2014 Symposium Spotlight: Kate Medley and Counter Histories Series

Kate in the Field

Earlier this week we put out a call for collaborators for our Counter Histories film series [click here for more info], which chronicles individual sit-in movements in half a dozen cities and towns across the South. Last month, we debuted the first film in this series, Counter Histories: Jackson, at our Summer Symposium. Today, we caught up with Kate Medley—a documentarian of food culture and the series director of Counter Histories—about her vision for the series.

“Our mission for the Counter Histories film series is to document the great impact that lunch counter sit-ins had during the Civil Rights Movement. In reflecting the past, we also hope to demonstrate the present-day relevance of these stories,” said Kate.

Civil Rights Veteran Joan Trumpauer Mulholland in the documentary, Counter Histories: Jackson, Mississippi
Civil Rights Veteran Joan Trumpauer Mulholland in the documentary, Counter Histories: Jackson, Mississippi

Kate produced Counter Histories: Jackson with filmmaker Mimi Schiffman. Near the end of the documentary, Civil Rights Veteran Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, who participated in the Jackson Woolworth’s sit-in in 1963, speaks of her hope for younger generations. “This is not to take away from King [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] but to reduce the Civil Rights Movement to Rosa Parks and Dr. King makes everyday folks like you and me look like we can’t do anything except follow,” says Mulholland. “The students today have to see that they can identify their cause and go change the world—and us old folks now, our role is to have their backs.”

Kate said of her experience with Counter Histories: Jackson, “First and foremost, as I was studying newsreels and digging into research about the people involved, nearly everyone in the Woolworth’s that day – both the Civil Rights activists sitting at the counter and their antagonists – were under the age of 20. Youth were driving this aspect of the Movement in Mississippi.

“The weapons used in these demonstrations are also of great interest to me. Many of these lunch counter sit-ins became incredibly violent, though not by way of knives and guns.  In Jackson, for instance, people grabbed glass sugar canisters from the counter and smashed them to create glass shards.  In countless sit-ins, you see people spraying condiments—ketchup and mustard—as a way of humiliating the demonstrators.  The very food that these demonstrators were asking to be served was instead being used as a weapon to hurt them.”

At our fall Symposium, Kate will showcase a selection of films from the Counter Histories series. Stay tuned for future installments to debut online shortly after the symposium.