When filmmaker Craig Dudnick met Alice Tregay, he had no idea that she had played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. At the time, he was working on a documentary about the struggles of the African American community in Evanston, Ill.; Tregay's brother was the community's first black firefighter, and she provided some photographs for the film.
“She liked the film I made and said she had other things I might be interested in,” Dudnick, an Evanston resident, said in a telephone interview Monday. What she had to show him definitely caught his attention.
There were letters and photographs of Tregay with such people as Jimmy Carter and Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. As he talked more with her, “it became clear she was a central figure in the civil rights efforts in Chicago.”
That story is told in “Alice's Ordinary People,” which Dudnick will screen at the Eldredge Public Library next Tuesday, Feb. 13, at 2 p.m. The film traces her work, mostly behind the scenes, that drew a direct line from Martin Luther King to Barack Obama.
Tregay marched with King in Chicago in 1966 and fought against overcrowding in African American schools. But it was her work with “ordinary people” that really made a mark, Dudnick said, and it's why she wanted the film to be titled “Alice's Ordinary People.”
“She said it's the ordinary people that do these things,” he said.
Her biggest contribution was teaching a class to teach people how to run for office. It began small, but over the years some 5,000 people became more civically involved through the program. It helped turn the civil rights movement toward politics, Dudnick said, and also helped inspire Jesse Jackson to run for office.
She was also instrumental in Washington's election. A congressman at the time, he was not eager to give up that position and challenged those who wanted him to run for mayor to raise $100,000 and get 100,000 voters involved. Tregay heard about legislation passed in Michigan that allowed people to register to vote in libraries, schools and other places, rather than a central municipal location. She helped get the same bill passed in Illinois, which was credited with helping Washington get elected.
“She instantly understood the value of that,” Dudnick said. “She was very created about what she did.”
That drew the attention of a young activist named Barack Obama.
“This is what inspired him to come to Chicago,” said Dudnick.
Tregay never ran for office herself or became well known outside of Chicago political and civil rights circles. “Her whole life was spent behind the scenes,” the filmmaker said. “She understood what her strength was. She understood people, really, how things had to happen.”
Tregay got to see the film before she passed away in 2015. She was working on civil rights issues “right up to the end,” Dudnick said, although she died just a few weeks after he wrote, on her behalf, to Obama. She had been to the White House at the invitation of President Clinton, but was excited about visiting the nation's first black president.
She was especially pleased that many libraries have included the film in their collections, Dudnick said. The film is in hundreds of libraries across the country, as well as libraries in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom.
The civil rights struggle was “one of the great moral movements in history,” Dudnick said, and people have told him at screenings that the film continues to inspire them to get involved.
“I find the whole movement inspiring,” he said.
The Feb. 13 screening at the Eldredge Library is free and will be followed by a discussion with the filmmaker.