Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Jason Sokol's "There Goes My Everything"

Jason Sokol's first book, There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, was released by Alfred A. Knopf in August 2006.

He and the playwright-performer Nina Louise Morrison teamed up to develop some casting ideas for a feature film adaptation of his book:
A work of history and scholarship, There Goes My Everything contains within it manifold tales – stories of families, cities, and individuals who experienced massive upheaval in their daily lives. The movie version focuses on one of the many dramatic narratives that the book reveals.

We set our movie in New Orleans, and revolve around the lives of those families impacted by school desegregation. In November, 1960, the Big Easy became the first locale in the Deep South to integrate its schools. This saga unfolded in the now-infamous Ninth Ward.

As thousands of white families boycotted the newly integrated schools, a few parents continued to send their children to William Frantz Elementary and McDonogh School No. 19. One such mother was Margaret Conner. While Susan Sarandon seems a popular choice, we think the role of Margaret Conner would be an ideal fit for her. Initially, Conner marched her young children to Frantz School simply because she thought it was more convenient than keeping them at home. But when the segregationist mobs caught wind of Conner’s actions, their reprisals were severe.

These mobs of jeering mothers became known as the Cheerleaders, and Rosie O’Donnell (with a southern accent) would lead the screen version of this group. In time, Conner became so disgusted by their tactics that she grew even more determined to take her children to school. In the beginning, Conner harbored racial prejudices that could only be seen as traditional for white southerners. But through the New Orleans School Crisis, those prejudices began to recede.

Time transformed Conner’s initial reflex of convenience into a profound statement about civil rights. With a courageous stand, Conner had her say about that world in which she would raise her children. She looked at a world of milling mobs, vicious epithets, harsh conformity, and abandoned schools – and thought it wrong. In ways both dramatic and subtle, the New Orleans school crisis changed Margaret Conner; in turn, Conner helped to reshape New Orleans. One mother who opposed desegregation could – with the everyday act of continuing to bring her children to school – become integration’s most visible proponent. Unforeseeable at first, the change was in the end undeniable.

This story features quite a few other major players: the young moderate mayor, Chep Morrison (played by Tim Robbins), who was torn by the school crisis; Ruby Bridges, the African-American girl who bravely integrated Frantz School, and whose father, Abon Bridges (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), lost his job because of it; fiery segregationists like Leander Perez (John Goodman); national civil rights leaders who fought for school integration (Morgan Freeman); and other white parents who brought their children to school, with less success than the Conners -- people like Rev. Lloyd Foreman (Sean Penn) and Daisy Gabrielle (Mary Louise-Parker).

In the end, this movie would also show how the Ninth Ward came to be the ravaged neighborhood that the world now knows. After school integration, whites quickly fled the Lower Ninth Ward for more exclusive urban enclaves and suburban shelters. This process left the neighborhood disproportionately poor and black, and the fierce waters of Hurricane Katrina completed the transformation.
Jason Sokol is Visiting Assistant Professor of History and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell University.

Nina Louise Morrison is a playwright, performer, and teacher. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

Visit Sokol's website and read an excerpt from There Goes My Everything.

The Page 69 Test: There Goes My Everything.

--Marshal Zeringue