Bio

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When I was seven years old, I moved to El Cajon, California, a small city in San Diego’s east county. In those days, east county was almost exclusively white. My next door neighbors, however, were an elderly black couple who were greeted with a burning cross on their front lawn when they moved to our neighborhood on Cuyamaca Street. Living in El Cajon and having virtually no friends or acquaintances of color ensured that I was oblivious to the racial realities of the world around me.

As a teenager, I watched Henry Hampton’s award-winning “Eyes On the Prize” documentary series about the Civil Rights Movement on PBS. The impact of this documentary on my life cannot be overstated. The closest comparison I can find is from scripture where, on the road to Damascus, scales fall from the Apostle Paul’s eyes and he forever sees differently. This “awakening” began an obsession with the Civil Rights Movement which eventually led years later to flying Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth to San Diego to officiate my wedding. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that Fred Shuttlesworth was “either insane or the most courageous man I have ever met.” It was Fred Shuttlesworth’s years-long preparation of the city of Birmingham and inviting Dr. King that directly led to Birmingham’s historic campaign against segregation. This caused President Kennedy to remark at the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that “But for Birmingham, we would not be here.”

This cultural curiosity sparked by public media would continue. Challenged by San Diego community organizer Robert Tambuzi that my understanding of people of color was “all book knowledge with no experience”, I moved from El Cajon to an apartment in Lemon Grove with two African-American roommates. I quit my job and accepted a position as the only white male employee at an organization located in the southeastern region of San Diego. Later, I switched my church membership to a virtually all-Black congregation in the 3rd District which I became actively involved with and attended for 10 years. Of course, all of this “cultural transplantation” included the much-anticipated growing pains that come with having been raised in an oblivious all-white environment.

Even with these challenges, my new life bore beautiful fruit. I became the godfather of an amazing person, I made lifelong friends, and I learned both painful and glorious truths that I have the honor of transferring to my children. If for no other reason, THAT has made the journey worthwhile. 

Ruminating on Robert Tambuzi’s admonition about the limitations of academia, I initiated my own civil rights-related internship by traveling to virtually every key historic civil rights location in the United States to learn first-hand from those who suffered and triumphed during the Civil Rights Movement.  Among those I met were whites who had infamously defended segregation such as former Governor George Wallace and Hazel Bryan Massery (front page antagonist of the Little Rock Nine). This “internship” culminated with a letter from Mamie Till Mobley (mother of Emmett Till) thanking me for “sharing (her) burden” by keeping the memory of her son alive. It is the 1955 murder of her son Emmett that many historians cite as the impetus for the Civil Rights Movement.

This journey also led me unforgettably to the inside of a Birmingham, Alabama courtroom to be present with victim’s families when Klansman Tommy Blanton was convicted (38 years later) of the 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church which killed four little girls. Dr. King conducted the eulogy and referred to the bombing as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” I can never forget the palpable weight of history in that Birmingham courtroom when an African-American female juror rendered the verdict of “Guilty.”

When I accepted a Producer position at KPBS, the PBS affiliate in San Diego, the first 30-second TV spot I produced contained a hidden nod to the cultural journey that KPBS started when I was a teenager years before. I put Fred Shuttlesworth’s name (introduced by KPBS through the documentary “Eyes On the Prize”) on the clapperboard shown at the end of the 30-second spot. Seeing his name broadcast to the San Diego community through KPBS after knowing what his introduction meant for me as a teenager was deeply meaningful.

Another highlight along this journey was being asked by Dr. Clayborne Carson to join him in furthering the legacy of Dr. King and other human rights leaders through my work as a visual storyteller. Dr. Clayborne Carson was asked by Coretta Scott King in 1985 to edit and publish the papers of her late husband. Dr. Carson founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University for that purpose. Today, he continues to further the legacy through the newly-founded World House Project. Our video collaborations continue to be used in Stanford coursework today.

At the beginning of 2022, I completed production on a documentary about the Freedom Riders through Dr. Clayborne Carson and the World House Project. This film won Best Short Documentary at the Harlem International Film Festival and received “Official Selection” in more than a dozen film festivals around the world. For me, however, the most meaningful award the film received is the “Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking”. Selection for this award brought tears to my eyes because it was the late Henry Hampton who created and produced the “Eyes On the Prize” documentary – the documentary I watched on KPBS as a teenager that opened my eyes to the world around me.

Not long ago, I wrote, directed, and produced the Our Story Series. This series of short films celebrate the actions of ordinary people doing extraordinary things within the Civil Rights Movement. Beverly Robertson, past President of the National Civil Rights Museum, describes the series as “valuable”.

In addition to filmmaking, I curate an online museum of civil rights and race-related ephemera. Originally, this collection began as an effort to connect to the history on a visceral level by holding these papers and objects in my hands and mentally taking myself to the times, the places, and the people. The Civil Rights Heritage Museum showcases these artifacts for others to be able to do the same: To take history from the textbook to a meaningful cognitive experience. The collection can be seen at www.civilrightsheritage.com.

Committed to the story,

Chris Preitauer