Thirteen years after its release, the film Open Secret still resonates, exposing—in Alabama legislators’ own words—the “open secret” of making white supremacy a key element of the Constitution of the State of Alabama.
Filmmaker Melanie Jeffcoat’s task was no easy feat: to make a short film examining the longest constitution in the world.
Her film, 2009’s Open Secret, is 29 minutes and 42 seconds long. It unpacks the 1901 Constitution of the State of Alabama, which, at nearly 389,000 words, is 51 times longer than the U.S. constitution. It is the lengthiest and most amended constitution still active, not just the United States but in the entire world—and it was written with the intent of establishing white supremacy throughout Alabama.
Filmmaker Melanie Jeffcoat says that when she read the transcript of the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901, she knew the full story had to be told.
Open Secret is based entirely on the transcripts of the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention, where the delegates met with this goal in mind. The resulting document sparked decades of struggle across the state for racial equality and, ultimately, made Alabama the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement half a century later. The only fictional character in the film is an on-screen narrator, who puts the often-incendiary words of the delegates into the context of American history.
Hailing from Watts—a neighborhood in Los Angeles that had itself been rife with racial tension and violence during the 1960s—Jeffcoat moved to Birmingham as an adult, just two months before September 11, 2001, knowing nothing about Alabama history. Raised by activist parents to be a critical thinker, she had been an actor, a producer, and a director.
Not long after arriving in Birmingham, Jeffcoat became involved in a project focusing on voting rights. While she was working on that project, she says that Nancy Eckberg of the League of Women Voters of Alabama opened her eyes to a mostly untold story—the 1901 Alabama Constitution.
I took a few months and read every word of the convention transcripts—and I was sickened by what I read.
“I had a lot of questions about voting rights issues in Alabama,” Jeffcoat says. “Nancy hands me the transcripts to the convention, and she says, ‘I think if you really want the answer to your questions, it’s all in this.’ So, I took a few months and read every word of the convention transcripts—and I was sickened by what I read.”
Initially, Jeffcoat says, she didn’t know what to do with the massive amount of information that had landed on her lap. “I’d never investigated a state constitution,” she says. “I didn’t at the time understand that the 1901 constitution led to so many of the issues we have here.”
But when she realized that that the three months of the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1901 still impact legislation today, she knew the story had to be told.
As a filmmaker, I feel that people need to be moved viscerally.
“That’s when I realized this has had a lingering effect, and I needed to unearth it,” she says. “As a filmmaker, I feel that people need to be moved viscerally. An educational piece that just says, ‘This is what happened. Isn’t it terrible?’ would put me to sleep in middle school or high school. I thought I needed to reenact some portions of the proceedings with actual words in order to illuminate how people felt at the time.”
Codifying White Supremacy
With the script already written for her thanks to the convention transcripts, Jeffcoat says it quickly became evident that the words spoken in 1901 mirror many of the issues of today that still drive legislation, with those who are in power—usually white males—fearful of losing control.
The dialogue in the film is exact, though it only features some of the 155 people recorded as speaking at the convention.
Some characters in Open Secret became amalgamations of different people, all of whom were so confident in the moral correctness of legislating white supremacy that they wrote down every word that was said.
They were so confident they were doing the right thing that they wanted it documented for history.
“They were so confident they were doing the right thing that they wanted it documented for history,” Jeffcoat says. “Quite honestly, that’s what triggered me to say, ‘Let’s make sure history hears those words. I will make sure people hear them.’”
Jeffcoat originally wanted to shoot the film in the Capitol—in the so called “room where it happened”—but the room wasn’t available. Instead, they filmed in the Ceremonial Courtroom in the Jefferson County Courthouse, a room with significance of its own; it is where white supremacists accused of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, killing four Black girls, stood trial.
Jeffcoat made the film on a shoestring budget—about $1,500 all told. She even starred in the film as suffragette Frances Griffin.
“I had no money and no team,” she says. “It was me and my cinematographer just getting actors who were friends of mine to do me a favor. The costume person at the Alabama School of Fine Arts did me a favor and pulled some pieces for us. We passed the hat at a meeting so I could pay an editor.”
