BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Social activist Doris Conant, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Montgomery, Alabama, not only has lived a life meriting a big screen biopic but also one worthy of this year’s Facets Screen Gems award, which she received at the organization’s recent gala at the Arts Club.
Before heading off to the 70th Cannes International Film Festival, which he will cover for Classic Chicago, Facets Founder and Artistic Director, Milos Stehlik, commented:
“Doris is all that I think all of us want to be: smart, inquisitive, engaged, interested in what she doesn’t know, and ready to commit to what she believes. The most exciting element for me in honoring her was to connect her to teenage filmmakers who immediately saw her as a role model, as they made a film about her that we showed at the gala. Kids today want to see and learn from individuals who make a difference in the lives of others, and this is what Doris—in fighting for civil rights, equality and social justice—does every day.”
The term “glowing” seems invented for Doris. When she discusses the importance of getting involved in important causes, both her ideas and her visage shimmer:
“When you are working on a goal or philosophy, you have not only more energy but hope as well. In addition to Facets, I have long been involved with the Chicago Foundation for Women and Planned Parenthood.
“Internationally, I work with the Human Rights Watch, which concerns itself with violation of human rights on a world basis. Problems are so huge, if someone can’t find a way to get involved, there is something wrong with them.”
Doris remembers her participation in the Montgomery march in 1965 as if it was yesterday:
“I had been active in the open housing movement, and I thought it would be hypocritical not to show up down there. Chicago Alderman Charles Chew chartered two planes to take a group down to Montgomery to join the marchers coming in from Selma. We had to pay $100 for each seat.
“My husband Howard had just returned from a business trip in Japan and felt he had to be in his office. I asked my children if they would like to go along, and my 12-year-old son, Howard, said sure, possibly because it meant missing school for a day.
“I had met Dr. King in Chicago various times before because I had worked with his group here. When we arrived, fellow marchers were very kind, sharing their food and explaining what was going on at that moment. There was a real feeling that we were all in this together. We were not frightened because there were people all around, including celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, who were marching at the front, arm and arm with Dr. King.
“We did notice that the National Guard troops who were supposed to protect us didn’t seem at all sympathetic. They wore confederate flags on their sleeves. They were hired to work only until 5:00, and when it began to get dark, we started to get scared. Everyone was thirsty, hungry, and tired, and no filing stations would let marchers use their facilities.
“We finally found a Holiday Inn that was safe and filled with both blacks and whites. We were told that you should use only a black driver for a cab to the airport, and when we finally got a cab, the driver was white. In conversation we discovered that he had visited Chicago, and we spent the whole time talking about how great our city is. He definitely wasn’t going to harm us.
“I was able to find a payphone to call in what was happening to a North Side paper in Chicago—I wish I had the copy of that article today.
“When we arrived at the airport, we discovered that one of our planes had mechanical difficulties, so just one could take off. The rest of us spent the night on the ground, and we heard people shooting off guns all night long. When the plane came back at dawn to get us, we were ready to go.
“I think that big gatherings spur you on, and this was really a touchstone in our lives, and the memories are so real today. My son wrote in his college application essay that it was a life-changing moment. My husband and I said that was probably what got him into Harvard.”
Milos recalls that he first met Doris and Howard almost 40 years ago:
“They always came to the openings of our French film festivals, and it took me years to realize that Howard was excellent at faking speaking French, brilliantly so—he certainly fooled me!
“At the Screen Gems benefit, Doris told me the great story of our Media Bridge program, which sadly we were only able to do for one year. It was expensive, and we never again found the money. But we invited 18 high-school-age students in Chicago for six weeks—housing and feeding them cost the most money—for a Sundance-style lab in script writing and film development.
“Harold Ramis was one of the students’ mentors. They came from Russia, Palestine, Israel, Spain, Brazil, and China. As Doris told the story, it demonstrated how young people, centered on a common goal, can overcome differences of race, country or origin, language, or economic circumstance.
“Doris and Howard hosted a Sunday afternoon party for them at their house—the sounds of young people playing in their pool was a sound of hope.”
Doris says that Facets opened her eyes to film.
“Thanks to Milos, Howard and I got to see the deeper meaning in movies, which were somewhat superficial when I grew up. Milos points to films that have social and political meanings that you have to probe a little. He knows directors from all across the world.”
Doris and Howard’s son, Howard Conant, Jr., and daughter, Meredith George, both attended the benefit and continue their parents’ determined efforts for important community challenges.
“Among their many projects, Meredith teaches self-esteem to young people and Howard works on housing for the homeless. I get notes from my grandchildren about the community projects they are working on, and I am filled with such pride.”
Doris’s longtime friends Marjorie Craig Benton and Judy Gaynor served as Screen Gems benefit co-chairs of a stellar committee honoring Doris, which included Susan Manilow, Pam Conant, Linda and Peter Bynoe, Dedrea and Paul Gray, Rhona Hoffman, Esther Saks, Hedy Ratner, Vicki and David Riskin, Linda and Bob Mendelson, Victoria Laubman, Bette Cerf Hill and Bruce Sagan, Sunny Fischer, Bettylu and Paul Saltzman, and Jane Nicholl Sahlins and David Edelberg, Facets President.
Returning as master of ceremonies to the delight of the audience, was the Tribune’s Rick Kogan, who introduced the young filmmakers participating in Facets summer film camps, and who interviewed Doris in the film presented that night.
Thanks to the paddle-raise wizardry of Christie’s Steven Zick, guests gave enthusiastically to the scholarship fund the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival and its related workshops, in-school and after-school programs, and film camps. Board member and beloved retired caterer, Mitch Cobey, made light and dark chocolate bark for guests to enjoy after dinner.
Facets Executive Director, Mary Visconti, invoked Dr. King’s words on the requisite skills of a true social worker in her remarks introducing the evening’s honoree, describing her “heart full of grace” and “soul generated by love.”
“In a culture obsessed by celebrity, we too often forget that the revolution isn’t always televised. Sometimes historical change is made more quietly by those who don’t need the spotlight, don’t need the public adulation, don’t need a Twitter feed, don’t even need a thank you.
“For every Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis who marched in Washington DC in January, there were hundreds of thousands of unnamed women who marched, and in their mass anonymity, gave voice and form to the movement. As did thousands of second-wave feminists, as did the suffragists before them, as did so many unnamed activists, agitators, and everyday revolutionaries who marched in opposition to wars and in support of civil and human rights. One of those people is Doris Conant: she is indeed graceful and loving, also fierce and strong, and she persists.”
In Doris’s words: “Fasten on something that motivates you that and follow it. Go out there and try the project out.”
Photo credit: Jennifer Girard Photography