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

Eyes on the Prize: Framing the Civil Rights Past

[Eyes on the Prize] is not about how we got things changed in the past, but about how we get things changed any time. - Clayborne Carson3

Henry Hampton’s Vision

Airing on PBS and BBC 2 in 1987, Eyes I was the first documentary television series to examine the southern civil rights movement at length. Eyes I explores the civil rights past from the perspective of African Americans themselves—both those interviewed and the Black crew members working behind the scenes at the series’ production company, Blackside, Inc.4

The series’ executive producer, Henry Hampton, had his production teams interview both movement leaders and average citizens. Hampton sought to depict Black people in the movement as empowered activists fighting for their rights rather than victims of systemic racism in the Jim Crow South.5

The 127 interviews feature in-depth discussions of the civil rights movement by those who were there, including Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), and Rosa Parks. The collection also includes interviews with people who opposed the movement, such as the segregationists Sheriff James Clark, Police Chief Laurie Pritchett, and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. Individuals on the sidelines of the struggle, like former Little Rock Central High School students Craig Rains and Marcia Webb Lecky also contributed interviews.

In telling the story of the movement, the filmmakers’ goal wasn’t to unearth new information; instead, they aimed to adapt the history of the civil rights movement that scholars had documented for television. But in the process, the crew interviewed movement participants who had never shared their stories before. As a result, Eyes I is both a retelling of the movement’s past as historians understood it in the 1980s and an original contribution to civil rights historiography.

To learn more about the people Hampton and his crew interviewed, visit A People’s History: Interview Subjects.

From Celluloid to Digital

The interviews collected here are unedited digital copies of the original 16mm footage. Discussions are often interrupted by abrupt cuts due to the technical constraints of working with film, and sometimes the image track cuts out entirely while the audio continues playing. These cuts and sections of “wild audio” are historical traces of how filmmakers used to create documentaries; they serve to remind us of the obstacles the Eyes I crew faced in producing their groundbreaking series.

Hampton left the recorded interviews, along with a trove of additional production materials from Eyes on the Prize and other Blackside projects, to his alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. In 2011, with help from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Film and Media Archive at Washington University in St. Louis began digitally transferring and preserving the interviews.6 The Film and Media Archive provided the digitized interviews to the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

You can learn more about Hampton, Blackside, and the production teams behind Eyes on the Prize by navigating to the next part of this exhibit, Eyes on the Prize: Making Television History.

Using Freedom Song

Freedom Song is a resource for teachers, students, activists, and scholars. The exhibit’s title underscores music’s inspirational role for Hampton and his crew. The series’ title, Eyes on the Prize, was borrowed from a civil rights-era folksong of the same name.7

The interviews are organized in four ways:

1) By episode: Eyes on the Prize: Making Television History, organizes the interviews in alphabetical order by subjects' last names.

2) By historical event: In Chronologizing the Past: A Timeline of Events, users can discover which interviews address specific events in civil rights history.

3) By place: Locating the Civil Rights Movement features an interactive map of locations the interviewees discuss.

4) By the interviewees themselves: A People’s History: Interview Subjects, organizes the interviews into categories reflecting the roles interview subjects played during the southern civil rights era.

The interviews featured here speak to the complex history of the struggle for Black freedom and rights in the 1950s and ’60s, often touching on subjects that aren’t addressed in Eyes I. For this reason, although the exhibit takes Eyes on the Prize as its starting point, it isn’t directed exclusively at researchers interested in Hampton’s series. It’s a resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the civil rights past.

Conclusion: The Legacy of Eyes on the Prize

When Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years premiered, pundits and politicians whose values were antithetical to the civil rights movement were busy reframing the movement’s legacy. Conservatives invoked Martin Luther King, Jr. to malign policies like affirmative action as racist, asserting that, were King alive today, he would oppose them.8 At a time when many outside the movement claimed to speak on its behalf, Eyes I provided a platform for civil rights activists of the 1950s and ’60s to speak for themselves, voicing their own ideas about what they had fought both for and against.

Eyes I intervened in debates about race and the meaning of the civil rights past in the 1980s, but it didn’t do so overtly. In producing Eyes I, Hampton ensured that all cultural and historical references were from the period documented onscreen and that interviewees never discussed the present.9 Still, the filmmakers hoped that the relevance of the past for the racial politics of the ’80s would be clear. As the historian and academic advisor on the series Clayborne Carson said, “[Eyes on the Prize] is not about how we got things changed in the past, but about how we get things changed any time.”10

The same is true of the interviews themselves. Although they were filmed over thirty years ago, they speak to the problems and possibilities of the present. Racism continues today and activists’ commitment to combatting it remains as strong today as it was in the 1950s and ’60s. The interviews in Freedom Song do not provide a blueprint for how to move forward in the struggle; a new generation of activists is charting that course. But the interviews do provide lessons. Like Hampton’s series, they offer insight not only into how the Black freedom struggle transformed society in the past but also how it might do so again today.

Next: Eyes on the Prize: Making Television History