Freedom Song: Interviews from Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965
Eyes on the Prize: Making Television History
But now, after the work we have done accumulating materials to support Eyes on the Prize, I still return to that moment on the bridge in Selma. As I was standing next to a black Alabama sharecropper and the wife of Senator Paul Douglas, I felt the deep stirring of what it meant to be caught in a great moment in American history and to feel the nation change around me. This series must be done. - Henry Hampton11
The Making of Eyes on the Prize
Producing Eyes on the Prize was more than a labor of love. For Executive Producer Henry Hampton, it was an ambition he harbored for more than half his life, one that led him to sacrifice money, opportunity, and his own material welfare to realize.
Eyes I grew out of Hampton’s earlier, failed television project, America, They Loved You Madly.12 Yet its roots were much deeper, based on his own experience during the first Selma to Montgomery march. Hampton had been hesitant to join the march. He had contracted polio as a child that left him with permanent leg damage, and he worried he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the other marchers. This would make him vulnerable to attack by the segregationists who lined the route. But when his pace began to slow, the people around him formed a human barrier protecting him from the angry crowds. "My own personal honor guard," Hampton called them, recalling the incident in a funding proposal for Eyes.13
Maybe this experience explains why Hampton felt so strongly about the importance of memory for understanding history. Roughly a decade later, his own recollection of that day inspired him to tell the history of the movement from the perspective of the people who made up the rank and file of the struggle and who stood by him in the march toward Montgomery.
In 1968, Henry Hampton established Blackside, Inc., a film production company that aimed to increase Black representation both onscreen and behind the camera. "Two things coincided: the Black Power movement and my own personal need for independence," Hampton reflected.14 Before Eyes on the Prize, most of the films Blackside produced were "industrials"—films sponsored by corporations and government offices to train, educate, or persuade viewers. In True South: Henry Hampton and Eyes on the Prize, The Landmark Television Series That Reframed the Civil Rights Movement, series producer Jon Else writes that despite their small budgets and limited scope, the filmmakers at Blackside imbued these films with artistry and racially progressive politics. As Else writes, "In its own quiet way, it was social justice activism by other means."15
Despite establishing what Else describes as "the most important African American documentary company in America," by the late 1970s, Hampton was eager to expand beyond the realm of industrial film production. In 1978, he got the chance to do just that.
America, They Loved You Madly
Of the 127 interviews included in this exhibit, about 36 were filmed for Eyes’ predecessor, a planned two-hour commercial television documentary, America, They Loved You Madly.
In 1978, in the wake of the critical and commercial success of the television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Hampton was approached by Capital Cities Communications, a media production company working with ABC. The popularity of Roots in the United States and abroad had convinced the network that there was a market for Black history on television.16
But America, They Loved You Madly never made it to air. After the Capital Cities executives saw the rough cut, they severed ties with Hampton. Else describes the screening as "by every account a disaster, a rambling patchwork of clips, amateurish dramatizations, stand-ups, interviews, title cards, and blank spots."17 Not only was the film not commercially viable, but it failed to live up to Hampton’s ambition.
The defeat was gutting for Hampton. Yet as Else notes, "If Henry had dragged America, They Loved You Madly over the finish line, a piece of well-meaning junk consigned to the 2 a.m. broadcast slot it surely deserved, he might well have spent the rest of his career as just another embittered B-list corporate/industrial filmmaker."18 For Else, the lessons Hampton learned from the disappointment of his first attempt to tell the civil rights story for television were critical for the success of Eyes on the Prize.
Eyes on the Prize: A Fledgling Start
The format of Eyes on the Prize evolved over time. In a March 10, 1980, letter to Eyes’ narrator, Julian Bond, the project’s research consultant, Judy Richardson, wrote that the series would be two hours long and divided into four half-hour segments.19 Ultimately, Eyes I would consist of six episodes running just under one hour each. After the filmmakers completed an initial 40-minute cut, series writer Steve Fayer drafted a detailed memo in which he concluded that the film "just does not make it." "It’s slow and almost totally intellectual (as opposed to emotional)," he wrote. "And it is, occasionally, boring. That, perhaps, is its greatest sin."20
Structure and Objectives
Hampton and his team ultimately succeeded in producing a narrative-driven documentary series in which the complex human drama at the center of the civil rights movement comes to the fore. They were able to do so, in part, thanks to Eyes I's straight-forward structure and clarity of focus, which allow its subject matter to take center stage.
