Gordon Quinn and Tracye A. Matthews

Documentarians
Headshots of a man and a woman.

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

(Film excerpt)

Jo Reed: You just heard an excerpt from the documentary ’63 Boycott. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. At the top of the show, you heard student Ralph Davis speaking with reporters over 50 years ago about the situation in Chicago schools, and then you heard Ralph reflecting on that time with the filmmakers of ’63 Boycott. In 1963, 250,000 students boycotted the Chicago Public Schools to protest racial segregation. Students, parents, teachers, and organizers took to the streets calling for the resignation of School Superintendent, Benjamin Willis, who placed trailers on playgrounds and parking lots of overcrowded black schools rather than let those students enroll in nearby white schools. It was one the largest and most overlooked civil rights actions of the 1960s. And it’s recently been chronicled in a short documentary film called ’63 Boycott. As you heard with Ralph, ‘63 Boycott combines original footage of the boycott and demonstrations with current interviews with the participants. It captures an important historical event but it also resonates across time linking to the current Chicago public school system. As ’63 Boycott made the Festival Circuit, it’s won many awards—was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination but more importantly it’s spurring critical conversations. ‘63 Boycott was produced by Kartemquin Films, a powerhouse for socially aware independent documentary films. Kartemquin produced Hoop Dreams, for example, and this year’s academy award nominee, Minding the Gap. The Chicago-based nonprofit was begun 53 years ago by Gordon Quinn, who directed ’63 Boycott, which was produced by Tracye A. Matthews and Rachel Dickson. Tracye Matthews who’s an historian as well as a filmmaker joins me to talk about ’63 Boycott, as does Gordon Quinn, who actually began this project over 50 years ago during the boycott itself.

Gordon Quinn: I had actually come to the University of Chicago in 1960 from Virginia where I was going to legally segregated schools. Virginia didn't desegregate for a couple years later. They had been fighting Brown versus Board of Education all the time. And I saw even in my first year, that Chicago is a very segregated city. The schools were segregated. We were-- I was involved in some tutoring things and was in some public schools. And, you know, they were largely segregated. We, some of us who were students were involved in support groups for what was going on in the south. But as the people were building up to this huge boycott, we were tipped off by people who were involved in trying to organize it and said, "This is going to be big. It's going to be historic." And they knew that we were people interested in filming. We really hadn't <laughs> learned to do anything yet, but we managed to get our hands on a few cameras and a group of us all went out to film this historic day. And I cut a little eight minute piece that was silent and I had a little tape that went with it with some singing and I would go around with Al Raby after the boycott and they were using it kind of to keep the coalition together. But then it just got set aside. It was in a box in storage for all these years. I'd offered it to Eyes on the Prize and they never told the story of the Boycott. And so finally, as the anniversary started to roll around, I started working on the film with Rachel Dixon, the other producer, and reached out to Tracye to join the project because when you do a history film you want to make sure you get the history correct and Tracye had a background both as a filmmaker and as a historian, so the three of us really finished the film and are getting it out into the world now 50-some years later.

Jo Reed: So Boycott is based on film that you shoot over 50 years ago?

Gordon Quinn: Yeah

Jo Reed: That’s extraordinary. Amazing. Tracye, can you give me some background about the boycott?

Tracye A. Matthews: The '63 Boycott was a culminating event of a lot of organizing that had been going on in Chicago around segregation in public education. There had been lots of community groups, parents groups that had been protesting segregation in the Chicago public schools for years. There had been lawsuits to try to get the schools to desegregate. So the boycott was called Freedom Day and it was the day that a mass call went out to community organizations and parents and students to stay out of school on this one day, to march downtown, to do a demonstration of the breadth of the support that was behind the parents and the students who were calling for desegregation and for equality of resources in the Chicago public schools.

Gordon Quinn: One of the things they were protesting was the trailers that were being put behind or adjacent to the black schools that were overcrowded and that way they wouldn't have to move those kids into the adjacent under-utilized white schools.

