Moving the Civil Rights Message: Through Media and Song

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Black History Month is often the time used to recognize and salute African-American pioneers and leaders. This winter – coupled with today’s advances in technology and emphasis on media — is also being used to bring to light the Civil Rights Movement and many of the injustices suffered through the Civil Rights Era.

The recent community screening at the Schomburg Center of The Secrets of Natchez,” an episode of The new Investigation Discovery’s “Injustice Files” docu-series, introduced the story of the racially motivated killing of Wharlest Jackson, a proud, devoted father and Civil Rights leader, in Natchez Mississippi on February 27th 1967.

The audience came from far and wide, and included Paula C. Johnson, a Professor of Law and co-Director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University who has worked with the Wharlest Jackson family. Ms. Johnson says “Cold Case is a misnomer- these unsolved cases are current offenses and the pain is real. There is a tremendous need for more public information and knowledge. It’s now or never to get to the bottom of these cases.”

The FBI was involved in the early investigation of the death of Wharlest Jackson, and later after reopening the case three separate times the mystery still remains unsolved. Encouraged by the work of Emmy Award-winning investigative filmmaker Keith Beauchamp (The Untold Story of Emmet Louis Till), in 2007 the FBI announced the Cold Case Initiative; the idea behind the initiative was to create ways to approach things differently and demonstrate these cases in a format that could possibly generate leads. The purpose and belief of the Civil Rights Unit of the FBI is that every case is solvable and by joining with Beauchamp there can be an impassioned move to get to the truth.

Growing up in the South, Beauchamp heard these accounts as a child and developed a passion for truth and justice. He found his true calling during his research and investigation into the Till murder, Beauchamp’s documentary led to the reopening of the case. Beauchamp sleeps and thinks about ways to tell these stories to give justice to the families, he says. “As a layman, we can never do this alone but together we can get this done.” While Mr. Beauchamp believes people are afraid to talk about racism today, “if we can overcome apartheid in South Africa, we can do it here” Given a platform, he feels a moral obligation to tell these stories.

While the FBI did not endorse or produce the documentary, Cynthia Deitle, the former Chief of the FBI Civil Rights Unit, engaged Keith Beauchamp to narrate and meet with the families and possible witnesses familiar and involved with the crimes. She says, “Kids don’t know what Civil Rights is about.” Deitle admits there are more than 100 racially motivated homicides and is hoping over time people’s conscious will allow them to come forward with any information. She believes “this media brings history to children in a way they can understand…and allows children to see a different way to view the Civil rights Era.”

Not often does the media come together to talk about these crimes and community children do not know these people that had injustice done to them. After the presentation and panel discussion by the son of Wharlest Jackson- Wharlest Jackson, Jr.—Keith Beauchamp and Cynthia Deitle, there were questions from the audience.

Pastor Al Taylor of the New York Assembly believes “it’s a good idea to stream this material into schools and churches.” Prior to the screening, he says he was unaware and has now found interest in facilitating; his passion is youth and he would like to get this information to the youth and feed our children their history.

But in these times when the media massages the mind and the soul – which is what Investigation Discovery may want to happen so strong ratings will call for more episodes of this Cold-Case reality series, there are some of us in the audience who were warmed by the music of a young talent from Harlem who sings the series’ soundtrack.

Jared Chocolatt, accompanied by Michael Connors on piano, opened the screening event with a rousing, poignant performance that both spoke to the tragedy and also gave visibility to the talent and the gifts that are lost when dreams are blown to pieces.

Chocalatt was invited to perform his version of the song, “Ain’t Going to let Nobody Turn Me Around”, for the documentary by Judy Riebeck. He is from the acclaimed Broadway musical Bring on the Noise, Bring on The Funk fame. Chocalatt currently has an album on iTunes and he is working on a new album, Forbidden.

His credits include such popular stars as Rihanna, Amerie, Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill. He started in the streets of New York playing percussion beats on Home Depot buckets in train stations and landed on Broadway.

This artist didn’t really say too much about the documentary in the short period of time that I was able to speak with him. But judging from reactions to his performance that evening, The Injustice Files may find another medium through which to spread the message and get results. His powerful voice can move folks to right wrongs — even the grandsons and granddaughters of racists.

Hey, maybe that’s something that can be done to awake a sleeping giant. In this day and age of Facebook, You-Tube, video solutions are closer than we could imagine more than 40 years ago.