Perhaps drawing on his experience as an instructional filmmaker, Hampton decided that Eyes on the Prize should tell the civil rights movement's story as clearly as possible. He argued that the movement's history was complex; documentary techniques like the use of nonlinear narrative would only confuse viewers and detract from the story. To avoid this, Hampton decided that Eyes on the Prize would consist of only four elements:
- Archival footage from the era
- Interviews with activists and others who were there during the struggle
- Fact-driven narration
- Contemporaneous music.21
History from Below: The southern civil rights movement was a movement forged by the people; it was a grassroots movement driven by the masses of protesters and participants.
The American Democratic Process: The movement succeeded with minimal loss of life because the United States is a constitutional democracy. African Americans in the South gained access to their rights as citizens through what Else describes as "a constant tug-of-war between federal, state, and local authorities."
The Role of Nonviolence: The strategic and tactical use of nonviolence was critical for the movement’s success.
Messy History: The organizations at the forefront of the movement had conflicting ideologies, divergent strategies, and, at times, competing goals and interests. They formed "an uneasy united front," Else writes. Segregationists were also divided. For Else, "this was the messiest part of the messy history."22
Civil Rights School
In preparing to make Eyes on the Prize, Hampton arranged for scholars, activists, and folk and gospel singers to come to the Blackside offices. From July 22 to August 22, 1985, they participated in what Hampton called "civil rights school," sharing their knowledge and experience of the movement with the Eyes I crew. "It was like going to grad school for free," Eyes filmmaker Kenneth Rabin has said.23 Each session was devoted to a different subject, ranging from broad topics, such as "the law," to specific campaigns, like the Montgomery bus boycott.
At civil rights school, Blackside filmmakers also learned about the expressive and visual culture of the era. One session focused on the music of the civil rights movement; folk singer Odetta spoke (and sang), as did Guy and Candie Carawan, who wrote the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome." The final session included screenings of TV news footage from the 1950s and ’60s provided by the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NBC News archives, and Rabin, who was series’ stock footage coordinator.
Eyes on the Prize aimed to provide the American viewing public—and in particular, those who were not alive during the era or were too young at the time to remember it—with knowledge of the civil rights past based on both first-hand accounts and the research of scholars. Eyes I is therefore indebted to the work of its academic advisors, including Clayborne Carson, David Garrow, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine, among others.24
Production Teams and Crew Biographies
During production, Hampton assembled three teams of interviewers, identified by the letters A, B, and C. Each team included one man and one woman, one Black and one white. According to Else, this was by design; Hampton wanted each team’s work to reflect its member’s divergent viewpoints, rooted in their different experiences. The "Blackside method" was a topic of debate within the company; not everyone approved of Hampton’s pluralist approach to team building. It was a strategy, however, that Blackside continued to use for the next ten years.25
Each team produced and directed two episodes of the series. This section of Freedom Song identifies which production units were responsible for which episodes. It also includes biographical details about Hampton, the members of each team, and other production personnel.
Team A: Judith Vecchione and Llewellyn Smith: Vecchione and Smith worked on episodes one and two, "Awakenings: 1954–1956" and "Fighting Back: 1957–1962," both produced and directed by Vecchione.
Judith Vecchione: Judith Vecchione joined Blackside in 1985 as senior series producer on Eyes I and was a consulting producer on Eyes II. Before joining Blackside, Vecchione won an Emmy and Red Ribbon Award for her work on the groundbreaking documentary series Vietnam: A Television History (1983). Vecchione’s work on Eyes on the Prize earned her two Emmys, the Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Gold Baton Award, and a George Foster Peabody Award, among other honors.
Llewellyn Smith: Lewellyn Smith was an associate producer on Eyes I. Before working on Eyes I, Smith produced several PBS series episodes, including Jazz: An American Classic (1979) and From Jump Street: The Story of Black Music (1980). After Eyes, Smith served as story editor on the PBS series The American Experience from 1987 to 1995. From 1995 to 1997, he was project director on the acclaimed series Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery (1998).
Team B: Orlando Bagwell and Prudence Arndt: Bagwell and Arndt were chiefly responsible for episodes three and five of Eyes I, "Ain’t Scared of Your Jails: 1960–1961" and "Mississippi: Is This America? 1962–1964," both produced and directed by Bagwell.
Orlando Bagwell: An activist and substitute teacher, Orlando Bagwell began his television career when he took a job as a camera assistant on a WGBH program about the Boston public schools busing crisis. Bagwell joined the team at Blackside in 1976. In 1988, he served as staff producer on the PBS series Frontline, and in 1989 he founded Roja Productions. His work on Eyes on the Prize earned him a George Foster Peabody Award and an Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award.
