Freedom Song: Interviews from Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965


This curated collection features the unedited interviews conducted during the making of the landmark PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965 (1987).1 The exhibit was curated by Michelle Kelley, a writer living in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Film Quarterly, Cineaste, and other publications. She earned her Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from New York University and was a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Film and Media Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis.

The author would like to thank Alan Gevinson, Casey Davis Kaufman, Kenneth Campbell, Ryn Marchese, Miranda Villesvik, Henry Neels, Alexis Templeton, Stephanie Briggs, Paula Albers, Tuma Usirri, Doug Knox, Joe Lowenstein, Brian Woodman, and Irene Taylor. Thanks also to the anonymous reviewers whose feedback helped improve the exhibit. This project was made possible by the Humanities Digital Workshop at Washington University in St. Louis, the Film and Media Archive at Washington University in St. Louis, and the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

After a brief introduction to the series in the first section, Eyes on the Prize: Framing the Civil Rights Past, the second section, Eyes on the Prize: Making Television History, focuses on the documentary's planning and production. Here you will find interviews organized by the episodes in which they appeared. Later sections focus on the history of the southern civil rights movement that the series documents. Interviews are organized by the places and historical events interviewees discuss, and by interview subjects' roles in the movement. Here users can read about various topics on civil rights history, including how scholars have written about the civil rights past, how the press covered the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and '60s, and women's contributions to the movement.

Eyes on the Prize (or "Eyes I") was the series' first installment; Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965–1985 (or "Eyes II") followed in 1990.2 Eyes I comprises six episodes charting the history of the southern civil rights movement from the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, respectively. Not every interview the crew conducted was used in the series' first installment; however, they are all collected here.

The exhibit does not feature the interviews conducted for Eyes II, which the Film and Media Archive at Washington University in St. Louis is in the process of digitizing. You can access the transcripts of these interviews through Washington University's exhibit Eyes on the Prize Interviews: The Complete Series (click on "Browse Interviews" on the left side of the screen and scroll down to "Series II.")

When the digitization project is complete, users will have access to interviews with activists like Ruth Batson, who was on the front lines of the fight against segregation in the Boston public school system; Bobby Seale, who with Huey P. Newton co-founded the Black Panther Party; and Jesse Jackson, the civil rights activist who mounted a historic campaign for the United States presidency in 1984 and again in 1988. These interviews shed light on a period of African American social and political engagement that this exhibit doesn't address, but that is as much a part of the Black freedom struggle as the sit-ins, boycotts, and marches of the 1950s and '60s covered here.

Highlights Reel

Produced by Kenneth Campbell, documentary film artist, as part of the Library of Congress/Howard University Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Internship (AHHA) program, the following is a 20-minute highlights reel entitled "Freedom Song" of excerpts from Eyes I interviews as an introduction to this exhibit and the collection.

AAPB Podcast

In an episode of AAPB’s "Presenting the Past" podcast series, produced in collaboration with the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Aca-Media podcast, exhibit curator Michelle Kelley, Ph.D. provides context to the making of the series and explores examples of unedited Eyes on the Prize interviews that give different, yet valuable, perspectives on the civil rights movement than the one presented in the final cut of the series.

Eyes on the Prize with Michelle Kelley, PhD

Next: Eyes on the Prize: Framing the Civil Rights Past