PBS films ‘Sisters of Selma’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Filming for an ambitious one-hour documentary on the role of Catholic nuns in the Selma-Dallas County phase of the voting rights movement of the mid-1960s is under way. The production staff visited Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma and Wilcox County over the past several days.

The project is called &uot;Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change.&uot;

The production is being readied, in cooperation with Alabama Public Television, for airing on PBS in March 2005, the 40th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march which turned out to be the pivotal event in moving Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.

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Information provided by project sources notes that &uot;In 1965, American nuns made civil rights history in the streets of Selma, Ala. At a time when many church leaders were reluctant to address the treatment of blacks in the South, these courageous women defied authority &045; and a long history of simply praying for causes &045; to proudly take their message to the streets. When the image of these women of the cloth, marching alongside other protesters, graced the front page of newspapers and magazines, Selma became a turning point of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s movement and for religious people in America.&uot;

An underlying theme of the production is the role that Vatican Council II, convened in 1962 to modernize the Catholic church, played in moving American nuns toward direct action.

Jimmy Lee Jackson died in Good Samaritan hospital run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester on Feb. 18, which led directly to King’s call for a protest march from Selma to Montgomery.

Six nuns were in an interfaith party of 54 who arrived in Selma from St. Louis on the Wednesday following &uot;Bloody Sunday,&uot; March 7, when state troopers and the Dallas County sheriff’s mounted posse used violence to disperse marchers attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. One of the sisters was African-American.

Marchers bloodied at the bridge on March 7 were treated at Good Samaritan Hospital.

Two nuns were among the carefully selected group of 300 persons to make the march to Montgomery on March 21.

The nuns from outside Alabama were warmly greeted by blacks who had long been acquainted with the ministry of sisters in the Black Belt who worked alongside the Edmundites who came in 1937. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester had met the education and healthcare needs of poor blacks in the area since 1940.

The work of these sisters, and a number of other orders over the years, continues in several locations, such as Pine Apple in Wilcox County. The Pine Apple program includes a clinic, programs for the elderly and the young, as well as a small caf, clothes closet, farmer’s market and walking path.

The video is designed to bridge the gap between then and now, with pictures and narration depicting the nuns’ history and work, together with survivors’ reflections in the present.

The producer-director-editor of the film project is Jayasri &uot;Joyce&uot; Majumdar Hart, an independent producer-editor in Los Angeles. She has production experience ranging from radio features for BBC World Service, London, to national TV programming in India where she was born and raised.

Her award-winning documentary &uot;Roots in the Sand: California’s Punjabi-Mexican-Americans&uot; has been airing on PBS stations nationwide.

The associate producer-writer is her husband William Hart, a novelist, poet and short story writer, with deep family roots in Alabama and the Midwest.

The associate producer is Lisa Plendl, a journalist from Los Angeles, who was, according to Joyce Hart, the inspiration for this undertaking. Hart also worked with Mother Theresa for a time in India as part of her educational program.

There are a number of other project participants. Among these are a panel of academic advisors, including Alston Fitts III, historian and author who serves as information director for the Edmundites in Selma.

Joyce Hart said that the crew will return to Selma after the first of the year to conclude their work.

She made a special point of thanking the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute &045; especially Joanne Bland &045; for assistance in arrangements, and Jameson Inn for providing complementary housing for the crew while they were in residence.