This year marks the 30th anniversary of Eyes on the Prize, the 14-hour TV miniseries that brought an unvarnished look at the American civil rights movement into living rooms across the country. Since it premiered, Eyes On The Prize has become a seminal document on the movement, examining its origins and strategies; the men and women, heralded and unheralded, who drove it; and its victories, as well as its most bitter defeats.
The series feels particularly urgent today, as many seek to resist the Trump administration. Recently, Gothamist discussed the significance of the miniseries with Jon Else, the author of Truth South, a new book that chronicles the making of Eyes on the Prize and tells the story Henry Hampton, the documentary filmmaker who dreamed up the project and spent years creating it. Else, who currently teaches at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, was a cinematographer and producer of Eyes on the Prize. During the 1960s, he worked as a civil rights organizer in Mississippi.
On Saturday, February 25, Brookyn Museum is holding a free daylong screening of Eyes on the Prize and a roundtable discussion about the series, with Else on hand. Register here.
Who was Henry Hampton?
Henry Hampton was an African-American documentary producer born in segregated St. Louis, Missouri in 1940. He grew up under Jim Crow. His father was a surgeon, the medical director of the local black hospital. Henry, in high school, was an athlete, was tack smart.
Then, in 1955, when he was 15 years old, two things happened. That was the year that Emmett Till, a young black man from Chicago, was murdered in Money, Mississippi, and the photograph of Till's ravaged, beaten face was published in Jet Magazine. His mother had insisted on an open-casket funeral and Henry, like millions of young African-Americans from that generation, saw the picture of Emmett Till in Jet and was forever changed.
It was that photograph that made him realize that as a young black man his life was not worth much, if anything, in many parts of this country. He simply could not get the image of Emmett Till out of his mind.
The other thing that happened in 1955, which shaped him for the rest of his life, was that he contracted polio. He was at the beginning a quadriplegic and after a lot of physical therapy, regained the use of his upper body and one leg, but he spent the rest of his life walking with a steel brace on his left leg. His sister told me that until he had polio, he never understood what it was to be an outsider. And that had a lot to do with why he went on to make Eyes on the Prize, why he went on to spend his life doing films about the dispossessed, the poor, and the disenfranchised.
Hampton exerted a hell of a force field. If you took the force field of Henry Hampton, this incredibly magnetic, charismatic man, and you combined that with the force field of the American civil rights movement, that was unbeatable and that was irresistible. And he was able to attract an astonishing crew of young filmmakers to this scrappy little company that he had in Boston.
And there, in the late 1980s, then on through the early '90s, he created Eyes on the Prize. No one had ever done a big historical series about civil rights. The idea of big historical series that we take for granted, like a Ken Burns series or the American Experience, those had just been invented. And Henry was really in the forefront of that. We were kind of making it up as we went along.
What's the relevance of Eyes on the Prize today?
I began work on this book the week that Barack Obama was reelected by a wide margin and the book went to the printer the day that Donald Trump was elected. To be candid, on a bad day, since the election, I feel that Eyes on the Prize might be irrelevant. Throughout my entire lifetime until now, we as a nation have been on a sort of a drunken walk toward justice and toward equality and toward equal rights for all. There have been setbacks, but the trajectory has bent toward justice. We were headed in the right direction.
On a bad day, I feel that the legacy of Dr. King and the legacy of the movement that we chronicled in Eyes on the Prize is just slammed up against the legacy of George Wallace. Now, Henry would never have given up hope and, of course, I haven't given up hope. I hope the legacy of Eyes on the Prize is that it actually is an operating manual for how to run a successful movement—that's one of the reasons we made the series. Our senior advisor and in-house pastor, Vincent Harding, who had worked closely with Dr. King, believed, as Henry did, that these stories about organizing must be re-told in new ways by every generation of storytellers. Some social movements in the past vanished from history because storytellers failed to keep the vision alive.
But its relevance has to be tempered by an understanding that when we were involved in the civil rights movement back in the '60s and then when we were making Eyes on the Prize, this nation was operating in a moral climate in which we had people in Congress and we had a president, all the way from Lyndon Johnson even up through people like Ronald Reagan, who at least could be either convinced with moral suasion, or shamed into embracing the goals of the civil rights movement.
When President Johnson saw the Alabama state troopers attack peaceful men, women, and children on that bridge in Selma in 1965, he was ready to act. The difference now is that the Congress and the White House are now occupied by people who have not shown any evidence that they have a shred of understanding of the civil rights movement, that they have a shred of understanding of human rights.
That's a problem. Gone are the days when a local movement could leapfrog over a mad dog sheriff—some guy like Bull Connor or Jim Clark in Selma—by focusing media attention on violence and appeal to a sympathetic Congress and a sympathetic president.
