Hollywood Roundtable: Reenactment of historic civil rights roundtable raises money for Clinton Church Restoration

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SHEFFIELD — The "March for Jobs and Freedom" on Washington, D.C. 54 years ago — best known for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech — thrust the U.S. civil rights movement into the global spotlight. Following the peaceful demonstration on Aug. 28, 1963, a nearly forgotten panel discussion highlighted a rarity that is commonplace today: celebrity activism.

The all-male panel, lead by CBS journalist David Schoenbrun, featured prominent performers of the day: Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, film director Joseph Manckiewicz and James Baldwin, an African-American author. Dubbed the "Hollywood Roundtable" the seven weighed in on the significance of the march; their marks reflecting the mixed reaction Americans had to the civil rights struggle.

"This is wonderful, this is horrible, this is joyous, this is depressing," Manckiewicz said summing up his impression of seeing 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Added Belafonte, "The now is a statement from which there's no return. There is success or failure; there is no compromise."

On Wednesday evening in Sheffield, local actors reading from a script before some 70 people at Dewey Memorial Hall uttered those same remarks taken directly from the unscripted exchange. The gathering doubled as a fundraiser for Clinton Church Restoration dedicated to saving the former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in Great Barrington that shuttered in 2014. The nonprofit hopes to turn the church along the Upper Housatonic Valley African-American Heritage trail into a community gathering place.

A lively, thought-provoking exchange followed the re-enactment between the audience, actors and director Joseph Scully, who also portrayed Heston.

"The discussion hits on all themes we have today," he said. "The march wasn't a high watermark for civil rights, it was a postage stamp."

Nevertheless, some historians partially credit the landmark march for winning passage of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The roundtable, recorded by the United States Information Agency, was later broadcast on Washington, D.C.-area television, shown in schools and dozens of other countries. According to the National Archives website, the celebrities viewpoints show America had its faults, domestic inequality being a major flaw.

"No matter how bitter I become I always believed in the potential of this country," Levi Joseph said as James Baldwin. "For the first time in our history, the nation has shown signs of dealing with this central problem."

Several of the roundtable panelists felt the success of the civil rights movement rested with the white community.

John Bell, of Great Barrington, finds that rings true five decades later, amidst the white police shootings of black citizens and the backlash against immigrants fueled by President Donald Trump.

"We are hurting because of racism. White people have to excavate the hate from ourselves," he said.

Today's tense race relations in America seems to mirror the celebrity debate, according to John D'Emilio, visiting friends from Chicago.

"The one thing I could feel [from the panel] was the impatience and expected someone to jump across the table," he said. D'Emilio wrote "Lost Prophet," a biography of Bayard Rustin, the principal organizer of the march.

Given only one of the re-enactment participants was around for the march, researching and rehearsing the roundtable revival gave them new insight into civil rights issues.

"I was inspired particularly by Baldwin's thoughts and willingness to speak the truth," Joseph stated.

"He felt so much urgency about the issue," noted Baldwin's portrayer, Grace Rossman.

Frank Gioia (Belafonte), 21 years old in August of 1963, believes America has gradually realized King's "dream."

"I've seen changes the last 50 years and I hope they continue," he said.

Reach staff writer Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233


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