WASHINGTON — Septuagenarians from the era of the civil rights movement slowly climbed the steps of Metropolitan A.M.E. church here, some receiving kisses on the cheek from the young man at the door. They mingled with other generations — throngs of government workers, young law students inspired by recent protests, and even a few lesser-known legends of that struggle.
They gathered for the opening of the March on Washington Film Festival, which focuses largely on the midcentury struggle for civil rights and is intended as much to kindle activism as to showcase new films. The festival began Wednesday at the church with the new documentary “This Little Light of Mine: The Legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer,” directed by Robin N. Hamilton.
Ms. Hamer came to prominence at the 1964 Democratic National Convention and in the film discusses her battles in Mississippi for simple acts of justice; being beaten while in police custody because she had been educating black voters about their rights; and “test questions,” including one about the number of bubbles a soap bar produces, used as barriers to voter registration.
In her remarks at that convention, she said: “Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave?” Her words took on extra resonance at this, the third year of the festival, after the recent deaths of unarmed black people in encounters with the police, and the killings at a church in Charleston, S.C.
The theme was repeated in the panel discussion. Clarence Jones, a speechwriter and friend to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., concurred. “I remember the pictures that went around the world of police dogs and fire hoses on black boys and girls who were peacefully protesting segregation,” he said. “That raised the question: What kind of country is this?”
“Just as it was a searing question in 1963,” he continued, recalling the landmark march that year that gave the festival its name, “it’s now a question again, only this time it should be phrased a little differently: What kind of country is America — in light of the journey that we have traveled? In light of 275,000 people coming together at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial? In light of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? It may even be a more relevant question today, as we look at Ferguson, Charleston, et cetera, et cetera.”
The comparisons between Ms. Hamer’s era and the present proved unsettling to Tika Wallace, 14, of Falls Church, Va., who attended with her mother.
“You see stuff like that and think: Oh my gosh! Wow! Fannie Lou Hamer! She made all these amazing strides for civil rights!” Ms. Wallace said, bouncing around in a pair of Chuck Taylors and pulling at her short Afro. “But then you look at Charleston, which was in 2015. And then you look back at 1965 and say: ‘Oh. Why are there still parallels? From 50 years ago? This is weird. Why is this still happening? What can we do about this?’ ”
Her reaction was just what organizers were hoping for from the festival, which ends next Saturday.
“Ordinary people displayed extraordinary courage and really did change the course of American history,” said Robert Raben, the festival’s founder, who was an assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration. “One of the problems with the way history is taught is that we have a focus on an extremely few number of actors. We believe that focusing on these heroes has the unintended consequence of saying, ‘That’s not you.’ ”
Events will take place at spots around the city, including the Navy Memorial, the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the National Archives.
Films, panels and performances will explore the role of children in the movement; cold cases of the era, featuring “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till”; a discussion of women of the civil rights movement with stories of black migration, featuring the author Isabel Wilkerson; and excerpts from the documentaries “Home of the Brave” and “Booker’s Place” before a panel about unsung civil rights heroes.
The final screening will feature another new film, “The Trials of Constance Baker Motley,” directed by Rick Rodgers. It will be shown in a rare setting, the Supreme Court, with a panel featuring Thurgood Marshall Jr., son of the Supreme Court justice.
When Ms. Hamer asked her famous question on film, some in the audience dabbed at tears. But later, wrinkled hands clapped backs and audience members rose in the pews, wrapped their arms around their seatmates and swayed to a joyous rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” making the room, for a moment, feel weightless.