Freedom Song: Interviews from Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965
Chronologizing the Past: A Timeline of Events
By confining the civil rights struggle to the South, to bowdlerized heroes, to a single halcyon decade, and to limited, noneconomic objectives, the master narrative simultaneously elevates and diminishes the movement. It ensures the status of the classical phase as a triumphal moment in a larger American progress narrative, yet it undermines its gravitas. It prevents one of the most remarkable mass movements in American history from speaking effectively to the challenges of our time. - Jacquelyn Dowd Hall29
In making Eyes I, the filmmakers confronted an enormous challenge: they had to somehow condense the expansive, complicated history of the southern civil rights movement into an initial six-episode narrative documentary series. Jon Else recalls some of the historiographic questions the crew grappled with during the early days of production:
What exactly was the history, and how exactly could we get it on screen? Thousands of successes and failures in the long continuum of liberation struggle lay spread across myriad states and towns from the early days of the republic to the present. We had to chapterize it, bound it, discard nearly all of it, impose an orderly television narrative on it."30
When writing about the past, academic historians face these same questions; yet in some ways, the choices documentary filmmakers confront are even more daunting. Else recalls the words of series academic advisor Clayborne Carson, who summarized the difficulty: "What we historians do is cut down fifty thousand documents to eight hundred pages, and then documentary filmmakers come along and cut the eight hundred pages down to a twenty-five-page treatment."31 The Eyes I crew had to excise most of civil rights history to tell the movement’s story in the space of six episodes. They also faced the unique demands of adapting this history for TV. The series had to entertain and engage viewers emotionally and maintain narrative cohesion, even if that meant glossing over some of the complexities of the past.32
Eyes I focuses on the southern civil rights movement, or what Bayard Rustin called the movement’s "classical phase."33 During this period, from roughly the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, mostly white journalists on "the race beat" provided their readers with concise summaries of the protests in the South. Early academic histories of the movement later repeated what these journalists wrote. Through this process, a "dominant narrative" about the civil rights past began to take shape.
Like Eyes I, the movement's dominant narrative begins with the Supreme Court ruling in the case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and ends with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The locus of the civil rights movement was the South, and its objectives—to abolish Jim Crow and secure voting rights for African Americans—were clear. At least, this is what the dominant narrative tells us.
Of course, the reality was much more complicated. The civil rights movement didn’t abruptly commence after the Supreme Court announced the Brown decision; it had roots in earlier struggles, which Eyes I acknowledges. Episode one, "Awakenings," addresses World War II's role in mobilizing African Americans in the South to demand equal treatment under the law. It also references the pioneering work of Charles Hamilton Houston, who was at the forefront of the legal effort to improve Black schools in the 1930s.
The movement didn’t end with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, either. Episode six of Eyes, "Bridge to Freedom," concludes not only with this legislative victory but also with the Watts riots. Over footage of the flames that consumed the Los Angeles neighborhood, Julian Bond says that the riots "signaled a new direction for the movement. The next phase of America’s civil rights years." In this way, Eyes I underscores the continuity of the "classical" era with what came before and after.
The Long Civil Rights Movement
Although Eyes I both references the pre-history of the movement in the South and gestures toward what came after it, some credit the series with popularizing what historian Eric Arneson calls the "Montgomery to Memphis" narrative. As Arneson writes, "For a number of years since its initial release in 1987, the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize established the narrative of the movement between 1955 and 1965, a narrative that prevailed more in the broader culture than in the academy."34 Many scholars have criticized this narrative and advocated for a more expansive periodization of the struggle. Proponents of the concept of the "long civil rights movement" argue the importance of underscoring how the fight against Jim Crow grew out of the human rights and labor activism of the 1930s and gave way to the Black Power movement and antiwar protests of the 1970s.35
When viewing Eyes on the Prize, it’s important to remember that, although Part I ends in 1965, the Black freedom struggle did not. This is why, following the success of Eyes I, Henry Hampton and his crew made Eyes II: America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965–1985. Part II of the series departs from the strict chronological approach the filmmakers used in Eyes I; episodes seven through fourteen cover overlapping periods. This works to counter the idea, sometimes implicit in civil rights histories, that the story of civil rights in the United States has been one of steady, sequential progress since the 1960s. Eyes II addresses the rise of the Black Power movement, the Attica uprising, innovations in Black popular culture, and the historic campaigns and elections of Black politicians.
Methodology and Using the Timeline
Creating this timeline meant tackling some of the same historiographic challenges the Eyes on the Prize filmmakers faced. The timeline is not comprehensive; instead, it only includes select events in civil rights history that either come up repeatedly in the interviews or are important to the narrative Eyes on the Prize tells. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s, published in 1990 as a companion piece to Eyes I and II, was a valuable resource in developing the timeline. The timeline follows the chronological chapter breakdown of Voices of Freedom, which closely matches the order of the episodes in Eyes I."36
To use the timeline, click on an event to find a brief description with links to Eyes on the Prize interviews that include discussions of that event.