As a new movement emerges, I'm counting on the strategists to come up with strategies and tactics that will actually work in this strange climate.
So if Eyes on the Prize is relevant, it's relevant to see how those young folks back in the '60s found really, really, really smart tactics to identify the levers to pull in the democratic system. Most of the levers that were pulled in the '60s are now busted, I'm afraid, so we've got to find new levers.
Did people on the ground back then feel such a sense of confidence that they would get at least some of what they were struggling for?
Henry and I were both in Selma in 1965 and standing in front of that courthouse and seeing those sheriffs dealing with local folks, you did not know that the center was gonna hold. Those local people—who drove the movement—and the organizers, they didn't know what was going to happen. And I think a lot of us wake up in the morning now not knowing if the center is gonna hold.
But the thing that gives me hope is that today, as in the 1960s, there are millions and millions of Americans who are not confused about the arc of the moral universe. I think we've learned that the arc of the moral universe that Dr. King talked about, it doesn't just bend towards justice on its own, it has to be forced toward justice. Americans are perfectly capable, still, of forcing that trajectory toward justice. It's not gonna happen on its own.
What was the process for getting all these segregationists to speak candidly about their roles in the battles of the civil rights movement?
Hampton was schooled by Jesuits and he had a Jesuit notion—he was skeptical of true believers. That meant in the case of Eyes on the Prize that we really had to give Southern white resistors a voice. He understood that it would be stupid to resist segregationists as this monolith of mouth-breathing neanderthals—that these were people who were a product of their culture.
Frankly, if I had been born in Mississippi in 1940, I might have shared some of their views. He was very interested in that notion of letting the audience know, "That could be me." These people committed evil, but were not necessarily born evil.
On our staff was a wonderful woman named Prudence Arndt, an associate producer. She was a white southerner and she could haul up her North Carolina accent, and she was the one who actually contacted almost all of the white southerners who agreed to be on camera.
When she contacted them, we never tried to hide what we were doing. We were always very clear that we were doing a film called Eyes on the Prize about the civil rights movement, and we always let people know who else we were talking to: We were going to be interviewing all of the living civil rights leaders, we were gonna be interviewing dozens and dozens of local people. But Prudence convinced them to come on camera.
Of the men who were on camera, almost all of them had rejected their former selves. Joe Smitherman, who was the mayor of Selma, is able actually to look back with a mournful chuckle at himself as this boy-mayor, this segregationist mayor who didn't have a clue. By the time we interviewed him, Smitherman was in his eighth term as the white mayor of Selma and he racked up about 80 percent of the black vote in the last two elections.
He changed with the times. He was one of those people who was able to free himself from the white chains of segregation. Segregation was horrible for black people and, in a lot of ways, it was bad for white people also. Joe managed to do that. Mel Bailey, who was the sheriff in Birmingham, Alabama during the summer of 1968—I think Mel Bailey understood in 1963 that he was on the wrong side of the street and he, too, came around.
George Wallace is a more complicated case. Our producer got him to go on camera. He had survived an assassination attempt. He was a born-again and it was kind of odd because he went on and on about how much he loved black people and he loved yellow people and he loved brown people and he loved all people and whatever he said back in the day was not racism, it was state's rights and what concerned him was not race, but federal usurpation of state power. I wasn't buying it.
When we were planning Eyes on the Prize, we had long discussions about how you interview segregationists, and a lot of the staff, mainly the black staff, felt you go with an all-white crew. You don't hide what you're doing. But our goal was to invite these people to be their best selves, to allow them to speak their truth, not our truth—to allow them to be in a room with a camera and not have to edit their speech because of who was in the room.
In some cases we actually did use an all-white crew and in some cases when interviewing some of the Black Nationalists and Panthers, we used an all-black crew.
We were in a meeting once and one of the producers asked Henry Hampton, "Well, how do you interview the Klan? And he said, "Get a sheet."
I was a white northerner who went down to join the movement in 1964. I was in Mississippi in the summer of '64, I then went to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta, Georgia. So when we interviewed, for instance, William Simmons, the former head of the White Citizens Council in Mississippi, we interviewed him about white northerners coming down to his state and there was a long discussion back at headquarters before we went about whether or not I should engage him about my role as one of the northerners invading his state in the summer of 1964.
We decided that we would not do that. To this day, I wonder if that was the right thing to do. It would've made a much more interesting conversation. But our point in interviewing folks was to go back to the time period, let them go back to 1964, back to Selma in 1965, back to Oakland in 1972 and to not clutter up the storytelling with the present.
