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

Locating the Civil Rights Past: An Interactive Map

The movement in the South represented the first great student action in decades and the first assault on the pillars of segregation in a hundred years by mass action. And it was very stirring, and it mobilized a lot of conscience in the North. - Tom Hayden37

As discussed in Chronologizing the Past: A Timeline of Events, historians debate the timeframe of the civil rights movement and its relationship to other Black freedom struggles. Similarly, they also have raised questions about the role of place in the movement. Some have criticized mainstream histories for positing a binary of "an exceptional, reactionary South" and a "normative, progressive North." This binary obscures both systemic racism throughout the United States and the activism of African Americans outside the South against it.38 The South/North dichotomy is reinforced by the hard and fast distinction these histories draw between the civil rights movement—identified with the American South of the 1950s and early 1960s—and the Black Power movement—identified with the North of the late 1960s and ’70s.

The South/North binary is overly simplistic; however, racial dynamics in the South of the 1950s and ’60s were distinctly different from those of northern and coastal cities during the same era. As Clarence Lang argues, it is possible to preserve the specificity of place without reaffirming the reductive South/North dichotomy.39

Eyes I is, among other things, a documentary about the transformation of the American South in the 1950s and ’60s. It tells the story of how activists successfully challenged many of the discriminatory laws and social practices that had defined southern life since Reconstruction.40

During the 1950s and ’60s, segregationists defended Jim Crow as a benign set of laws and customs. They claimed that the unique culture of the South was under assault by outside agitators.41 The "outside agitators" trope persists to this day, so it’s not surprising that some interviewees still clung to the idea nearly two decades later. Sheriff James Clark, for example, tells his interviewer that Black residents of Dallas County, Alabama, took part in protests not because they wanted change, but because they were strong-armed by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who were there organizing.

In his interview, Bernie Schweid, who operated a bookstore in downtown Nashville during the sit-in movement, explains that, like Clark, many white southerners believed African Americans in the South were content in their second-class status. This led them to underestimate the power of the burgeoning movement: "Most people did not take the sit-ins too seriously at the beginning because they felt, well, you know, these are not—these are outsiders, these are agitators, these are students that have come from New York and other places, and they're not—they're not our Negroes. Our Negroes are happy."

Other interviewees speak candidly about life in the South. Virginia Durr reflects on the psychic toll Jim Crow exacted on southern whites who struggled to reconcile their professed "love" of African Americans in their community with their adherence to the system of segregation and inequality that had been in place since the 19th century. Discussing the revolution in southern society and culture during this era, Durr describes the civil rights movement as bringing about a "second Reconstruction."

Using the Interactive Map

The interactive map identifies some of the places where civil rights history was made. Like the timeline, it only includes locations discussed by interviewees and that appear in the first installment of Hampton’s series. Here you will find cities, like Birmingham, Alabama, a locus of civil rights activism; rural areas, like the town of Money, Mississippi; and specific sites, such as the University of Mississippi, where a deadly riot broke out in response to James Meredith's efforts to enroll there.

To find Eyes on the Prize interviews pertinent to a specific place, navigate to it on the map or conduct a search in the “Search by Place” box in the top left corner of the map. Once you narrow in to a location of interest, click the “Expand Gallery” icon in the bottom right corner of the map to select interviews in which that place is discussed. Click on an interview record to see a description of the place that notes its significance for the Civil Rights Movement, and below the description you can click the link to view the interview on the AAPB website.

Next: A People’s History: Interview Subjects