Jo Reed: Let’s get some historical context. Tracye, can you tell me what was going on in Chicago at that time?

Tracye A. Matthews: Sure. So Chicago and the rest of the country were in a great period of change after the end of restrictive covenants that made African Americans confined to certain neighborhoods. People could move wherever they wanted, and as they moved into formerly white neighborhoods, it triggered something called white flight, where you had white ethnic groups who were in those neighborhoods fleeing to the suburbs because they did not want to live in what they thought were going to be dangerous and predominantly black neighborhoods. The real estate board facilitated this and encouraged them by stirring up fear. And then the federal government also facilitated this because of the way the loans were structured, people could get a loan to go live in the suburbs but you couldn't get loans within the city and it was much more difficult for African Americans to get access to those loans. And so as more and more black people moved into these neighborhoods and into the schools, the schools started to become overcrowded and every time a school was overcrowded but that those students could go maybe a couple blocks away to a school that was predominantly white, the school board would redraw the lines so that those black students would not be eligible to go into the white schools.

Jo Reed: Let's then take even a further step back and talk about context in terms of what was going on throughout the entire country during this time and what was going on particularly in the south, because that also had some impact on what eventually happened in Chicago.

Tracye A. Matthews: Absolutely. Many of the organizations that were working in the south had counterparts or supportive groups that were operating in the north. In Chicago, we had the Chicago Area Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC. We had a CORE chapter, Congress of Racial Equality chapter. So these groups were, initially, some of them were formed to provide support and fundraising for the movement in the south. But as one of our characters in the film says, it became increasingly difficult to only focus on the south when there were so many horrible things going on in Chicago as well. So you think about 1963, that summer in August was the March on Washington, the Freedom Riots were going on and there were all kinds of major acts of civil disobedience happening in the south and in the north. So I think one of the great things about this film is that it shows the level of organizing around civil rights that was happening in Chicago simultaneous to the movement that people are more familiar with in the south.

Jo Reed: Why do you think this moment was so crucial?

Gordon Quinn: I think it was really big and I think people had been fighting this battle for a long time over just fundamental human rights issues. And when the boycott finally came around, it was enormously successful. They emptied the schools and it had a tremendous financial impact on the Chicago public schools. Data came out of it. People really began to see that who was in the schools and what the racial breakdown was, and I think it really empowered parents to feel that we have a right to go into these schools and to be a part of the process of what goes on in schools.

Jo Reed: Tracye, do you have anything you want to add to that?

Tracye A. Matthews: I think that the boycott in 1963 and the one that followed in 1964 were important flashpoints in the longer story of the battle over segregation in education in Chicago that continues today, and one of the things that I found really interesting: the level of organizing happening in Chicago at that time was incredible. So you have, you know, the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, which is this huge coalition of, like, hundreds of community-based organizations, unions, teachers, parents, all these people coming together for this particular event, but also the events that followed that over the next several years. And one of the main reasons we think that Martin Luther King decided to choose Chicago as his first northern foray into civil rights activism in the north was because of the level of organizing that was happening in Chicago already. He had visited several times. He met with several leaders from the boycott movement and I think this encouraged him to say if I come here, there's already this history of movement, there's already this momentum that's happening in Chicago.

Jo Reed: Now I want to talk a little nuts and bolts here. I watch the film and understanding a little bit about what goes into documentary filmmaking, how you managed to identify so many of the people that you shot originally or that were involved in the original boycott, and especially students. I mean, organizers, I can see how you might be able to identify them, but the students, that was extraordinary.

Gordon Quinn: Rachel was really in the midst of that and we created a website and we took 500 still photographs and put them up on the web. It was sort of like Facebook. You could click on somebody's face and a little window pops up and you can tell us who you are or who this is or how we might contact you or the person in the picture. And so we identified some people that way. We also worked with alumni associations from schools and stuff like that. Everybody we sort of either found through the website and I think one of the things that Tracye did that really changed the kind of film that it is, originally we were going to make a film about these young people and what it meant to them 50 years later to have participated in this very historic event. When Tracye came in, she said, you know, we really have to show how they pulled this off. What were the organizing strategies, how did they make it happen? And so then we started finding the people who were the actual organizers, people like Rosie Simpson and other people, who were key to organizing it and pulling it off.

