On the bayou, where Black and white lawyers worked together to fight racism
More than 50 years before the term intersectionality entered the lexicon of social and political activists, Black lawyers and civil rights workers in the Deep South found common cause with 1960s era northern Jewish lawyers. Bringing on white lawyers was a pragmatic decision on the part of Black southern lawyers who oftentimes were blocked, intimidated, manipulated, ignored and prevented by the entrenched white local judicial system from effectively representing Black clients facing bogus criminal charges.
The Black law firms employed lawyers who would use their vacations from white northern law firms to travel south and represent Black clients before local courts. The NAACP together with civil rights organizations and the American Jewish Committee banded together to form the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee in 1964 to create a structure for volunteer Jewish lawyers and other white lawyers who represented southern Black clients before local and state courts.
The motivations of the northern white, largely Jewish lawyers provides the context for documentary filmmaker Nancy Buirski’s powerful new film “A Crime on the Bayou.” In it. Buirski tells the 1966 story of Gary Duncan, a then 19-year-old Black teenager working on a Mississippi River tugboat deep in the Louisiana bayou of Plaquemines Parish, which was dominated by one racist man, Leander Perez, a George Wallace wannabe.
After Duncan was arrested on trumped-up assault and battery charges, Robert Sobol, a young Jewish lawyer from Washington, D.C. was brought on to defend Duncan in a local court. They soon found their way to the United States Supreme Court where their case resulted in a landmark ruling establishing that denial of a defendant’s right to a jury trial was unconstitutional.
Sobol, who died in 2020, was interviewed for the film along with some of his former colleagues. His story is told alongside Duncan’s — both are dramatic and nearly unimaginable, yet very real and fraught with threats of violence and incarceration for both lawyer and client.
In a conversation, writer-director Buirski characterized the film as “reality reconsidered.”
“Recently we have seen surfacing the same type of (racial) hatred as we saw in 1966,” she said. “I feel some responsibility to tell these stories, the white supremacists in the 1960s deep south were practicing antisemitism as much as anti-Black racism.”
Over the past 10 years, the documentarian has made three films that give “reluctant heroes” a platform to tell their stories. Each of Buirski’s films, “The Loving Story,” “The Rape of Recy Taylor” and “A Crime on the Bayou” bring back the struggles of “highly moral characters who, due to accidents of fate, decided to stand up to corrupt forces due to racism in America.”
Buirsky says this particularly story is closely connected to her previous work in that it focuses upon “an average person caught up in a racist and seemingly unaccountable judicial system” who chose to stand up to white supremacists and the sort of institutional racism that was very much in place in Plaquemines Parish. She says she was inspired to film the documentary by conversations with Matthew Van Meter, author of “Deep Delta Justice: A Black Teen, His Lawyer, and Their Groundbreaking Battle for Civil Rights in the South.”
Among the many archival gems Buirski has unearthed is an often-overlooked bit of film from the 1963 March on Washington showing American Jewish Congress President Rabbi Joachim Prinz addressing the assembled throng of Black marchers before the iconic Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream” speech. Rabbi Prinz recounts the most important lesson he learned before fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. “Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem,” he says. “The most shameful and tragic problem is silence.”
For Buirski this warning appears to inform her work as well. “I grew up with a culturally Jewish background in New Rochelle, New York and having also been to Israel care enormously about antisemitism which plays a big role in this film,” she said. “I care about hate and believe that love can overtake hate. We’ve seen too much hate in this country.”
“A Crime on the Bayou” opens nationwide June 18, 2021.
Ken Toltz is an Israel-based writer and longtime political activist.