Julian Krainin was 24 and a film student getting his master’s at Columbia when his professor posed an idea: Krainin and his three classmates should travel to Alabama and make a film about Dr. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., where blacks and whites were joining together to demonstrate for voting rights.
The year was 1965 and the “Selma to Montgomery March” would be one of Krainin’s first film collaborations in a long career. Krainin’s work has earned him many awards including one for “Selma” from the Venice Film Festival, and nine years later an Oscar for Best Short Documentary for “Princeton: A Search for Answers.” But the 18-minute black-and-white film about the Selma March, shot mostly by
Krainin on a Bolex camera, remains one of the most meaningful events of his career.
Krainin, who has close family ties on the North Shore (including to this reporter), traveled in a Volkswagen bus with fellow students Alan Jacobs and Norris Eisenbrey (who are Jewish), Christopher Harris, and their professor, Stefan Sharff.
“We marched from that little town, Selma, at first with 500 to a thousand people. The next day it doubled and soon there were tens of thousands getting on planes, in cars, even coming from foreign countries to march,” recalled Krainin.
The powerful documentary opens with shots of the demonstrators’ feet, marching. It continues with footage of the marchers, both black and white, accompanied by a soundtrack of spiritual songs such as “This Little Light of Mine” and “I’m So Glad I’m a Soldier, I’m Fighting For My Life,“ and chants of “We Shall Overcome” that were sung during the march.
The film shows marchers trekking past desolate fields and ramshackle homes where black families had come out to stand on porches and watch in disbelief as blacks and whites, rabbis, nuns, ministers and priests walked together. The locals cheered the marchers on and brought them food.
Above the marchers, often drowning out the music, were helicopters. They’d been ordered in by President Lyndon Johnson to protect the procession after a disastrous beginning on March 7, known as “Bloody Sunday,” when state troopers and sheriffs’ deputies used clubs, dogs and gas to prevent marchers from passing over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Boston minister James Reeb, a white man, was beaten with clubs on March 7, along with two other ministers. The black hospital in Selma was not equipped to treat his brain injuries and the white hospital refused to admit him. He died two days later. President Johnson invoked Reeb’s memory when delivering a draft of the Voting Rights Act to Congress.
“The march regrouped a week later after getting legal help,” said Krainin. Alabama, under segregationist Governor George Wallace, was forced to permit it to go forward.
The atmosphere was electric. Bloody Sunday had happened only days before. In addition, the horrific June 1964 murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, who had come to Mississippi to help register blacks to vote – which Krainin calls “a prelude to the Selma march” – had happened less than a year earlier. A subsequent investigation found that the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office, and the Philadelphia, Miss., Police Department were involved in the killings.
The Selma film briefly captures King and his wife, Coretta, smiling broadly while marching. Krainin said he spoke to King for a few moments.
“What people don’t give Martin Luther King credit for was for creating drama around the cause and bringing people’s attention to it. He knew how to attract mass excitement by staging a peaceful and nonviolent event.
“In our conversation, when I told him who I was and what I was doing, he said how important it was that the press was here because without that, people wouldn’t know about it,” said Krainin.
“He wasn’t as famous and as well-known as he is today, but he was enormously respected and you could feel that. We were there because of him,” said Krainin. “In essence, that was the film I was making — the only documentary made of the march.”
“It was the first major march of blacks and whites together in the South in the nation’s history. It was stunning and King knew that. It was a universal movement, and it was dangerous.”
“Someone tried to kill me,” said Krainin. While he was standing on a rural street “a car came careening down the road and almost hit me. I thought the driver was drunk or crazy but a white guy came over to me and said, ‘He was trying to kill you.’ I was naïve.”
Presently, Julian Krainin and his son, Todd, are working on a documentary about high-performing inner-city high school students from impoverished sections of Los Angeles who have been admitted to top U.S. universities with the help of College Match.