It was on a spring day in 1946 when widowed Georgia sharecropper Otis Moss shaved, shined his shoes, put on his Sunday best, and waved goodbye to his five children before beginning the 6-mile journey on foot to the county courthouse. In his breast pocket, he carried a letter certifying his voter registration and his assigned polling place. Moss had promised his late wife, Magnolia, he would vote in the next election, but that day he was turned away — and would be turned away from two more polling places.
Despite the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote, more than 75 years later, many still were being denied the ballot. Moss didn’t get another chance. He died in a car accident before the next election.
Otis Moss’s story became family lore, passed down over the decades, and has become a driving force behind the passions and professions of his progeny.
In an effort to call faith-based communities to action during the 2020 election season, his grandson Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, shares his family’s story in the 14-minute film, Otis’ Dream.
“We’re not speaking to those who are already fired up to get out there and vote. We are talking to those who may be pessimistic and raise questions about ‘why should I vote?’” Moss told Sojourners.“We want people to know the sacredness of the African American vote — that Otis Moss walks with you. So does Ida B. Wells. So does Fannie Lou Hamer. So does Sojourner Truth. These individuals are waiting for us to take the baton.”
Featuring the original score, “Walk With Me,” Otis’ Dream is narrated by three generations: Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr., who would later participate in the civil rights movement of the 1960s; Moss III; and Otis Moss’s great-grandson Elijah.
The film, which is packaged with voting resources, is set to be deployed to 500 Black churches across the country for broadcast this week during online services and Bible study groups. Aiming to reach 100,000 voters in swing states, Moss said he hopes to show voters their participation in this election is about more than placing someone in the White House. Their vote, he says, has an impact on the state and local representatives as well as judges who make decisions that directly impact their lives.
“My grandmother died because of medical aparthied — because of racism,” Moss said, pointing to his grandmother’s death after being denied treatment at a white hospital. “My grandfather recognized the connection of the death of his wife to policies and the actions of politicians in statehouses.”
Otis’ Dream is the fifth installment of “cinematic liturgy” projects Moss has produced this year to give context to social justice issues, including the recent interactions with law enforcement officers that have left Black men and women dead. With these short film projects, Moss returns to his early passion for photography and filmmaking.
“Preaching is an art, and ministry demands that you have an artistic soul. All of my life I’ve been trying to merge these eclectic interests,” Moss said. “To be honest, all of this exploded during the pandemic. I didn’t realize that I had been working on it for most of my life.”
Watch the short film below.