Jo Reed: When you first reached out to them, what was the response? I'm just so curious. You know, it was 50 years ago, so the phone rings and it's somebody, it's either Tracye or you, Gordon, or Rachel and they want to talk about this event that happened 50 years ago.

Gordon Quinn: People were pretty up for it and open to it. A lot of the people had been organizers 50 years ago where that became their lives. They continue to play that kind of role, so they were very happy that somebody was paying attention to this. They always felt that it was important historically. And I think for more, like, the everyday kids it changed their lives in some kind of way and they had a story they wanted to tell.

Jo Reed: Who actually did the interviewing?

Tracye A. Matthews: This is Tracye. I did most of the interviews except for I think the first two--

Gordon Quinn: The first two.

Tracye A. Matthews: That were done before I joined the production team.

Jo Reed: And was the memory of that time really very present for them when you spoke to them, Tracye?

Tracye A. Matthews: Surprisingly, people remembered a lot. We joke around and say, you know, "They remember more than I remember about last week." But yes, the memories were very fresh in their minds. And then occasionally, we would bring things to kind of jog their memory. For example, the song, "These Schools Are Your Schools," when we played that for people they were like, "Oh, yeah. I remember that. I haven't heard it in a long time." And so, yeah, we tried to come up with questions that would help to spur their memories of that moment. But it seemed that people didn't really have a hard time recalling where they were, how they felt and what part they played in the movement.

Gordon Quinn: We also had some luck with the website. We had one of the scenes that you see in the film is this early demonstration at 73rd & Lowe and we had this footage, it was a long time ago, we had three minutes of footage from what we knew wasn't the Boycott, but I couldn't remember what it actually was of. And we put it up on our website and we said, "What's this?" And, you know, people responded. They said, "Oh, that's the demonstration at 73rd & Lowe. It was led by Rosie Simpson and we brought it up when we interviewed her and said, "Tell us about this demonstration and everything." So we had her driving that story.

(Film excerpt)

Jo Reed: That was just a short clip we heard of Rosie Simpson, talking about what led to the protests. The people you spoke to were such an impressive group of people. Just so thoughtful, so sophisticated, so politically aware. I was so impressed and could have listened to them speak for hours. I'm not sure there's a question there. I'm just putting it out there. <Laughs>

Tracye A. Matthews: No, I agree. And I think, as Gordon said, most of these people remained active throughout their adult lives and so I think that accounts for some of their-- the presence that they bring on camera. And they're skilled organizers. You know, they're people who know how to move other people. And so, the way they can tell stories is just magnified because they've had so much experience using storytelling and community contact to really move social movements over the years.

Jo Reed: Even the students, like Sandra Murray, for example, or Ralph Davis. The awareness they had even as kids, they knew exactly what was happening to them and how they were really being shortchanged. And they were going to change that.

Gordon Quinn: I think, you know, I've dealt with trauma in other films and even one film that dealt with childhood trauma and I think one of the things that's different here is these kids were being traumatized by segregation, by being put in trailers, by in a way making it so visible to them that they were second class citizens, that they didn't have equal rights. But they got to fight back. The boycott was, it was kids. They were there in the demonstration. And I think when people actually take that power into their own hands that that's a kind of thing that then gives them a strength for the rest of their lives and I think that's what you're seeing in some of our characters. It was really interesting to me seeing how kind of whole and together these people were and the strong sense of themselves. They had things that hurt them in the past but they also fought their battles and, you know, within as a community were able to stand up.

Tracye A. Matthews: And I think often we underestimate what young people know and what young people understand and what they can teach us. And so I think that this is a prime example of the agency of young people that had an impact on their lives but the lives of young people who see the film today. Some of the film is contemporary footage of protests happening around the 2013 closing of 50 schools, 50 public schools in Chicago. And these are young people who are leading that movement. They want their schools to stay open. They want to not be having standardized tests every five minutes. They want to have equal resources in all the schools of the city and not just some. So you see young people again taking the lead in moving the movement forward. And so I think we have to kind of step back and respect and acknowledge their leadership.

