A New Documentary Explores a Forgotten Racial Justice Fight at Linden-McKinley High School
“Shutdown” tells the story of the political unrest that rocked the Columbus school in 1971 and continues to resonate today.
In May 1971, Black students at Linden-McKinley High School made a statement with their feet. To mark the birthday of Malcolm X, they walked about 4 miles from their school to Franklin Park, where they gathered for a celebration honoring the slain civil rights leader. Growing up in Linden, Simone Drake heard about the march from her parents, both Linden-McKinley students in the early ’70s. “It was still close to the civil rights era, and I thought it was sort of cool, like, ‘Wow, in Columbus, Ohio, they were marching, too,’” Drake recalls.
In fact, it was even more remarkable than she realized. Decades later, when her father, Edward Poindexter, decided to take a screenwriting class for fun, a fuller portrait emerged of this period. Drake learned that the march was part of a broader struggle for representation, education and equality at the school—one that culminated with Linden-McKinley closing for nearly a week following protests, police violence and arrests.
Poindexter considered writing a screenplay about this period for his class, but he ultimately went in another direction. Instead, he, his daughter and his screenwriting teacher, Celia Peters, joined forces to make a documentary film, “Shutdown,” about the tumultuous events of 1971, telling the story of this largely forgotten but important chapter in Columbus’ racial justice history.
The project proved challenging. The filmmakers started work on it in March 2020, as the pandemic hit Central Ohio. The documentary went forward, with interviews conducted in 2020 and 2021, but the filmmakers needed to follow new safety guidelines. Some interviews were conducted over Zoom, while others were done in a studio at Ohio State University, generally with just the interview subject alone in a room. Peters would ask questions via Zoom from her base in Oakland, California, where she moved after her term as a visiting instructor at Ohio State ended.
Despite all these complications, the key figures were eager to participate. “It was like they were waiting for somebody to ask them about this,” Peters says. In total, she conducted 17 interviews for the film, including with former Columbus City Schools superintendent Gene Harris, who, along with her husband, Stan, was a student at Linden-McKinley at the time.
The film focuses on a group called “the Black Student Union.” These teenagers—smart, dedicated and passionate activists, who drew inspiration from the civil rights and Black power movements—pushed school officials to change the curriculum at Linden-McKinley to better reflect their culture and history. Their campaign won over school administrators, but it also upset some white students. Tensions boiled over in May 1971, when two Black nationalist flags were displayed in an auditorium. Violence broke out, and police stormed the school, making arrests and beating students with billy clubs.
The trauma of the 1971 events scarred those involved, but their efforts did have an impact, focusing attention on racial injustice and inequities in schools. The unrest, in part, led to a class action lawsuit, Goss v. Lopez, that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the justices ruling in 1975 that school officials had violated students’ due process rights by suspending them without hearings. That was followed by another racial justice case, Columbus Board of Education v. Penick, in which the Supreme Court upheld in 1979 a lower court order demanding the desegregation of the district.
“Shutdown” offers lessons for our current moment, the filmmakers say. Drake, the executive producer, praises the Linden-McKinley students’ focus on Black studies and education, topics that she says many Black Lives Matter activists ignore—to their detriment. “My sense is, students then were more interested in learning what they didn’t know, and that’s not what I see now,” says Drake, an Ohio State English professor and a former chair of the university’s Department of African American and African Studies.
Peters hopes the film will inspire community engagement in Columbus and beyond. “I’m excited for this story to be told and for kids to see it and to understand that they do have agency, and they are empowered, and they are important,” she says.
How to View the Film
No date is scheduled yet, but the filmmakers plan to host the premiere of “Shutdown” at Linden-McKinley STEM Academy early this year. After that, they expect to hold additional screenings at the Wexner Center for the Arts, as well as posting the documentary online.
This story is from the February 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.