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

Women of the Southern Civil Rights Era

In producing Eyes on the Prize and its predecessor, America, They Loved You Madly, Henry Hampton and his crew spoke to women who were prominent within the movement. These included Rosa Parks, Diane Nash, and Coretta Scott King. The filmmakers also interviewed some of the women who, as King put it, "made it possible for the movement to be a mass movement."51 Among these women were Frances Belser, Rutha Mae Jackson, and Vanessa Venable.

Hampton's filmmakers also interviewed subjects who were young girls during the height of the southern civil rights movement. In her interview, Patricia Harris describes her encounters with white racism in the South and her participation in the civil rights struggle. Sheyann Webb was eight years old in 1965. She recalls meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. with her nine-year-old friend, Rachel West Nelson, who also reflects on that day. Webb and Nelson both discuss their involvement in the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama in 1965. The two women later collaborated with journalist Frank Sikora on the book, Selma, Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil-Rights Days, later adapted into a made-for-television film directed by Charles Burnett for Disney Studios.52

Fig. 6. Sheyann Webb (left) and Rachel West Nelson (right) during their interviews for Eyes on the Prize.
Image of side-by-side interviews, Sheyann Webb on the left, and Rachel West Nelson on the right, both facing towards the camera during separate interviews.

Women played key roles in the production of Eyes on the Prize. As noted in Eyes on the Prize: Making Television History of this exhibit, Hampton valued both racial and gender parity in his production teams; each of the three teams responsible for the series' first six episodes included one man and one woman, one white, and one Black. Women who were not part of these production teams were involved in making Eyes on the Prize as well. Hampton recruited former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist Judy Richardson to work on his earlier project, America, They Loved You Madly, and she continued to work with Hampton on Eyes on the Prize. Her ties to the movement helped legitimize Hampton's civil rights film project and persuade other activists to participate.

One of Richardson's first interviews was with Jo Ann Robinson. Robinson was head of the Women's Political Council (WPC), the grassroots organization that initiated the Montgomery bus boycott. In her interview, Robinson discusses the WPC and women's role in the civil rights struggle.

Fig. 7. Jo Ann Robinson during her interview for America, They Loved You Madly, the predecessor to Eyes on the Prize.
Image of Jo Ann Robinson facing towards the camera during an interview.

Stories of Rape and Resistance

Both Eyes on the Prize and the interviews in this exhibit address the interconnectedness of white supremacy and patriarchy in the segregated South. Episode one of Eyes, "Awakenings," tells the story of Emmett Till, lynched for the alleged offense of whistling at a white woman. After their acquittal, journalist William Bradford Huie interviewed Till's killers. Because they could not be re-tried, the men spoke openly about their crime. In his interview with Blackside, Huie recounts what one of them told him about his decision to murder Till: "J. W. Milam looked up at me and said, ‘Well, when he told me about this white girl he had... my friend, that's what this war's about down here now... that's what we got to fight to protect.'" According to Huie, Milam said to Till, "'Boy, you ain't ever going to see the sun come up again.'"

Fear of miscegenation, or racial mixing, undergirded white racists' resistance to integration in the South. Men like Milam used spurious arguments about racial purity to justify brutal acts of racist violence.53 For their part, many white women weaponized white patriarchal power to shore up their own relative privilege, falsely accusing Black men of assault, as Carolyn Bryant did to Emmett Till.54

The interviews collected here shed light on the racialized sexual violence and misogyny of the Jim Crow South. Robert Williams discusses the attempted rape and beating of a Black woman, Lilly Mae Reed, and the assault of a Black hotel maid named Georgia White, both by white men. Williams was head of the Monroe, North Carolina, branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and he worked to ensure that the men were prosecuted. But the trials failed to deliver justice for either woman.

In his interview, Williams describes the anger of the Black women in the courtroom following one of the acquittals. They criticized him for trusting the legal system to deliver justice. This was a watershed moment for Williams. "I turned to them, and I said, from this day forward, we will meet violence with violence," Williams told his interviewer. "We will enforce our own laws. We will become our own judges, our own juries, and our own executioners." Williams became one of the most outspoken advocates of what he called "armed self-reliance" for African Americans.55

Some of the civil rights movement's leading activists were at the forefront of the fight against racialized sexual violence in the South. Before she became a household name for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, Rosa Parks helped form the Committee for Equal Justice to raise legal funds for Recy Taylor, a Black woman raped by six white men. E. D. Nixon, chairman of the Montgomery, Alabama, NAACP, was also on the frontlines of this struggle. In her interview, Virginia Durr, the wife of Parks's attorney and an outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement, discusses the work of her nephew, the lawyer Nesbitt Elmore, on behalf of Black women raped by white men. Durr laments that historians have largely overlooked this chapter of civil rights history.56

These are not the stories that Eyes I tells. The filmmakers did not use Robert Williams' interview in the series, and Eyes I does not address Parks's, Nixon's, and Durr's work on behalf of Black women rape victims. However, the full-length interviews collected here suggest the critical, albeit often overlooked, role that Black women and the struggle against white patriarchy played in dismantling Jim Crow.

The Interviews

The following list identifies the women Blackside filmmakers interviewed during the making of America, They Loved You Madly and Eyes I. In listing their names here, our goal is not to separate these women from the broader movement, but to showcase their contributions, which civil rights histories too often ignore.

Victoria Grey Adams: SNCC field secretary; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) board member; founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) delegation that attended the Democratic National Convention in 1964

Melba Beals: One of the "Little Rock Nine" who integrated Little Rock Central High School

Frances Belser: Montgomery bus boycotter

Unita Blackwell: Member of SNCC and the MFDP delegation that attended the Democratic National Convention in 1964

Eliza Briggs (and Harry Briggs, Sr.): Plaintiff whose case against the school board in Summerton, South Carolina, was combined with other suits in Brown v. Board of Education

Annie Devine: Co-founder, MFDP

Virginia Durr (1979; 1986): Avid supporter of the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights struggle

Myrlie Evers: Wife and secretary of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers

Mrs. Folgate: Montgomery bus boycotter

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

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

Casey Hayden: Founding member of Students for a Democratic Society and SNCC volunteer; wrote "Sex and Caste" with Marry King addressing gender inequality in the movement

Coretta Scott King: Attended the Disarmament Conference in 1962 as a representative of the Women's Strike for Peace; NAACP member, SCLC activist, and wife of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Marcia Webb Lecky: Little Rock Central High School student

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

Leola (Brown) Montgomery: Mother of Linda Brown and wife of Oliver Brown, one of thirteen plaintiffs in the case of Brown v. Board of Education

Constance Baker Motley (1985; 1986): First Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary and first Black woman appointed to the New York State senate; groundbreaking Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) attorney

Diane Nash: SNCC co-founder; movement leader during the Nashville sit-ins and Freedom Rides.

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

Rosa Parks: Helped establish the Committee for Equal Justice to raise funds for Recy Taylor; Parks' arrest instigated the Montgomery bus boycott

Bernice Johnson Reagon: SNCC field secretary and member of the Freedom Singers

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

Amelia Boynton Robinson: Active in the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama; her beating by a state trooper on "Bloody Sunday" helped propel the passage of the Voting Rights Act

Jo Ann Robinson: Leader of the WPC and founding member of the Montgomery Improvement Association

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

Linda Brown Smith: One of thirteen plaintiffs in the case of Brown v. Board of Education

Vanessa Venable: Black schoolteacher in Farmville, Virginia, when the county chose to close the schools rather than integrate

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

Next: Organizational Activists