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

Local People

It was important to Henry Hampton that his series not be limited to interviews with civil rights luminaries like John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). It was "local people," to borrow the title of John Dittmer’s book on the civil rights fight in Mississippi, who drove the movement.46 Hampton and his crew chose to interview not only the movement’s leaders but also little-known activists and even those on the sidelines of the struggle. Their goal was to tell the history of the civil rights movement from the ground up, emphasizing the crucial role played by unknown, predominantly Black Americans.

One of these was Frederick Leonard. Before Eyes I, Leonard had never been interviewed about his experience on the front lines during the 1961 Freedom Rides, which aimed to integrate interstate busing in the South.47 The Eyes crew felt that Leonard’s interview was one of the most compelling of the series.48

Several Montgomery bus boycott activists spoke to Hampton and his crew. Many of them hadn’t talked publicly about the boycott before. Among them were Frances Belser, John Daniels, James Hoffman, Donie Jones, and a woman identified only as "Mrs. Folgate." Women who worked as domestic servants made up a large swath of the rank-and-file during the boycott initiated by the Women’s Political Council, led by Jo Ann Robinson. You can learn more about the civil rights activism of women on the next page.

In addition to interviewing ordinary citizens active in the movement, Hampton’s crew sought the perspectives of those whose lives were impacted by the civil rights struggle but who chose not to join the fight. Subjects in this category include Marcia Webb Lecky and Craig Raines, white students who attended Little Rock Central High School when it was integrated in 1957. Jan Robertson, a white student at the University of Mississippi, describes the riots that broke out when James Meredith was admitted in 1962. Normareen Shaw was the owner of the café where Alabama State Troopers attacked Jimmie Lee Jackson’s grandfather, Cager Lee, and his mother, Viola Jackson. The troopers killed Jackson when he tried to defend his family. Jackson’s death prompted civil rights leaders to plan the first of three marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.49

Mose Wright and the Murder of Emmett Till

One example of how Eyes on the Prize emphasizes everyday Americans' contributions to advancing civil rights is in episode one, "Awakenings." "Awakenings" tells the story of Mose Wright, the grand uncle of Emmett Till. Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi when he was abducted and murdered by two men, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant. The men alleged that Till had harassed Bryant’s wife, Carolyn Bryant, while buying candy at the Bryants’ convenience store.50 They beat him, shot him in the head, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River.

Hampton struggled with how to frame the story of Emmett Till’s murder and his killers’ trial. Instead of focusing on the brutality of the crime, the American public’s reaction to it, or the miscarriage of justice that led to Milam and Bryant’s acquittal, Hampton emphasized Wright’s courage in seeking justice for his nephew. When called to the stand, the prosecution asked Wright to identify the men took Till from his bed the night he was lynched. Despite the danger of accusing a white man of murder in the segregated South, Wright identified Till’s abductors.

For Hampton, small acts of individual bravery on the part of everyday Black Americans were as critical for advancing civil rights as protests and legislation. In "Awakenings," we learn about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in declaring segregated public schooling unconstitutional. "I think the greatest impact of the Brown decision was on the Black community itself," says Constance Baker Motley, one of a team of lawyers involved in the case. By using this clip from Motley’s interview, "Awakenings" emphasizes the emboldening effect the Brown verdict had on Black Americans. It then introduces Mose Wright’s story, which serves as a bridge between the Brown v. Board verdict and Emmett Till’s murder: "The change began slowly," narrator Julian Bond says. "Blacks in rural areas knew they could lose their livelihood or their lives if they pushed whites too fast. But step by step, the change began, first with small acts of personal courage. In September 1955, an old man named Mose Wright took that remarkable first step."

Fig. 5. Frederick Leonard during his interview with Blackside for Eyes on the Prize.
Frederick Leonard during his interview with Blackside for Eyes on the Prize.

Instead of depicting Till’s murder as a setback for civil rights, "Awakenings" emphasizes Mose Wright’s bravery, characterizing his testimony as one of the many acts of courage inspired by the Supreme Court desegregation ruling.

The Interviews

The following is a list of some of the little-known "local people" Hampton and his crew interviewed. The list is limited to individuals who rarely spoke publicly about their experiences in the civil rights struggle and who were not movement leaders.

James Armstrong: Plaintiff in a school desegregation lawsuit in Birmingham, Alabama; part of a group that tried to integrate a Greyhound bus station’s waiting room

Frances Belser: Montgomery bus boycotter

John Daniels: Montgomery bus boycotter

Don Evans: Teenager and resident of Birmingham, Alabama, during efforts to desegregate the city in 1963

Mrs. Folgate: Montgomery bus boycotter

Georgia Gilmore: Montgomery bus boycotter; helped raise money to support the boycott

Patricia Harris: Took part in the Birmingham youth marches in 1963

James Hoffman: Montgomery bus boycotter

Rutha Mae and Willie Hill Jackson: Lived near Greenwood, Mississippi, during the Emmett Till murder trial, which took place in Sumner, Mississippi

Curtis Jones: Emmett Till’s cousin who was with him during the incident at the Bryants’ convenience store and the night he died

Donie Jones: Montgomery bus boycotter

Marcia Webb Lecky: Former Little Rock Central High School student

Rudolph Lee: Child and resident of Birmingham, Alabama, during the demonstrations there in 1963

Frederick Leonard: Freedom Rider

Rachel West Nelson: Nine-year-old during the Selma, Alabama, campaign in which both she and her parents were active

Gussie Nesbitt: Montgomery bus boycotter

Craig Rains: Former Little Rock Central High School student

Jan Robertson: University of Mississippi student who witnessed the riots that broke out in response to James Meredith’s attempts to enroll

Bernie Schweid: Co-owner of R. M. Mills bookstores in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, during the sit-in movement there and the boycott of downtown stores

Normareen Shaw: Owner of Mack’s Café in Marion, Alabama, where state troopers shot Jimmie Lee Jackson; Jackson’s death precipitated the Selma to Montgomery march

Sheyann Webb: Child during the civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama; took part in the march from Selma to Montgomery

Next: Women of the Southern Civil Rights Era