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

Politicans, Law Enforcement, and State and Federal Officials

The Blackside crew interviewed politicians, sheriffs, safety commissioners, and government bureaucrats. Some of them had been opponents of the civil rights movement, some were neither strongly opposed to nor supportive of the struggle, and others used politics and the law to advance the cause of racial justice.

Executive producer Henry Hampton believed that the southern civil rights movement succeeded in part because it took place within the framework of American liberal democracy. In fact, according to series producer and cinematographer Jon Else, this is one of the four main arguments Eyes on the Prize presents.60 Hampton’s faith in the nation and its governing bodies is reflected in American flag's prominence on screen and in promotional material for the series.61

Fig. 9. Eyes on the Prize signature image.
Eyes on the Prize signature image.

Some of Eyes I’s interview subjects shared Hampton’s opinion of the nation and its system of government. When Judy Richardson asked Jo Ann Robinson how she felt when the Montgomery bus boycott banished Jim Crow from city buses, she described experiencing a sense of national belonging from being accorded the full rights of citizenship: "It is a hilarious feeling that just goes all over you that makes you feel that America is a great country, and we're going to do more to make it greater."

Others, however, were more critical of the nation, which they felt did not live up to its professed ideals. Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), for example, says that the objective of Black nationalists like himself wasn’t just to abolish Jim Crow in the South but to transform America as a whole:

On the other side you had, what we would consider to be the non-nationalist forces, they felt… that just enough pressure was necessary to be brought upon the state of Mississippi to crack it open and make it part of America. There were others here who were screaming on the nationalist front that we're not trying to be part of America. We're trying to change all of America. You understand?

Hampton believed the United States was an essentially just country and that racism and inequality were not part of the bedrock of the nation. In contrast, many Black nationalists felt that racial inequality was fundamental to the American system, and some questioned whether it could ever be wholly excised. For Carmichael, doing so would require radical transformation, not just in the South, but also throughout the country.

Public Servants and Segregationists

Eyes I begins with the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and ends with the passage of civil rights legislation in 1965.62 Hampton and his crew understood that these events did not mark either the beginning and the end of the fight for Black rights; however, they are significant milestones in the Eyes story. Political and legislative victories were important to Hampton, as was the work of the public servants whose efforts Eyes I showcases.

One such public servant was John Doar, Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division from 1960 to 1967. During his time in the Justice Department, he investigated violations of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, an important precedent to the 1964 Act. Nicholas Katzenbach was Assistant Attorney General of the Office of Legal Counsel from 1961 to 1962, Deputy Attorney General from 1962 to 1965, and Attorney General of the United States from 1965 to 1966. He later became Under Secretary of State. One of Katzenbach’s most significant contributions to civil rights history was his part in drafting the Voting Rights Act.63

Of course, not all the public officials Hampton and his crew interviewed helped advance the cause of racial justice. The interviews Blackside conducted with the politicians and law enforcement officials who opposed the civil rights fight are among the most compelling and disturbing in the collection. Many of these formerly avowed segregationists are evasive in their interviews; however, some of them voice troubling ideas rooted in the racist ideology of Jim Crow.

Segregationists—and former segregationists—whose interviews appear in this collection include Joseph Smitherman, mayor of Selma, Alabama; Sheriff Melvin Bailey, who worked with Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor in Birmingham, Alabama; and Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett of Albany, Georgia. Connor attempted to quell the civil rights struggle using aggressive methods like siccing police dogs on protesters and blasting them with fire hoses. In contrast, Pritchett tried to outwit civil rights leaders by schooling himself in the tactics of nonviolence. Connor’s and Pritchett’s different strategies are compared in episode four of Eyes on the Prize, "No Easy Walk (1961–1963)."

The Interviews

Blackside interviewed the following politicians, law enforcement, and government officials. This list also includes those involved with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which challenged the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party delegation at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Although these activists were not government-appointed or elected politicians, they played a critical role in the civil rights movement's political history, which is why they are included here.

Like other sections of Freedom Song, the following list identifies interviewees based on the positions they held between the years 1954 to 1965, the period covered by Eyes I:

Victoria Gray Adams: Ran for the United States Senate in 1964; led the MFDP

Melvin Bailey: Sheriff of Jefferson County, Alabama

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

Herbert Brownell: Attorney General under President Dwight D. Eisenhower

James Clark: Sheriff of Selma, Alabama

William Coleman: Appointed by President Eisenhower to the President’s Commission of Employment Policy

Courtland Cox: MFDP delegate

Annie Devine: Founded the MFDP with Fannie Lou Hammer and Victoria Gray Adams

Charles Diggs: Served in the Michigan State Senate and United States House of Representatives

John Doar: Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division

Orval Faubus: Governor of Arkansas; attempted to bar the integration of Little Rock Central High School

Lawrence Guyot: Chairman of the MFDP and delegate to the 1964 Democratic National Convention

Erle Johnston: Director of public relations and later executive director of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

Nicholas Katzenbach: Assistant Attorney General of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel, 1961 to 1962, Deputy Attorney General, 1962 to 1965, and U.S. Attorney General beginning in 1965

Floyd Mann: Director of Alabama’s Department of Public Safety; charged with protecting the safety of the Freedom Riders

Burke Marshall: Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division

John McLaurin, Sr.: Mississippi state senator and member of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission

Walter Mondale: Minnesota Attorney General and United States senator

Robert Moses: Active in the formation of the MFDP

Constance Baker Motley: (1985; 1986): First African-American female senator in the New York State Senate, 1964 to 1965; first African-American woman elected to the presidency of the Manhattan borough

John Patterson: Attorney General and later Governor of Alabama

Laurie Pritchett: Chief of Police of Albany, Georgia

John Seigenthaler: Administrative Assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy

Joseph Smitherman: Mayor of Selma, Alabama

George Wallace: Governor of Alabama

Paul E. Wilson: Assistant Attorney General for the State of Kansas

John Minor Wisdom: Federal judge, Fifth Circuit Court

Harris Wofford: Legal assistant to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Eisenhower; special assistant on civil rights under President John F. Kennedy

Ralph W. Yarborough: United States Senator from Texas

Next: Media and the Press