MU Extension to screen Eliot Battle documentary

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:42 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Eliot Battle visits with friends, a group of regulars, on the morning of Feb. 22, 2012, at Hy-Vee Cafe. Battle's pioneering role in desegregating Columbia schools is featured in the documentary, "Battle: Change From Within."

COLUMBIA — On the wall of Eliot Battle's house is a framed family tree.

It is filled with the names and images of generations of Battle's and his wife's families.

If you go

The film uses photographs, newspaper clippings, historical documents and interviews to tell Eliot Battle's story.

What: "Battle: Change from Within" documentary

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Place: Bush Auditorium in Cornell Hall, 700 Tiger Ave.

Admission: Free

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The tree is captioned with the words "We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants."

Battle said his and his wife's achievements — which include playing a role in the desegregation of Columbia's schools and community — come from being part of a family who wouldn't sit back and be told what they could do.

"Our accomplishments and achievements were not accidental," he said.

On Saturday, MU Extension will screen a documentary, "Battle: Change from Within," about Battle's legacy and his role in desegregation.

Battle said he hasn't seen the documentary yet, but he's been told he will enjoy it. While he is featured in the documentary and provided images that will be in it, he said much of the film's production involved working with community members.

"It's going to be as much of a surprise to me as it will be to the audience that's going to be there," he said.

Michael Hicks, film and television producer for MU Extension, wrote and edited the documentary. He said it focuses on three major events in Battle’s life that best exemplify how he dealt with problems he faced.

"Not only did I want to document what had happened, I wanted to try to gain that core element of Eliot's personality and what made him successful," Hicks said. 

The first event he focused on was Battle's decision to send his children to Grant Elementary School after racial integration began in Columbia.

Although Battle's children were not the first to be integrated in Columbia, his two oldest daughters were the first black students to attend Grant.

Battle said the decision paid off and opened the door for other black students as integration continued.

"Once you find out that things work, it's much simpler," he said.

The second element details Battle's work as the first black faculty member at Hickman High School.

When the Columbia Public Schools made the integration of high school students mandatory, Battle transferred from the all-black Douglass school to Hickman High School. In 1960, he began serving as a guidance counselor at Hickman. He had worked as an assistant principal and guidance counselor at Douglass.

Battle and Jim Ritter, former superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, shared an office when they were both guidance counselors at Hickman.

Ritter said Battle worked effectively with all students, regardless of race.

Battle said even though there were difficulties in the transition, on the whole it went smoothly, and people were ready for the change.

The third aspect of the film discusses Battle's move to housing outside of traditionally black neighborhoods. In 1963, he and his family moved to a home on Crown Point.

Battle describes his experiences with integration in Columbia Public Schools and housing as painful, but also gratifying.

"Somebody had to do it, and I was pleased that I was part of that period," he said.

Battle, who received an honorary doctorate from MU's Graduate School, said he felt he and his wife, Muriel, have helped to show people that race isn't a factor  in a person's accomplishments. He felt he helped eliminate people's fears in the community.

Columbia Public Schools' new high school is being named for Muriel Battle, who died in 2003.

Julie Middleton, director of organizational development at MU Extension and one of the documentary's three executive producers and directors, said the film gathers a rich number of perspectives from the Columbia community.

"It's not us telling the story, it's the community telling the story," she said.

Khaki Westerfield, who worked with Battle at Hickman for 25 years, was one of the community members interviewed for the documentary.

She said that when she worked with Battle, the focus was less on integration and more on working together as colleagues. She said that as a counselor, he was someone who had the best interest of his students at heart and that his contributions were not just to the black community, but the community as a whole.

"He's been a steady and optimistic presence who has worked quietly for the good of the community," Westerfield said. 

Rocky Phillippe, a student at Hickman in the '70s, said Battle was always concerned about his students and genuinely cared about helping them.

"If it wasn't for him, I don't know that I would have finished high school," he said.

Phillippe said after his father passed away when he was 22, Battle came to the visitation.

"He genuinely felt bad for me," he said.

Phillippe said he was able to cry on Battle's shoulder at the time and was able to speak with Battle later on, when he needed help. 

Phillippe said he couldn't think of too many teachers who would do something like that, and he couldn't count the number of lives Battle has touched.

John Kelly was a student at Douglass in the 1950s and transferred to Hickman in 1958. He said Battle was an excellent teacher and role model.

Kelly worked as an assistant principal at Hickman when Battle served director of guidance for the district.

Battle was a brilliant man who counseled with honesty, Kelly said.

Hicks said part of Battle's approach to life was finding a positive way to make a difference. He said Battle showed people a successful way to remove and move beyond obstacles.

"His ultimate legacy is going to go past desegregation," Hicks said. "He is the ultimate example of how life can be better if we approach things in the manner with which he approached things that confronted him in life."

Juanamaria Cordones-Cook, a professor in the romance languages and literatures department at MU, was one of the executive producers and directors of the documentary. She pitched the idea for the film after her daughter took her children to a Black History Month event at which Battle spoke. 

Cordones-Cook said Battle's attitude of starting change from within and his generous spirit set him apart. 

"I wish there would be many Dr. Eliot Battle's in this world,” Cordones-Cook said. "We would have a better world."

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