Voting Rights Film 'Answering the Call'

“Answering the Call” explains that the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist who was killed when peacefully demonstrating in 1965, would “spark the plans for a march from Selma to Montgomery” to express the need for voter rights. UTK Libraries screened the film as part of its Voting Rights Series.

The film is directed and narrated by two men, Brian Jenkins and John Witek, who have recorded the continued fight for the right to vote.

“Answering the Call” provided an understanding of a somewhat personal timeline of voting rights during the 1960s, but also a reflection of the struggle in its current day. 

The late Congressman John Lewis of Georgia was included early on in the film stating that “we all have roles to play,” and there are times where we have to protest in a nonviolent way.

According to the director, the film began as a tribute to his uncle, Witek; however, it progressed into the exploration of current voter suppression in the United States.

Witek  was a civil rights and campus activist during the 1960s.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a march, Witek felt, “This is something I should really do. What is Christianity really about? What is the real message of Christ? It is really ‘love one another, a struggle for justice.’ And here was an opportunity.”

Lewis discussed the literacy test that some men were subject to in order to register to vote, such as guessing how many bubbles were on a bar of soap or how many jellybeans were in a jar.

Witek and Lewis reflected on the police force in Alabama during marches. Lewis cited an officer who carried a gun, a baton and a cow prodder that was not used on cows, along with a button on his lapel which read “never.”

Interestingly, Witek reflected on an experience where he was signaled by a couple of white men in Selma to cross over to the white community, which was differentiated by available sidewalks.

Witek and a friend were pulled into a garage and threatened by a group of men who questioned their presence in Selma.

The two men’s lives were spared just in time by state troopers who threated to castrate them if they did not leave. Witek called this the “nicest” thing to be said, because it meant they would live to leave the garage, despite the harshness of the troopers.

 Lewis reflected on Unitarian Minister James Reeb, stating that the beating and death of Reeb led to hundreds of thousands “getting into the streets.”

The film continued to follow the fight for voting rights through a four-day march to Selma and the signing of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson.

Ari Berman, senior contributing writer for The Nation, broke down what the Voting Rights Act did. It suspended literacy tests, sent federal officials to the south to register Black voters and created a system that would outlaw discriminatory laws, among other things.

However, the film also highlighted the backlash to the Voting Rights Act and the ways in which states contributed to voter suppression, such discontinuing DMVs as voter registration centers.

John Archibald, columnist at The Birmingham Times, claimed that there was ignorance on the state’s part by closing driver’s license offices. This ignorance was not necessarily to be malevolent; it was more a lack of consideration, but he called the ignorance just as bad as knowingly doing it. 

The 53rd Secretary of State for Alabama John Merrill claimed that the closing of DMVs was not related to race, but that it was related to closing locations in rural locations in order to save money – approximately $100,000. However, state-run liquor stores were losing $75,000 annually and were not shutting down. 

The film aimed to provide a perspective  – seemingly on all sides – through news clippings or interviews, though the film’s stance on voter suppression was obvious.

The director also included a discussion from multiple people on voter suppression tactics, such as increasing costs related to voting, poll worker discretion and even the distinction of male or female in voter identification, which was only necessary when pictures were not on identification.

The right to vote, as defined by the Supreme Court, is preservative of all other rights.

Some interviewees in the film were able to show the interconnectedness of discriminatory voting rights and other rights, such as limiting an increase on minimum wage, as described by the Executive Director for the National Center for Transgender Equality Mara Keisling.

“Speak up. Speak out. You have to organize,” Lewis said.

He reflected on his experience in the voting rights fights as he risked his life and spent time in jail, not only in his younger days but even five times while in Congress.

“I would do it again. I would not hesitate one moment,” Lewis said. 

Though the film was released several years ago, watching it in 2020 during an election season feels like a bit of a tribute to Lewis and his journey with civil and voting rights.

Witek closed the film as he walked on the Edmund-Pettis Bridge, claiming his passion and interest in the struggle for rights was re-ignited.

“Answering the Call” spotlighted Selma and Alabama specifically as beacons casting light on the struggle to vote as an issue that has gone on for decades.

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