Jo Reed: I wonder for both of you, what was the most moving part in this? Because I found it exhilarating in some ways, but also incredibly moving.

Gordon Quinn: For me it was Sandra Murray's interview because it became so clear with what participating in this event meant. You know, I love the moment when she says, "I wanted to think very carefully about what I would wear.”

(Film excerpt)

Gordon Quinn: You know, I find that stuff very powerful. To me, I think that's an important aspect of the story.

Jo Reed: And I think listeners who might not have seen the film, Sandra very, very early on in ‘63 Boycott explained what happened when she said to one of her teachers, who was a white teacher, that she wanted to be a research scientist.

Gordon Quinn: Yeah. And the teacher kind of makes fun of her and said, "Who have you ever seen that is a research scientist who's a girl and black and you're both." And they put her in a, like, a vocational track. And that's the kind of thing you don't know is going to happen. I mean, when we found her and we actually didn't even know we had her in our footage when we found her but we found her through the web and then she told us this incredible story about when she was a student.

Jo Reed: I was so moved by Sandra Murray, especially at the end of the film when she said, "People marched for me," and you could tell what that meant for her, the intensity in the way she said it. And you know she paid it forward.

Tracye A. Matthews: Yeah, she was incredible to interview. And every time I watch the film and we get to that part where she talks about people marched for her and we see that picture of her receiving her doctorate, I get goosebumps every time. And, and usually, I've been in so many screenings where when they show the picture and they say, "Sandra Murray, Ph.D.," people just start cheering, because, you know, they followed her story and they're like, "Oh, my God, she did it. She said she was going to do it and she did it and all these people helped her."

Gordon Quinn: I think Rosie Simpson is also very powerful because she's someone who didn't back down, who understood what a fight was and had the tactical sophistication to pull it off.

Tracye A. Matthews: I was going to say, Rosie Simpson was very inspiring to me, just the longevity of her involvement in various political and social movements in Chicago over time, her labor organizing before the boycott, her work after the boycott with parents and teachers, and just her fearlessness. If you look at the footage around the 73rd & Lowe protest, it really helps to erode this mythology that the early sixties were polite and mild and the good sixties—

Tracye A. Matthews: And then the late sixties were too militant and too--

Jo Reed: Were the bad sixties. <Laughs>

Tracye A. Matthews: Too forceful. Yeah, good sixties-bad sixties. And this footage, yes, they had on a nice church dress and stockings, but they're lying in front of bulldozers. I think Rosie Simpson just exemplifies, like, the best of black women's organizing in Chicago.

Gordon Quinn: And she's, she's still coming with us to schools and things. You know, our main target for the film is to get it into schools. And we've had her in several schools interacting with the kids.

Jo Reed: Tracye, you're an historian. Tell me what brought you to documentary film.

Tracye A. Matthews: Well, I kind of figured out early on in graduate school when I was working on my Ph.D. that I didn't want to be a professor in the traditional sense. I didn't want to be confined to only probably elite classrooms sharing the knowledge that I'd gained through my studies. And so I started investigating other things that could be done with a Ph.D. in history. Of course there's millions of things but what I ended up doing is working on some documentary films first as a researcher and then I also ended up working at a museum, the Chicago History Museum, for five years as I was writing my dissertation. So for me, trying to figure out ways to bring history to the public, to the broader public, not just to an elite few, has always been one of my aims and I think that, you know, documentary film is one of the wonderful ways to be able to do that and to make history more accessible to more audiences.

Jo Reed: Gordon, you’ve had such a long career as a documentarian. Can you go back and tell me what appealed to you about it?

