Phyllis Bridges wants to use documentary film as a tool to recognize the psychological wounds of the 1960s civil rights struggle in High Point so the city can heal.
Phyllis Bridges was born in High Point in 1964 — the year of Freedom Summer in Mississippi and the year President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. It was a time of mass marches to desegregate public facilities across North Carolina and violent repression against civil rights activists in the Deep South.
Bridges attended integrated schools in High Point in the 1970s and ’80s, and eventually pursued a career as an interior designer in Washington, DC and suburban Maryland. The extent of her knowledge about the High Point civil rights movement was that 26 students sat in to integrate Woolworth’s in 1960 and that sisters Brenda and Lyn Fountain desegregated the city schools in 1959. After returning to High Point, Bridges opened Yalik’s Modern Art, an African-American art gallery that operated on Washington Street from 2008 through 2013. Elder visitors to the gallery who lived the history of the civil rights struggle began to fill in the picture for Bridges with photo-filled scrapbooks and reminiscences.
On a recent Saturday morning, as she sat at a table in the Heritage Research Center of the High Point Public Library with copies of archival newspaper articles splayed in front of her, Bridges wistfully appraised the qualities of the older generation.
“If we had these same warriors like we had in the ’60s in High Point, we’d be a little further along,” she said. “We don’t have these fighters. These people were willing to die. Leaders today are more about me, what I can accomplish and what’s on that résumé.”
Meeting some of the activists who put their lives on the line in the ’60s whetted Bridges’ appetite to dig deeper and set her on a path to become a documentary filmmaker. Her first film, High Point: A Memoir of the African American Community, broadly covered the city’s black history and premiered at High Point University in January. Her second film, The March on an All-American City, narrows the focus to the 20th century civil rights movement from 1949 to 1969 and is scheduled for release next summer. Bridges launched a crowdfunding campaign through GoFundMe in September to raise $8,000 to finance the film.
The new film will begin with the desegregation of the public swimming pools at City Lake Park in 1949, Bridges said.
“I don’t want to tell what’s in here,” Bridges said, gesturing to the newspaper clippings. “I want to go in between and deeper. Some of [the activists] went beyond High Point. In my interviews I learned that one of the little girls who integrated the pool went on to be a leader in Freedom Summer in Mississippi. I was like, ‘Wow.’ Ronald Moose was one of the first males to integrate Central High School. [Arlene Wilkes] and Ronald Moose ended up going to Tennessee to teach a workshop on nonviolence.”
There were three organizations at the forefront of the movement in High Point — Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the NAACP — Bridges said, and Wilkes was active in all three. The Rev. B. Elton Cox, a local pastor who organized the 26 students from William Penn High School to sit in at Woolworth’s, served as national field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality and participated in the interstate freedom ride in 1961.
Compared with the bloodshed in Mississippi and Alabama, desegregation in High Point and other North Carolina cities went relatively smoothly, but Bridges pointed to an archival 1963 news photograph showing police lining the street in front of a downtown movie theater with a cutline referencing black protesters and white hecklers as an indication of the stakes. Some people today want to minimize the tension, but the facts she’s uncovered suggest otherwise.
“It got tense enough to where tear gas was used, and water hoses were on standby, but they were never used,” Bridges said. “Okay, you’re using tear gas and water hoses are on standby, so it had to be a little tense around here.”
Many of the local veterans have put their experiences on the frontline of the struggle behind them, but Bridges said they come to life when they talk about what they went through.
“Some of these people, once they go down memory lane you can see they have that fire,” she said. “They can’t live it again, but you can see they’ve still got that fire. Their memories are sharp.”
As someone who attended integrated schools, Bridges was struck by the suppressed pain that she uncovered when she started interviewing elders who endured spitting, racial slurs and threats of violence when they took to the streets to protest segregated facilities.
“Some of the pain and anger is still there,” she said. “There has never been a complete healing. It’s, ‘This is what was done to me or said to me, but I still feel it.’ This is a discussion that needs to take place, but we don’t have the guts.”
Acknowledging the hurt that was inflicted is difficult for both sides, Bridges said.
“With older people, they don’t want whites to know what they said or did hurt them,” she said. “And whites don’t want to admit what they did. The person who threw an egg or made a racial slur might be a Christian who goes church now, so they feel that we should just leave it alone and we’ll be fine. And we’re not fine.”
When The March on an All-American City is complete, Bridges wants everyone — black and white, old and young — to see the film.
“They can tell me,” she said, “but the person who hurt them needs to hear it.”