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

A People’s History: Interview Subjects

We were all in consensus with Henry’s obsession to "honor the foot soldiers, the fan ladies, and the ordinary world parishioners," doggedly organizing, marching, demonstrating for months and years. - Jon Else42

Eyewitness and participant accounts of the civil rights struggle are at the heart of Eyes on the Prize. The authority that Eyes I lays claim to is drawn from the idea that those who lived the movement have a unique authority to tell its history.

Henry Hampton and the Blackside filmmakers understood the pitfalls of memory.43 They also knew that some interview subjects’ views had changed since the 1960s and that this might color their accounts. Series producer Jon Else notes that former segregationists often disavowed their previous views when talking with the Eyes crew. As he writes, "somehow the old resistance got lost in a fog of revisionist politesse."44 Still, the filmmakers believed in the power and authority of first-person accounts.

The producers of Eyes I interviewed a wide cross-section of people, including activists, bystanders, and segregationists. These interview subjects assumed different roles in their personal, professional, and political lives. They were ministers-turned-movement leaders, like James Lawson, sharecroppers-turned-activists, like Unita Blackwell, and even segregationists-turned-civil rights supporters, like Virginia Durr.

People are inherently hard to categorize, but this part of Freedom Song organizes the interviews into groups based on the historical identities of the subjects during the period covered in Eyes I. This means that it does not identify Marion Barry, who entered politics after 1965, as a politician, but rather as an activist and leader within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As you might expect, many of the subjects the Eyes crew interviewed fall into multiple categories.

The purpose of grouping the interviews this way is threefold. First, this part of the exhibit aims to help users find the interviews most relevant to their interests. For example, a researcher looking for information on members of a specific organization, like SNCC, can do so by visiting Section iii: Organizational Activists.

Second, it highlights the activism of those whose contributions to the movement civil rights histories sometimes overlook. These include women of the southern civil rights era, as well as "local people" — that is, the individuals who made history through their participation in protests, boycotts, and marches, but whose stories remain largely unknown.

Finally, this part of Freedom Song seeks to add texture and depth to the history of the movement Eyes I tells. Although Eyes on the Prize still anchors this part of the exhibit, Freedom Song covers some subjects that are not included in Eyes I, but are discussed in interviews. Having access to the unedited interviews allows us to explore aspects of civil rights history that the filmmakers—constrained by time limitations, funding shortfalls, and the demands of documentary television—chose not to address.

Using the "Key Figures and Interview Subjects" Sections

This part of the exhibit is broken up into eight sub-categories:

Each section begins with a brief essay to provide context for the interviews. The interviews that follow are in alphabetical order, and each entry includes information on who the interview subject was during the period covered in Eyes I. This information is specific to each section. For example, in Organizational Activists, the biographical details on Robert Williams pertain to his position in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.45 His entry in Media and the Press, details his work as an activist writer and broadcaster.

To access the interviews, simply click on a subject’s name.

Next: Local People