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Sociology professor brings his research to the screen

Deeds of DefianceBy Thomas Webb
Communications Student Assistant

50 years after the Voting Rights Act, landmark legislation prohibiting racial discrimination at the polls, new avenues of social and historical inquiry still continue to give researchers insight into the struggle for equality in the United States. One such researcher in the College of Arts & Sciences at Kansas State University has spent considerable time working to develop the historical framework surrounding the Civil Rights Movement.

Spencer Wood, associate professor of sociology, has focused his research on black farmers for nearly two decades. He has recently completed work detailing the role Mississippi’s black farmers played in the Civil Rights Movement, a cultural movement often defined by iconic figures and artists.

According to Wood, the roots for the Civil Rights Movement can be traced back to these farmers.

“They were able to get a toe hold on freedom right there, able to get a little bit of traction on organizing people to vote,” Wood said.

The “there” Spencer refers to is Holmes County, Mississippi, the subject of his dissertation and the focus of a new documentary from the Smithsonian Institute, “Deeds of Defiance.”

This documentary, directed by David Shulman, chronicles how the Farm Securities Administration, a New Deal program, allocated 10,000 acres of land to black families who later would become leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. As well as detailing the integral role of families who acted for social justice in the face of losing their land leading up the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Given his familiarity and previous work done with Holmes County, Wood was given the chance to work with Shulman.

“He [Shulman] had been working on this for about 10-15 years and it is all based in Holmes County, Mississippi,” Wood said. “Holmes County, Mississippi is where I did my dissertation, and I spent a year living in Holmes County doing interviews, and oral histories with people, and land record research and looking at this idea of the relationship between land ownership and the Civil Rights Movement as a scholar.”

“Deeds of Defiance” echoes Wood’s research by exploring the essential link between land ownership and the Voting Rights Act. This documentary, and Wood’s work, showcases the fight for equality 50 years after the goal was supposedly reached. However, given the current political and cultural climate surrounding race in American, Wood sees a connection between the present moment and the historical struggle for equal rights with the recent deaths of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.

“I think in a way there is a parallel between that water shed moment and us,” Wood said recounting the story of Fannie Lou Hamer who at the Democratic National Convention told of how she was beaten when she tried to register to vote. “What is it going to be here for us? Maybe these recent killings will be that.”

To learn more about “Deeds of Defiance,” including dates and times for future airings, visit the Smithsonian Channel, and more information about Spencer Wood and his research can be found on his personal website.