Gordon Quinn: You know, I went to the University of Chicago and I was a student when we filmed the boycott and I got very interested. I saw some documentaries. At that time, there was no production, you know, no film classes or anything at the U of C. But I got very interested in the role that documentary could play in a democratic society and so I started working even before I'd finished college, kind of learning the craft, and now I've been doing it for over 50 years. I think documentaries are emotional. They move people. They open people up to maybe pay attention to somebody who's not had the same experiences in life that they have or looks and feels like them. And I think that's essential for any kind of democracy.

Jo Reed: And you, Gordon, began Kartemquin Films over 50 years ago.

Gordon Quinn: Yeah, right after I went to New York and worked in the industry for a few years and then came back to Chicago and started Kartemquin to make films like ‘63 Boycott, really. Our films range from films like, you know, Hoop Dreams is our most famous film. We had a big series on education called America to Me, that is still running on Starz. And we have a film coming out that it did get a nomination for the Oscar called Minding the Gap.

Jo Reed: Yes, it did, and it is a great film. I love that film.

Gordon Quinn: Yeah.

Jo Reed: Great film. So are you going?

Gordon Quinn: You know, I went to the Oscar luncheon. I went last year when we had a nomination and I'm not-- I've been once. I'm not going to go this year. If "Boycott" had gotten a nomination, I would have gone. We were all going to go.

Jo Reed: Funding is always fun for documentaries, followed closely by distributing, I would think. Can we talk about how you found the money for ‘63 Boycott?

Gordon Quinn: I thought, to be honest, that the funding would be a lot easier, but it wasn't. But one of the important funders was the NEA that came in fairly early on. We had started on the project and we had our website up but they became a significant funder. And some of the people that I thought we were going to get money from just didn't come on board, but we patched it together.

Tracye A. Matthews: And this being only my second or third time being involved at that level of production, it just seems increasingly more difficult to get funding to do historical film. I don't know what it's going to take to change that, but I think, you know, for me as a historian, it's a little disheartening to see that people don't acknowledge or recognize the importance of history to our contemporary lives.

Jo Reed: It's hard. I mean, it's really hard to find the money. And then distributing is also very difficult. You've made the festival circuit and you've gotten wonderful, wonderful awards as you've taken the film around. Can you just talk about what the role of festivals can be for an independent filmmaker?

Gordon Quinn: They're very useful, really. One, they're an audience and there are more and more festivals and so you actually, that's your first audience and then people start talking about the film. The awards can be very helpful. Like the reason we made the short list for the Oscar nomination is what made us eligible was an award that we won in the Nashville Film Festival, I think. And so those kind of things can be very helpful, too. So that's one part of your strategy. Now, we're moving the film in with an educational distributor into the educational market and, you know, we'll really be targeting schools and that kind of thing. And it has been around the broadcast, it will be streaming free for I think 30 days, something like that. But I think the screenings in the schools is what I really get excited about.

Tracye A. Matthews: Me too. You know, a lot of young people, I've had the experience when we show them films like Boycott, and they’re kind of upset that nobody ever told them this story before. I mean, Rachel went to Chicago public schools and she never heard about the boycott.

Jo Reed: Film makes everything so present. To see those students march, especially if you went to school in Chicago, like Rachel, or you’re going to school there now. You know those streets. You’ve been on them. And film is so good at conveying the moment.

Gordon Quinn: Yeah. Yeah and, you know, one of the things that we've seen happening from the film, as we were finishing the film a couple kids came, different young people, high school students came and they were making projects for the Chicago Metro History Fair. And I went to the fair just, you know, to see these kids and see what they had done. And as I'm wandering around at these different exhibits, there were several other projects on the boycott. Because the pictures are there now, because the film is out, it's being rediscovered by history. You would read books from this era and that kind of thing and it sometimes was a paragraph, but now, I think people are paying a lot more attention to what happened in all different kinds of mediums.

Tracye A. Matthews: And I also wanted to say, some young people who were organized in 2013, actually found some footage that we had uploaded to our website, and they grabbed it and used it in their own mini documentary about what their struggle was about. And so that’s the kind of thing you like to see happen. Like that this film is useful.

