GPS Screens “How to Sue the Klan” Documentary for Women’s History Month

Following units on the Civil War and Reconstruction, GPS juniors engage with film’s creators
At GPS, we recognize that learning goes beyond the classroom. Our learner-centered community supports each girl’s unique path to success, prioritizing personalized learning and wellbeing. With a focus on essential lifelong skills, our programming encourages critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration while empowering our students to become agents of change. Our partnerships within the greater Chattanooga community provide GPS girls with diverse experiences and engagement with people who foster connection and individual growth.

Last week, the GPS junior class had the incredible opportunity to be the first high school students to screen the documentary How to Sue the Klan. The 35-minute documentary was directed and produced by John Beder, co-founder and owner of Chattanooga-based film and production company Bedrock Productions, and co-produced by Tiffany Herron, Jazmine King LeBlanc, and Nicole Brown. It details the story of five Black women from Chattanooga who took on the Ku Klux Klan in a historic 1982 civil case, drawing from the basis of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The case was fought to hold Klansmen accountable for their crimes and bring justice to the Black community. The legal victory set a precedent that continues to inspire the ongoing fight against organized hate.

The film tells the story of Viola Ellison, Lela Mae Evans, Katherine O. Johnson, and Opal Lee Jackson, who were shot by Klansmen as they were walking out of a downtown nightclub, and Fannie Mae Crumsey, who was shot at and hit with flying glass while working in her garden on E. Ninth St. John explained to the students that these women were told there were two ways to manage their case: with a focus on just them so they could receive damages or as a test case to push for more significant change. They chose the latter and became representatives of a class of all Black residents in Chattanooga.

GPS juniors were a natural audience, considering they just finished up units on the Civil War and Reconstruction in their history classes and were familiar with the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Following the screening, they were able to engage in a Q&A with the film’s creators.

One student asked what the biggest motivation behind releasing the film was. John explained he actually heard about the story through a Facebook post. “Knowing the power of film, it felt like a responsibility to try and make something we could all watch and learn about in a concise way,” he said. And after meeting the families of The Chattanooga Five, which he called “an incredible privilege,” he explained, “You immediately feel the responsibility that you must keep going.”

Other questions inquired about the people and resources drawn upon to create the documentary, the most fascinating thing discovered while researching for the project, how they found materials from a story that had been largely forgotten, and what the biggest takeaways should be.

Jazmine spoke about the storytelling aspect of the film, and how they drew upon actual transcripts of the court case to develop their point of view. “We needed historical context as well as modern context,” she explained. “One really interesting part about researching things where you live—the locations are still here,” she said. “It seems like it’s in the past, but still interacting with it is impactful—it makes you realize it wasn’t that long ago.”

One of the film’s co-producers, Nicole Brown, was asked to explain what it was like to be a child in Chattanooga when this happened. She remembered the curfews, Reverend Jesse Jackson’s visit to Chattanooga following the attacks, and seeing people fighting for what was right and for what was wrong. “Watching all this happen—those moments of fear and civil rights helped groom me into who I am today, being an advocate for what is right,” she said.

On his biggest takeaway, John said, “When we hear about a story like this, or even when something happens right in front of us, there’s a part of us that wants to hope that someone else will tell this story, will fight this fight, but I want to encourage you to build advocacy into your life.” 

Jazmine echoed his sentiments: “If a story needs to be told, figure out how to tell it. If you have a story you want to share, share it with people in whatever medium you want.”

Dr. Andrea Becksvoort, who teaches the junior history class and helped bring the film to GPS, explained how this opportunity for the juniors not only provided local context to historical lessons but also served as exposure to less traditional job opportunities. “We had our students speak to the creators of the film because, as juniors, they are starting to think about college and careers, and we wanted them to be able to see and hear unique perspectives from Chattanooga professionals.”