In the second of our monthly counter-cultural musings from TSPTR, we look at the Canadian actress, and then wife of Donald Sutherland, SHIRLEY DOUGLAS’s civil rights activities
It was in 1969, during the filming of Kelly’s Heroes in Yugoslavia, that Donald Sutherland received word, via co-star Clint Eastwood, that his then-wife Shirley Douglas had been arrested for trying to buy explosives, with a personal cheque, for the Black Panther Party from an undercover FBI agent. Donald Sutherland recounts this story often, mentioning that when Eastwood got to the part about the personal cheque, he laughed so hard, he fell to his knees, and Sutherland had to help him up. Eastwood then put his arm around Sutherland and walked him down the hill that overlooked the Yugoslav countryside, assuring his friend with complete support of his predicament.
The Canadian actress Shirley Douglas led an activist life fervently supporting civil rights causes, taking up the mantle of everything from The Black Panthers to anti-Vietnam War protests and causes related to women’s rights and immigration. A fierce defender of the public good, a fighter and disrupter in the vein of Jane Fonda or Gloria Steinem who wasn’t afraid to use her platform to make noise in support of causes in which she believed. Notably, she established the fundraising group Friends Of The Black Panthers in the late ’60s, bringing in numerous Hollywood actors, actresses and producers in support of the civil rights movement. She was one of the main reasons there were free breakfast programs for under privileged children across LA run by The Black Panther Party. At one point, 70 armed police raided her Beverley Hills home. Douglas recalled distinctly the moment in ’69, when she opened her door of her LA home to a police officer pointing his gun at her head.
“The policeman was holding his gun right near my head”, and I thought, ‘Please, would you just move your shaking hand because this isn’t going to get us anywhere.’” That’s right — the actress, with a gun pointed at her head, was concerned that the man holding the weapon was too nervous in the moment. Her father, Tommy Douglas, at that time the leader of the federal NDP, went to LA to support her and stated that he was “proud of the fact that my daughter believes, as I do, that hungry children should be fed, whether they are Black Panthers or white Republicans.” Douglas always maintained that the FBI was trying to frame her and after spending five days in jail was exonerated by the courts and the case dismissed.
Following her arrest, the U.S. government revoked Douglas’s work permit. The FBI kept tabs on her and made continued efforts to block her career as part of their COINTELPRO program. She eventually returned to Canada in ’77, divorced from Sutherland and a single mother but kept fighting for everything from nuclear disarmament to protecting Canada’s publicly funded health care to the ongoing struggle for equal civil rights.