‘True South’ and the Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement

True South functions as a reminder of how great and important Eyes on the Prize is, and why it remains essential.

Dorothy Cotton was none too pleased with us young folk.

We’d been making a stink all summer, during our internship at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta, about not wanting to hear not one more tale about the bad old days of the Civil Rights Movement as much as working on the here and now. Cotton, a veteran of those bad old days as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s head of voter education, was trying to tell us to take those stories more seriously, to look beyond the heroics of Dr. King and all the other great men (and yes, the history handed to us in those days included all men and no women) and understand the second-liners and foot soldiers who toiled beyond the TV cameras to achieve profound societal change.

We ended up reaching a tentative détente to make it through the internship without imploding everything. Years later, I wonder if each side wasn’t so emotionally invested in our respective strands of self-righteousness — they with their need for validation (and perhaps some after-the-fact shine), us with our need for building on the war stories we’d already fully ingested — that we ended up talking past each other, and missed an opportunity for real learning and exchange.

But at least Cotton and her colleagues got a large dose of that validation years later, with the 1987 PBS broadcast of Eyes on the Prize, an eye-opening documentary series on the pivotal moments of the movement, from Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 to the Selma conflagrations ten years later. The six-part series didn’t assume prior knowledge of the history as much as find a new way to tell it — through the voices of those very second-liners and foot soldiers Cotton tried to get us to acknowledge.

True South, Jon Else’s thorough telling of the Eyes story, celebrates another set of foot soldiers: the ones who created Eyes on the Prize.

It begins with Henry Hampton, a polio survivor who was among the Selma marchers in 1965. Hampton, a child of St. Louis’ black middle class, was in Selma representing the Unitarian Universalist Association as its director of information. On this occasion, two days after the “Bloody Sunday” brutality, Hampton had an epiphany: “Someday someone is going to make a great story of this,” Else reports Hampton thinking to himself, “This is going to make great television.”

But first, Hampton had to learn the television ropes. He parlayed his PR experience with the Unitarians into doing pieces and occasional hosting for a black public affairs program on Boston’s public TV station in the late ‘60s. He had already filed papers to create Blackside, Inc., a corporation out to produce films about the black experience. Blackside picked up some industrial and government film work, and Hampton set about building his first team. Blackside slowly built up a nice portfolio during the ‘70s (and a matching set of collection notices as well), but Hampton eventually tired of contract work, and started thinking big.

He went back to his Selma epiphany, and in 1978 got seed money from Capital Cities Communications, which was about to merge with ABC Television, to produce a two-hour documentary on the Civil Rights Movement, America, We Loved You Madly, to be aired prime-time. The Blackside team headed south, to film as many activists from the movement as they could locate (and convince to sit down for an interview). But the project never gelled, Cap Cities/ABC wanted something far different from what Blackside was shooting, and nothing ever came of the project.

Well, not exactly. The failed experience turned out to be the genesis of Eyes on the Prize.

That almost didn’t get off the ground either. Hampton turned to PBS this time, took on some experienced advisors, and still had to sweat bullets until the foundation checks came in. Else explains Hampton’s brilliant conception for both the show and its making. Each episode would be overseen by a pair of producers (one male, one female, one white, one black). Hampton dispensed with an on-screen narrator (Julian Bond performed that role in America, We Loved You Madly, and offscreen in Eyes on the Prize), and opted to let the interviews and archive footage tell the story. The goal wasn’t to recite a staid chronology of events, but to capture the emotional arc of the key moments and battles.

Else, Eyes on the Prize’ series producer and cinematographer, chronicles how challenging that work was, and its eventual payoff. Eyes on the Prize, widely acclaimed and eventually beloved, received a pair of Academy Award nominations, and set many of the participants off on their own careers. It also put Blackside in a fine position too. Hampton produced a sequel covering the post-civil rights years, and several other documentaries about black life in America.

We’ve all seen the grainy photos and footage: white mobs screaming at black children trying to enter a previously all-white school, black protesters assaulted with water cannons, Dr. King at the Washington Monument. Eyes on the Prize transcended all that in three important ways. First, it gave as much time to the everyday people who stood up for themselves as the leaders and strategists who skillfully orchestrated the tactics. It brought together extant footage from all over the globe into one unified package (the revolution might not be televised, but the Civil Rights Movement was, and by many outlets). Finally, it brought an epic American story back to life at just the moment when it was beginning to fade from our collective memory. (Indeed, many of the hoped-for interview subjects were either gone or no longer well, and some important footage was rescued at the last minute.)

Eyes on the Prize itself almost faded from memory, even as stations routinely re-aired it every Black History Month. Blackside negotiated short-term rights for all the period music it incorporated, but not long-term rights, and Eyes on the Prize was thus unable to be aired for many years after those temporary rights expired. By the early ‘00s, it was all but impossible to find a copy of the series on a decent videocassette. It took several more years, some nascent internet activism, and large grants to secure all the clearances in perpetuity. (That trouble actually began with King’s family, with what would be their first salvo in their campaign to retain the intellectual property rights to the filming of the “I Have a Dream” speech and his other writings. Hampton ended up going to court against the Kings, and achieved a settlement for use of the footage.)

Else tells the remarkable story in vivid detail, with some detours into the actual movement history, his own activism in the South in the ‘60s, and the back-and-forth between his Eyes on the Prize work and his career in Hollywood. We get to know many of the individual personalities that managed to make Eyes on the Prize happen even if they didn’t know when the next paycheck would happen. But above them all is Hampton, driven by a passion to tell black people’s stories, and in a singular and pioneering way at that. For anyone more likely to think of Ken Burns than Hampton (or Burns and no one else) when considering historical documentaries, True South sets a proper context.

Else recommends watching Eyes on the Prize to fully appreciate True South. That’s true, but every American ought to watch it whether or not they read his book. True South functions as a reminder of how great and important Eyes on the Prize is, and why it remains essential. As much as we King Center interns learned about the movement, we would have better understood what our elders were trying to tell us had Eyes on the Prize been around back then.

RATING 8 / 10
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