'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.

True South: Henry Hampton and Eyes on the Prize, the Landmark Television Series that Reframed the Civil Rights Movement

Publisher: Viking
Length: 404 pages
Author: Jon Else
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-01

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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