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University of Missouri

Peaceful Battle

A documentary by MU faculty and staff tells the story of Columbia civil rights leader Eliot Battle.

Eliot Battle

Teresa VanDover, now a Columbia College education professor, has been a longtime friend and admirer of Eliot Battle and his late wife, Muriel, who gave her a job at West Junior High early in her career. “Eliot is a force of respect, kindness and gentlemanliness, and certainly a forever-friend,” VanDover says. Photo by Rachel Coward.

Eliot Battle knows Columbia’s transition from a largely segregated town to a desegregated one was not always smooth.

He still remembers how teachers — his former colleagues — at the all-black school told their students he was a traitor to his race because he accepted the first staff position offered to an African-American at the all-white high school. He didn’t lash out. He kept a dish of candy orange slices on his counselor’s desk; the students still came to see him — black and white.

He remembers how a white man shot and killed his son’s dog in 1966 because he didn’t like a black child playing football with white children on his vacant lot. He didn’t report it or seek revenge. He modeled the behavior he wanted his son to emulate — that even in hard times when people do cruel things, it’s best to turn the other cheek.

Battle’s son, Eliot, recalls the event in a documentary released in 2012 by a group of University of Missouri faculty and staff.

Battle, M Ed ’60, LLD ’09, says it’s still a difficult memory because the wounds were not just his, but his son’s. “It was painful for us to lose a dog, but it was painful to hear Eliot, with pain in his voice, describe that,” he says. “Those were pretty rough times.”

As the first black staff member at Hickman High School, and his late wife, Muriel, EdD ’76, the first black associate superintendent in the city, the pair are iconic figures in Columbia’s civil rights movement.

A three-year project by the MU Extension office, Battle: Change from Within, is an hourlong film that focuses the Battles’ move to Columbia and integration work in the schools and neighborhoods where “red lining” — denying home loans or home insurance to poor or minority neighborhoods — was still practiced, says John Kelly, former Columbia Public Schools administrator.

Julie Middleton, BS Ed ’71, EdSp ’92, PhD ’94, MU Extension professional and director of organizational development; Juanamaria Cordones-Cook, Spanish professor; and Barbara Williamson, associate teaching professor, brought the idea in late 2009 to Michael Hicks, BES ’84, a film and television producer for MU Extension.

Originally conceived as an oral history project, Hicks saw the potential for something bigger in Battle’s story.

There are a lot of stories about civil rights,” Hicks says. “What is unique about Eliot’s story is he wasn’t pushing on the streets with protests. He wasn’t taking a confrontational approach to it. He became part of the system and made great achievements in refocusing the system to accomplish the right things.”

Hicks did a few preliminary interviews, after which Middleton, Williamson and Cordones-Cook spent six months raising money ($25,000) and in-kind contributions to bankroll the project. Another two years’ of filming and editing interviews with former colleagues, students and contemporary political figures followed before they released the film in February 2012 to a standing-room crowd of more than 500 people in the Cornell Hall auditorium.

The important thing for [audiences] to realize is that anyone can make a difference in their community,” Middleton says of the film’s central theme. “You don’t need to be a person marching on the front lines with a loud voice. You can be a quiet leader, and you can make a difference.”

Middleton says Battle was a voice for change wherever he was — in the schools, in his neighborhood or the various community boards he served on. “He was a regular person like any of us, but he was able to calm the waters and bridge the gap between whites and blacks in our community.”

Longtime friend and admirer Teresa VanDover, BS Ed ’73, M Ed ’77, EdSp ’89, EdD ’98, an education professor at Columbia College, came to a recent showing of the film at Ragtag Cinema. VanDover used to work in Columbia Public Schools. A colleague told her a story about Battle during a social hour at an out-of-state education conference. Someone in Battle’s group told a “Pollock” joke. “Everyone was surprised when Eliot rose and said, ‘Muriel and I agreed long ago to remove ourselves if there were ever ethnic jokes about any group.’ ” That small act of courage is an example to her still today. “They are leaders in the true sense of the word.”

Battle says he learned “you can’t make things go your way all the time. You have to give in and take things a bit slower — rushing sometimes causes more problems than it helps.”

But while he was willing to accept that change would come at its own pace, he never took a passive attitude toward it.

I felt determined that many of the changes that were going to take place weren’t going to happen unless there was some direction, that there were expectations that were strong on the part of the African-American community,” he says. “I knew I had some of that necessary determination.”

Hicks and his co-producers continue to look for film festivals to show their documentary — they’ve already played at the Offshoot Film Festival in northwest Arkansas and the San Diego Black Film Festival — and for a national distributor to get the movie outside the Show-Me State.

Schools and community groups in Columbia have shown the film repeatedly. Most recently, the five Rotary clubs in Columbia — the Rotary Club of Columbia, Columbia Northwest Rotary Club, Columbia South Rotary Club, Columbia Metro Rotary Club and Columbia Sunrise Southwest Rotary Club — sponsored a showing at a packed Ragtag Cinema.

The film shows again at 2 p.m., Feb. 24, at the Columbia Public Library.

Editor’s note: Judges at the Kansas City FilmFest heaped more praise on Battle: Change from Within, giving it their Best Heartland Feature Documentary Award, which comes with a $1,000 cash prize.

The film, produced by MU Extension, was scheduled for two screenings during the five-day festival, April 10–14, 2013, but was so popular that a third showing was added, says co-director Juanamaria Cordones-Cook.

“I was never thinking of this recognition when I initiated this and while we were working on the film,” Cordones-Cook says, adding that Kansas City schools are interested in showing the film. Her goal was to make Eliot Battle a role model for future generations. “This is proof that we might succeed.”