselves. The film also contains footage of dramatic encounters between activists and state officials in various settings. Bonus features include later interviews with activists featured in the film, a short 2007 film in honor of the Center’s 75th anniversary, and comments from the director on making the film.

You Got to Move conveys perhaps one of the most important points about grass-roots activism: government won’t work unless people make it work. As the narrator put it (regarding environmental laws on strip mining that mining companies in Kentucky blithely ignored): “It’s up to people to see that laws are enforced.” Waiting for the political system to enforce its own laws, it turns out, was a fool’s errand.

The message of environmental justice in the film is timely. Despite the Occupy Wall Street Movement – which seems to lack both a specific progressive agenda and a strategy for realizing its goals – there is a renewed sense that environmental protection is a zero-sum game: either protect the environment or secure jobs – but never both at the same time. Across the American Northeast, small communities are struggling to protect themselves from efforts by gas companies to inject a chemical stew of toxins into underground shale deposits to release natural gas. Known as “fracking,” the process has poisoned underground water tables and ravaged rural landscapes, yet the promise of jobs in impoverished communities has made it nearly impossible to resist the oil and gas industry – or to influence the many government officials held under its sway.