Student explores civil rights through grandmother's eyes

Documentary film won student top honors in National History Day project

By Corlyn Voorhees
Brockton Enterprise

BROCKTON, Mass. (AP) - When Brockton High School junior Chloe Livingston started a documentary film project examining the civil rights movement, she decided to include a special source: her grandmother.

Through interviews with her grandmother, Sandra, and her own research, Livingston juxtaposed historical events, such as Ruby Bridges struggle being the first African American student to attend an all-white elementary school in the South in 1960, with her grandmother's experiences with segregation and prejudice growing up.

"I can't really talk about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges because I wasn't there during their time," Livingston said. "So having my grandmother talking for them or talking about her experience, it makes it even way better because it's a primary source. She was there."

Livingston's 10-minute documentary, "Sandra Livingston: The Struggle for Equal Rights," earned the 16-year-old top honors in the Individual Documentaries category of the annual National History Day project. With that placing, she will join other classmates who won in other categories at the South Shore regional competition in March.

"I'm African American and I wanted to talk about my people because I know they've struggled throughout history for a long, long time," she said. "I wanted to educate people about it."

In her documentary, Livingston talked about Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat when buses were segregated in 1955, which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama that same year to protest segregated seating. While Sandra noted that she grew up in Pennsylvania and didn't encounter racial segregation on buses, she decided to start riding in the front in a show of support. Livingston also incorporated Bridges's struggle to attend school, where she was forced to be accompanied by federal marshals for her safety, which Sandra also said she recalled seeing on TV.

"I remember seeing this little teeny little girl between the ages of my youngest and middle grandchild, when she had to walk up and the people were yelling at her," she said. "That little girl was so brave."

Livingston also looked at Martin Luther King Jr.'s efforts to remove barriers to voting for black citizens, where they finally won the right to vote with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In her documentary she talked about how during that fight for equality, protesters led by King marched in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in "Bloody Sunday" on March 7, 1965 when they encountered violence from local and federal law enforcement officials when trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

"(State Troopers) said 'Turn around,' but they didn't," she said. "(Troopers) started attacking them with tear gas, dogs, water hoses (and) sticks. And Martin Luther King Jr., he just kept fighting for his people and they went through this three times until it was successful."

And while Sandra noted that while she did not have as much direct participation in the civil rights movement living in the North, she still encountered racial discrimination. She noted that when her father served in the military, he was unable to join the main army due to the color of his skin and when her family would travel down south, her father would have to be cautious about where they stopped to eat or use the restroom due to fear for their safety. She also recalled the moment of a group of white kids in a car called out to her and her friends while they were walking down the street, yelling racial slurs and insults.

"Even if I didn't have (direct participation), I feel good that I lived through it, that I have memories," she said. "Memories is what keeps us going and in the case where the kids, the younger ones, they learned some through me, but now maybe other kids will learn more about it."

And some of those memories especially driven by fear still linger, such as worrying for her own children's safety due to racism, she said.

"Some of them still leave marks that they tear up when you talk about them, when you think about them," she said. "...It's sad to think about where our country has been and hopefully it is changing, slowly, but there are still pockets of hatred that's there, so it's sad ... Even 50 years later, I still become emotional thinking about different things."

Livingston said she hopes her documentary helps to inform her classmates and other students about the civil rights movement, noting that history curriculum doesn't have much of an emphasis on black history despite the large role they played in U.S. history. Her grandmother added that she was proud of Chloe wanting to learn about their history and hopes sharing her experiences will help to inform the younger generation.

"The past is good as long as you can learn from it, but when you don't learn from it, it's not a very good experience for anyone to go through," Sandra said. "Like Chloe said, black people were a part of our history. They made the United States, they made America -- not all by themselves, but they were a very important part of it. But I'm proud of her. I think she did a terrific job.

Published: Thu, Jan 23, 2020