Prudence Arndt: In addition to serving as associate producer of "Ain’t Scared of Your Jails: 1960–1961" and "Mississippi: Is This America? 1962–1964," Prudence Arndt was Eyes I’s archival producer. Arndt has since worked as an archival producer for several award-winning documentary series, including Why We Fight (2005), Project Nim (2011), Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You (2013), Regarding Susan Sontag (2014), and Free to Run (2016).
Team C: Callie Crossley and James DeVinney: Team C was principally responsible for episodes four and six, "No Easy Walk: 1961–1963" and "Bridge to Freedom: 1965," both produced and directed by Crossley and DeVinney.
Callie Crossley: Callie Crossley came to Blackside in 1985 shortly after completing a Neiman Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University. Her role as producer on "Bridge to Freedom: 1965" earned her an Academy Award nomination, making her the first African American woman nominated in the Documentary Feature category. From 2010 to 2012, she hosted The Callie Crossley Show on WGBH-FM 98.7. Today, Crossley hosts the radio show Under the Radar with Callie Crossley.
James DeVinney: James DeVinney was a writer, director, and producer on "No Easy Walk: 1963–1965" and "Bridge to Freedom: 1965." Like Crossley, he received an Academy Award nomination for his work on "Bridge to Freedom: 1965." DeVinney subsequently worked on two episodes of Eyes II, "The Time Has Come: 1964–1966" and "Back to the Movement: 1979–mid-1980s." He has won four Emmys and four George Foster Peabody Awards, among other honors.
Additional Production Personnel
Henry Hampton, Executive Producer: Henry Hampton was the executive producer of Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965 and its sequel, Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965–1985. Two years after participating in the Selma to Montgomery march, Hampton established Blackside, Inc., a production company exploring "democracy, diversity, culture and civil society."26 Hampton and Blackside garnered seven Emmys and multiple George Foster Peabody Awards and Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Awards for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism. Hampton won a Career Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association in 1997.
Julian Bond: Julian Bond narrated both Eyes I and Eyes II. Bond had been on the frontlines of the southern civil rights struggle, helping to establish SNCC in 1960 and serving as its communications director. In 1971, Bond founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization. He served in both the Georgia House of Representatives and the Georgia State Senate, was the president of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and later became the NAACP’s national chairman. Bond also hosted the news program Black Forum from 1980 to 1997 and wrote a nationally-syndicated newspaper column, "Viewpoint."
Jon Else: Jon Else was Eyes I’s series senior producer and cinematographer; he also served as consulting series producer on Eyes II. Else has won many fellowships and awards, including a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, four Emmys, several Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University and George Foster Peabody Awards, the Prix Italia, the Sundance Special Jury Prize, and the Sundance Filmmaker’s Trophy. He is the author of True South: Henry Hampton and Eyes on the Prize, The Landmark Television Series That Reframed the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Viking, 2017).
Steve Fayer: Steve Fayer was series writer on both Eyes I and II, as well as head writer on America, They Loved You Madly. Fayer’s work on episode five of Eyes, "Mississippi: Is This America?" earned him an Emmy Award. He later collaborated with Hampton on the 1990 publication Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. In 2001, he received the Writers Guild of America Award for the documentary George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire (2000).
Judy Richardson: Hampton recruited Judy Richardson during the production of America, They Loved You Madly. Richardson had worked in the national offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and her involvement in the series helped persuade other activists of the legitimacy of Hampton’s project. Richardson was a research consultant on Eyes I and a series associate producer on Eyes II. She later directed and produced an award-winning episode of the PBS series The American Experience, "Malcolm X: Make It Plain" (1994). Richardson has received an Image Award for Vision and Excellence from the group Women in Film and Video.
Conclusion: Making Television History
Reflecting on the initial reception of Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, Callie Crossley recalled, "We started doing some small screenings around Boston. I thought people would like it, but I wasn’t prepared. And then it just started building from there. I realized, "Oh, this is going to be something!"27
Eyes on the Prize profoundly shaped Americans’ understanding of the civil rights past. Kenneth Rabin has said that it taught white America much of what it knows about the movement. "Even if it was 30 years ago now," Rabin stated, "I don’t think anyone who ever saw Eyes won’t know who John Lewis is."28 Eyes on the Prize did more than document the past; it changed the public conversation about the legacy and meaning of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s and, in the process, made television history.
Interviews by Episodes
Using this Section
This section lists the interviews that appear in each episode of Eyes I by subjects' last names. To learn more about the people Henry Hampton and his crew interviewed, go to A People’s History: Interview Subjects. All six episodes of Eyes I are available online at Kanopy: https://www.kanopy.com/product/eyes-prize.