UCF film tells story of Orlando high school bands breaking barriers during the civil rights movement

‘Marching Forward’ now available on PBS

“Marching Forward” is the UCF film that tells the story of two Orlando high school band leaders and their unique moment during the 1960s civil rights movement.

James “Chief” Wilson was a band director for more than 5 decades at Jones high school--which in 1964, was segregated.

“Chief was able in 1964 to say ‘Hey! We have this idea. Wouldn’t this be great for Orlando?’ What Chief did at Jones and what the other teachers and administrators did at Jones--kind of represents this everyday activism,” Associate Professor for the Department of History at UCF, Robert Cassanello said.

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The documentary highlights Wilson’s band and the all-white band at Edgewater High School led by Delbert Kieffner.

“(Wilson) came to Jones High School with the intent of breaking down barriers, creating a greater understanding between whites and blacks in Orlando,” Cassanello said, who co-directed the project with fellow associate Prof. Lisa Mills of the Nicholson School of Communication and Media.

From 2016 to 2021 the 60-minute film was produced by about 25 UCF students from the Honors College, all from different backgrounds and schools.

“I think what we want audiences to take away from this film is how important it is that an ordinary citizen can make a difference when it comes to diversity, inclusivity, and just generally doing the right thing,” Mills said.

Behind the scenes of "Marching Forward" during production at Edgewater High School. (Image: Nicholson School of Communication and Media/UCF) (WKMG 2021)

Marching Forward tells the story of how Wilson and Keiffner joined forces so both bands could perform at the New York World’s Fair event in 1964.

“Edgewater got the invitation first and there was a feeling not only in the African American community but in significant parts of the white community in Orlando that Jones was sort of the quote on quote, representative band of Orlando,” Cassanello said. “Chief and Del Keiffner, who was the band director at Edgewater, who had already been invited lobbied the city council, the mayor that both bands would go and they agreed to this.”

It was a moment that helped pave the way for change in race relations and it set a positive example at a time when other cities were facing violent protests. It also made the City Beautiful appealing to Walt Disney.

Jones High School students watching the "Marching Forward" documentary. (Image credit: Nicholson School of Communication and Media/UCF) (UCF 2021)

“The World’s Fair as it’s shown in the film was a proving ground for the Walt Disney Company,” Mills said. “It was at this particular time the very same year that Walt Disney was making trips to Florida flying over Florida and he had identified Orlando as a good spot for a theme park.”

Beyond showcasing that impactful 1964 moment, the film highlights the decades-long friendship of Wilson and Keiffner and the common factor that bound them.

“In this case, Del Kieffner and James W. Wilson wanted to do what’s best for their students that was first in their minds, and the circumstance surrounding segregation at the time didn’t seem to faze them, they wanted what was right for their students and they were willing to take a risk and step up for them,” Mills said.

To watch the film online visit: https://www.pbs.org/video/marching-forward-za2whz/

Or for information about how the film was made and some of the awards it has received go to https://www.marchingforwardfilm.org/

About the Author:

Carolina Cardona highlights all Central Florida has to offer in her stories on News 6 at Nine. She joined News 6 in June 2018 from the Telemundo station in Philadelphia.