And Simmons was pretty forthright in his condemnation of the white northern kids who came down to reform the state of Mississippi to their liking. He spoke his mind. He was one of the few white southerners in Eyes on the Prize who was willing to speak candidly about how things went down in the 1960s.
Did those conversations give you insight into some of what we're seeing today, with this resurgence of white nationalism?
I was surprised as anyone when Donald Trump won this election. I had been in denial. I was as stupid as everyone else in not realizing that the monster sleeps with one eye open. I think working with Eyes on the Prize helped lull us into the idea that this was from the past. These white segregationists that we interviewed had changed their language, many of them had openly and resolutely embraced the cause of equality, and I think that lulled us into a kind of false security.
Henry Hampton used to say that the civil rights movement is like a river: once in awhile, it goes underground. Through vast in periods of the 20th century and the 19th century, it was underground. And then it resurfaces—just explodes—into this giant spring, and I think we forget that white tribalism and white nationalism, is also a river that goes underground. It's been very thoroughly underground for an awful long time. And I have to say that the real eye-opener to me was Evan Osnos's article that pointed out that all of the white supremacists groups, including the neo-Nazis—they all endorsed Trump. They thought he was great. And so those currents are obviously deeply embedded in our national white psyche. It's not just the South—an awful lot of this is going on in Idaho, in Colorado, in my own state of California. I'm astonished.
The thing about George Wallace was that George Wallace never killed anybody but he was more than happy to use incendiary rhetoric that got people killed. And in the campaign we saw a lot of that from Trump. We saw that from a lot of people around Trump. And incendiary rhetoric has consequences.
Let's see what happens—it has to be tamped down. And thank God there are millions of Americans who are pushing back.
Look, I'm a white guy living in California—I can't tell if it's as ugly as it was back then. There are certainly places in America where people of color, because of their color or religion, it may be as bad as it was back then. In some places it may be worse.
How did Eyes on the Prize change your understanding of the civil rights movement?
I had been a full-time worker in the civil rights movement for a couple of years in the 1960s, so I came to Eyes on the Prize with a pretty decent inside view of the movement—of the tactics, strategies, and shortcomings of nonviolence. I certainly understood the rivalries between the fiery young people of SNCC, and the more conservative preachers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the more urban folks from CORE. What was new to me was the behind-the-scenes political work that was going on in Washington, D.C. in Congress and and with Lyndon Johnson—a white southerner. All those backroom discussions that Nicholas Katzenbach describes for us in his interview—that was all news to me
It also took Henry Hampton for me to really understand that the power of the civil rights movement came from below. It was not until working with Hampton that I fully understood how much the driving power of the movement came from from below, from maids and sharecroppers, farmers, janitors—ordinary people in little towns all across the south,
I did feel it in Mississippi with those courageous local people who had everything to lose. We were white kids from the North, we were gonna go back home; they had to stay there at the end of that dirt road with the deputy sheriff just over the hill. I never really understood their numbers nor their power until I came to Eyes on the Prize.
Henry Hampton was insistent that it was what he called the "crooked timber of humanity." The families he saw in church fanning themselves in the southern heat—they were the ones who drove that movement, as much as the charismatic leaders such as Dr. King or a quietly charismatic guy like John Lewis.
We forget that in 1955, Dr. King was an unknown 26-year-old minister, just out of seminary, in Montgomery ministering to his flock. He was not a star that came in from outside to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That bus boycott was planned, executed, and victorious entirely because of local black people.
King emerged as a rock star from that but those local movements were the heart and lungs of the movement. I think we're seeing that now with Black Lives Matter. These are local movements that rise up—in Ferguson, in Oakland, in Chicago, New York. They're local people that no one ever heard of.
How did the series impact the nation's understanding of the civil rights movement?
If you take thoughtful people who write reviews for newspapers and magazines as some sort of reflection of an American population—they got it. They got that it was the Fanny Lou Hamers and the Anita Blackwells, Moses Wright in Money, Mississippi—it was those guys that made the civil rights movement happen as much as Dr. King and Andrew Young. They also got the fierce rivalries and competition and sort of uneasy brotherly love between SNCC and SCLC and CORE.
I know it inspired young folks, for instance Bree Newsome, who is the young black woman who climbed the flagpole to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina, she was galvanized by Eyes on the Prize. She saw it as a teenager.
In the early 90s, Henry Hampton got a letter from a young black politician in Illinois, Barack Obama, asking him to review the manuscript of a book that Barack Obama had written about his father. So someone was watching.
True South is available from Viking Press. Eyes on the Prize is available on Amazon's streaming service, and as a DVD box set. On Saturday, February 25, Brooklyn Museum is holding a free daylong screening of Eyes on the Prize and a roundtable discussion about the series featuring Jon Else. Register here.