Jo Reed: You know, it's probably less-- or maybe not-- I was going to say less of an issue with ‘63 Boycott, but I wonder if you can both speak to the responsibility a documentarian has to the subject he or she is documenting.

Tracye A. Matthews: Especially when those subjects are still alive.

Jo Reed: Yeah, particularly, yeah.

Gordon Quinn: Mm-hmm.

Tracye A. Matthews: To speak back to the piece, to tell you where they think you got it wrong, we got that kind of feedback throughout. As Gordon mentioned, for the anniversary we thought we were going to be done, we had the version and we decided to go ahead and show it to the public and it was very helpful for us to get that kind of feedback, to have more people coming forward saying, "Hey, I was there," or, "I know this person who was there." So, yes, it's a great responsibility but it's also a huge opportunity, I think, to have that kind of back and forth between the filmmaker and their subject of study.

Jo Reed: Gordon?

Gordon Quinn: Yeah. I mean, we think about that issue a lot. And, you know, you've seen "Minding the Gap." That's a film where it deals with domestic violence. It deals with some very intimate family issues. And we want to make sure both that we're being fair to all of our characters, but also that, you know, like when we took them to Sundance, it's like, okay, we really have to work with them now. They're about to be-- Some of them are going to be interviewed by the press. You take on responsibilities for your characters. One of the ways I think about it is that, like a journalist, we have a responsibility to tell the truth and to get the story right. But we also have, when you tell a very intimate story as we do in a documentary, you also have responsibilities to your characters. And sometimes those things are in contradiction with each other and it's finding the balance between the two that to me is at the heart of documentary ethics. I was at the Cinema Eye Awards and they were giving a special award to Eyes on the Prize, and so I went to the presentation for that. I knew this but I just got reminded of it. The rigor that they went through. They had to have it right. And when I reached out to Tracye to come on board with Boycott, it was, like, we wanted to make sure we had the facts right. And I remember even when we were in the editing room and we'd be about to move something or make a little a little change of something and she would be looking up on some database about something, just to make sure that we weren't making a mistake.

Tracye A. Matthews: Yeah and we have to live here in Chicago, so. <Laughs>

Gordon Quinn: That's true, too. <Laughs> Yeah.

Tracye A. Matthews: You know, we had to get it right or else people would definitely let us know about it.

Jo Reed: Yeah. There is something about making a film about the hometown. <Laughs>

Tracye A. Matthews: <Laughs>

Jo Reed: Well, Gordon, Tracye, I want to thank you both. I think "'63 Boycott" was really a wonderful film and I wish you great, great success with it.

Tracye A. Matthews: Thank you so much.

Gordon Quinn: Well, great. Thanks.

Tracye A. Matthews: Thanks for interviewing us.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

<Music up>

Jo Reed: That was filmmakers Gordon Quinn and Tracye A. Matthews, talking about their documentary, ’63 Boycott. ’63 Boycott is streaming at worldchannel.org until March 26. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcast and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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Documentarians Gordon Quinn and Tracye A. Matthews discuss their film ’63 Boycott—a documentary about one of the largest (and possibly most-under-reported) civil rights actions in the 1960s. On October 22, 1963, more than 250,000 students boycotted the Chicago Public Schools to protest racial segregation. Many marched through the city along with their parents demanding to be allowed to enter under-enrolled white schools. Standard policy had been to erect trailers on playgrounds and parking lots of overcrowded black schools rather than let students enroll in nearby schools populated by white students. It was an extraordinary political moment that laid bare the racism of Chicago’s public school system and changed the lives of many of the students involved. By some quirk of fate, Gordon Quinn, who would go on to found Kartemquin Films, was a student at the University of Chicago in 1963 and took his camera out on the street to film the demonstration. That footage is at the heart of ’63 Boycott along with the participants’ reflections of that astounding time. Gordon Quinn and Tracye A. Matthews, who is also a historian, take us through the process of creating this documentary, from locating the people who were in the original footage to getting the history of the boycott right to finding the money to see the film through. (Spoiler alert: The National Endowment for the Arts has a role!)