Documentary research on civil rights — Angela Aguayo, left, an assistant professor in the Department of Cinema, and Jamal Easley, a cinema major, discuss the first short documentary from an ongoing research project that includes collecting oral histories of people who experienced the civil rights movement in the region in the 1960s and 1970s. Photo by Jeff Garner. (courtesy)

An ongoing documentary research project at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is exploring the history of civil rights in the region.

Angela Aguayo, an assistant professor in the Department of Cinema and Photography, said the project began with her interest in how the civil rights movement played out in a rural environment.

“Most of the time when we think of civil rights, we think of a large urban environment,” said Aguayo, who grew up in Los Angeles and lived in Austin, Texas, prior to coming to SIUC in 2008. “You don’t think of small towns or rural life in regards to where those same struggles potentially happened, and how they were instrumental or essential to civil rights history.”

Aguayo and several students, including Jamal Easley, a junior majoring in cinema from Chicago, and Eric Robinson, a graduate student from Peoria, are collecting oral histories of people who experienced the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The project started about a year and a half ago to “uncover a sparsely documented history of political struggle for racial equality” through interviews, document preservation, cataloguing historical events, and generating community feedback, Aguayo said.

While Southern Illinois was important in the anti-war movement, not as much information is available about the civil rights movement in the region, outside of Cairo, during the same time period, she said. Aguayo said the group has been talking with people associated with Carbondale’s Eurma C. Hayes Center, the African American Museum of Southern Illinois, and local residents to understand how the movement manifested itself in a rural environment. In addition, WSIU digitized most of its civil rights archive, which the group is also utilizing.

The research includes scouring case files in the Jackson County Courthouse to assist in producing a short documentary, “778 Bullets,” which looks at a November 1970 shootout in Carbondale between members of the Black Panthers and police from several agencies.

The documentary looks at the before-dawn shootout from the perspective of people inside the off-campus house at 401 N. Washington St., and nearby neighbors. A total of 778 bullets were shot into the house. Accounts say that 10 people were injured, including one police officer. An all-white jury later acquitted three of the six defendants, known as “the Carbondale Six,” of all charges including attempted murder. Prosecutors subsequently dropped charges against the three remaining defendants, said Jeffrey Haas, one of the attorneys representing the defendants.

The Black Panthers did operate a storefront in Carbondale for a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Aguayo said.

The documentary is a good starting point for the research, Aguayo said. One of the main goals in this research is to connect the past with present-day events.

“It’s not just we are telling this tale, but we are telling this tale in order to shed light on the situation now,” she said.

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While the research primarily focuses on Carbondale at this point, Aguayo said the history also reaches out to other communities. There is a fear that much of the region’s history regarding civil rights is in danger of being lost due to a lack of adequate documentation and archiving.

Easley said he became intrigued with the project as a freshman when Aguayo mentored him as a research assistant through the University’s Saluki Research Rookies program. Easley said he’s intrigued with redevelopment in urban areas. Some of the same issues from four decades ago remain relevant, he said.

“This isn’t just something that happened decades ago and is done with,” he said. “The issue is still here. That is the hope of getting this project out and letting people see it and making them aware of it.”

Easley and Aguayo hope to cultivate more interviews and continue to investigate the civil rights era in Southern Illinois. Easley will graduate in May 2012 and plans to attend graduate school and become a documentary filmmaker.

“I want to continue taking on social activist issues and raising awareness of issues,” he said.

Aguayo said there are several other areas she wants to touch on in upcoming documentaries, including the role sports played in the integration of Carbondale and the region. The documentaries, typically under 30 minutes, are good for community screenings because they give people an opportunity to be involved in discussions after the films.

The project’s time frame is unlimited. Aguayo and Easley said at times it has been difficult for people to come forward to talk due to the pain and trauma of some events.

But the effort is important for several reasons, Aguayo said.

“Without a clear sense of where we come from it is difficult to know how to grow,” she said. “Historical documentary plays an important role in bringing communities together through public memory. As time marches on, important aspects of this history in Southern Illinois risk being erased.”

Anyone interested in participating in the documentary series can contact Aguayo at ajaguayo@siu.edu.

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