The title came from a line in the convention’s transcript—and later the film—where a character said that what they were trying to do was an open secret—to establish white supremacy as the law of the land.
They were saying, ‘We’re going to plant our racist flag in the ground. We’ll say we don’t care about Reconstruction amendments. We’ll make our own laws.’
“It successfully established white supremacy by law, and laws last a long time,” Jeffcoat says. “They were saying, ‘We’re going to plant our racist flag in the ground. We’ll say we don’t care about Reconstruction amendments. We’ll make our own laws.’”
The film premiered during Black History Month on Feb. 26, 2009, at Birmingham’s historic Carver Theatre, the only theatre where African Americans could see movies in Birmingham during the days of segregation. The screening sold out, says Jeffcoat, and had a successful post-show discussion afterward.
Opening Eyes to Documented Racism
Not surprisingly, the film was met with its fair share of anger, criticism, and vitriol—and, in some cases, a disturbing silence.
But the stories that emerged from the film’s bold effort to lay bare the truth of the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention did prompt new scrutiny of the old constitution. For example, a former Alabama Supreme Court Justice, after realizing that the law was muddy on a case he was deciding, turned to the Alabama Constitution for guidance and was disgusted by the words he read in the transcripts.
I wanted to reach younger people—high school and college kids who are or will soon be new voters.
“My hope was to make it [Open Secret] a part of the curriculum of schools in the state,” Jeffcoat says. “I wanted to reach younger people—high school and college kids who are or will soon be new voters.” Herself the parent of two “amazing” kids, she says she hopes the film will “reach people who could make change for future generations.”
But, Jeffcoat says, the eyes of older voters, too, can be opened when they become aware of the racist intent of the Alabama Constitution.
For example, one gentleman who attended a screening of Open Secret later reached out to her. The gentleman, who is white, had volunteered through his church to drive people who needed a ride to the screening. Prior to that experience, he had believed that people freeloaded off of the government, but in talking with his passengers, he realized that there’s no true form of public transportation in the state of Alabama; he found that people were desperate to find work but had no way to get to and from a job interview.
He began to see the trickle-down effects of the 1901 Alabama Constitution—which Jeffcoat calls “the big nasty eyesore of 1901”—and how the Constitution and its amendments, such those concerning public transportation, do nothing to help underprivileged communities. And this realization, in part, came from seeing Open Secret.
Melanie Jeffcoat as director, discussing the next set-up with cinematographer Patrick Sheehan.
More Stories to Tell
Open Secret won the Audience Choice Award at the 2010 Politics on Film Festival in Washington, D.C., and the film was requested by the U.S. Department of Justice for their Voting Rights Section Library. It is part of an interactive exhibit at the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Center and was entered into evidence in the landmark Lynch v. Alabama Federal Civil Rights case.
Jeffcoat continues to write, direct, produce, and act, including starring as Mrs. Anderson on ABC’s new show The Wonder Years, a retelling of the coming-of-age drama, except this time with a Black lead growing up in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1960s.
And Jeffcoat—who says she has a “need to be creative”— still has stories she wants to tell; she is currently working on a script that she calls her “literal lifeblood, besides my kids.”
“I am determined to make this film,” she says. Without giving too much away, the plotline stems from the legacy of disenfranchisement after the ratification of Alabama’s Constitution. It’s a story, she says, that she might never have found without the work done on Open Secret.
“That’s what Open Secret did for me,” Jeffcoat says. “I became aware of all of these amazing stories that I probably never would have encountered if it were not for hours spent scoring through the Alabama Constitution.”
Scenes from Open Secret
Governor William C. Oates, (Gordon Pate), making the case for documenting every word spoken at that convention and standing by those words.
During an argument about legally controlling miscegenation, Judge Thomas W. Coleman (Sam Chalker) suggests the need for an amendment to prevent a white person from ever marrying even the descendant of a Black person.
Arguing in favor of transcribing their discussions, Mr. James Weatherly (Alan Gardner) is confident that “a century from now…citizens will come to realize that the sovereign white people were right.”
Miss Frances Griffin (Melanie Jeffcoat) speaking on behalf of women’s suffrage at the convention.