A View from the Bayou

Mississippi River Swamp Southern Louisiana

More than 50 years before the term intersectionality entered the lexicon of social/political discourse, deep south black lawyers and civil rights workers found common cause with 1960s era northern Jewish lawyers. This was more a result of pragmatism 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 seriously trumped-up criminal charges.

They employed the legal services of lawyers who would use their vacations from white northern law firms to travel south and represent black clients before local courts, by affiliating with a local black law firm. The NAACP together with CORE, supported by the ACLU and American Jewish Committee banded together to form the LCDC (Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee) in 1964 to create a structure for volunteer Jewish lawyers and other white lawyers who gave their time and expertise to represent southern black clients before local and state courts.

The motivations of the northern white, largely Jewish lawyers provides the context for award winning documentary film maker Nancy Buirski’s powerful new drama A Crime on the Bayou, to be released in conjunction with Juneteenth.

In A Crime on the Bayou Buirski brings to the big screen the 1966 story of Gary Duncan, a then 19 yr. old black teenager making a living on a Mississippi River tugboat deep in the Louisiana bayou of Plaquemines Parish. On the most southern tip of Louisiana jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico, the local Plaquemines Parish business and government was dominated by one racist man, Leander Perez, a George Wallace wannabe.

Gary Duncan appears in the film telling his story from vivid memory in that clear southern dialect which is ingrained as deeply as the morality of his character. After his arrest for serious assault and battery charges, created out of whole cloth, Robert Sobol a young Jewish lawyer from Washington, D.C. is brought on to defend Duncan in a local court but they soon find their way to the United States Supreme Court.

Sobol and his former colleagues also appear in the film both in archival footage and for interviews accomplished before his death in 2020.

In a conversation, writer-director Buirski characterized her latest film as “reality reconsidered.”

“Recently we have seen surfacing,” says Buirski, “the same type of (racial) hatred as we saw in 1966,” the year the events in her film are based.

“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,” according to Buirski.

“Gary Duncan is very eloquent, this film gives him a platform to tell his story,”

The Gary Duncan story is one of an unlikely minor incident that, thanks to the machinations of boss Perez ended up in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling just two years later. It’s also the story of the intersection of black civil rights lawyers and a white Jewish volunteer lawyer, Richard Sobol, who left an establishment DC law firm (Arnold, Fortas & Porter) that to this day is one of the top politically connected powerhouse DC lobbying/law firms; to take on a “good cause.”

Richard Sobol’s story is told alongside that of Gary Duncan’s, both of which are dramatic and nearly unimaginable, yet very real and fraught with threats of violence and incarceration for both lawyer and client.

In a recent conversation with Robert Collins, Jr. member of New Orleans Dillard University faculty and son of a founding partner in the prominent 1960s era black civil rights firm of Collins, Douglas and Elie — who affiliated with Sobol for the Duncan case — one must understand the background of a rural Louisiana parish just implementing court ordered school desegregation at the time.

“The south was behind the rest of the country when you think about ‘Jim Crow’,” said Collins.

“The schools were being integrated, but the south still had segregation by practice if not segregation by law.”

“The Gary Duncan case took place within the ‘Jim Crow’ era.”

This story is closely connected to previous films made by Buirski focusing upon “an average person caught up in a racist and seemingly unaccountable judicial system” who chose to stand up to white supremacists and institutional racism that was very much in place in Plaquemines Parish. Buirski was inspired to film a documentary on the Gary Duncan case by conversations with author Matthew Van Meter who was in the process of writing and publishing Deep Delta Justice: A Black Teen, His Lawyer, and Their Groundbreaking Battle for Civil Rights in the South

Among the many archival gems unearthed by Buirski 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 prior to the iconic Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream speech”.

Rabbi Prinz is seen recounting the most important lesson he learned before fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s, “bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem,” Prinz tells a crowd paying rapt attention, “the most shameful and tragic problem is silence.”

For Buirski this warning appears to inform her work as well. Over the past ten years the documentarian has made 3 films that give “reluctant heroes” a platform to tell their stories. Each of Buirski’s films 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.”

“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,” Buirski says.

“I care about hate and believe that love can overtake hate, we’ve seen too much hate in this country.”

Crime on the Bayou allows a contemporary viewer to understand the nature of discrimination, as Collins says, “the battle for civil rights has not been won, the fight never stops.”

A Crime on the Bayou Opens in NYC, LA and select theaters nationwide June 18, 2021 Watch the Trailer for A Crime on the Bayou Here: https://youtu.be/teQqYF_yDUc

Ken Toltz is an Israel-based writer and longtime political activist.