Freedom Song: Interviews from Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965
Eyes I tells the story of how Black civil rights organizations with competing ideologies and methods formed a united front in the fight for racial justice. Although personal reflection is at the heart of Eyes, for Hampton, the civil rights movement was not forged by individuals in isolation, but by people working together toward common goals.
The Blackside crew interviewed organizational activists from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), among other groups. Some of the people they interviewed were prominent within the movement, such as Fred Shuttlesworth of SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC. Others were not as widely known, and their names are probably unfamiliar to most readers today. One of these men was Rufus Lewis, who established the East Montgomery branch of the NAACP. Lewis was also a founding member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which helped organize the historic Montgomery bus boycott.
For Hampton, the uneasy alliance of these groups was an integral part of the civil rights story. Eyes on the Prize doesn’t gloss over the disagreements between them; it teases out their details, plumbing what Jon Else calls the "messy history" of the movement. A generational gulf separated the students of SNCC from some of the older, more staid members of the NAACP; SNCC and CORE members often opposed the SCLC's tactics. And, of course, there were debates and disagreements within groups too. One subject these groups disagreed on was the role of nonviolence in the movement.
Differences of Opinion on the Role of Nonviolence
For many civil rights activists, nonviolence was a moral imperative and the foundational principle of the movement. For others, it was a tactic—or rather, a series of tactics, including boycotts, sit-ins, and other forms of direct action—for confronting a powerful adversary like the segregationist state. American civil rights activists were particularly indebted to the form of nonviolence practiced by Mohandas Gandhi in his civil resistance to British rule in India.57
In her interview, Diane Nash credits James Lawson with importing Gandhian nonviolence to the United States; Bayard Rustin and others also taught nonviolent civil disobedience to movement activists and leaders.58 In Fred Shuttlesworth’s interview, he suggests that the principle of nonviolence resonated with Christian pacifism, speaking powerfully to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s congregants in Montgomery, where he was a pastor. Discussing King’s articulation of the principle of nonviolence, Shuttlesworth says, "Dr. King spoke with a new voice. Not only was it a new movement, but it was a new voice, that you must love, you must not hate. The people who hate, or who act like they hate you, you must [love], and the best thing to make out of your enemy is a friend."
Not all activists ascribed to the philosophy of nonviolence, however. As SNCC member Hollis Watkins told Orlando Bagwell, "As far as the nonviolent question, most of the people from Mississippi never really accepted nonviolence. You know, we went along with it being a proper tactic at different times here and there, but as far as really accepting it then, none of us really accepted that."
For Watkins, nonviolence was not a deeply-felt principle, and he did not think it was useful in all circumstances. SNCC field organizer Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) voices a similar view. In his interview, he tells Judith Vecchione about a time when he and local businessman and activist Amzie Moore were being followed in Cleveland, Mississippi. Fearing for their safety, Carmichael was reassured to learn that Moore had a gun with him, concealed in a brown paper bag. CORE member Dave Dennis describes civil rights leader Medgar Evers as "not a nonviolent person," noting that he carried a gun in the trunk of his car for self-defense. And as discussed in Women of the Southern Civil Rights Era, in his interview, NAACP leader Robert Williams describes the moment he lost faith in the criminal justice system and his resolve to meet white racial terror with violence. Clearly, some movement activists understood the use of violence as undesirable but necessary for survival.
Despite their differences, civil rights groups shared a common goal: the dismantling of Jim Crow and other forms of systemic racial inequality. This is why they created the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella group temporarily established in 1961 and reinstated in 1962 by the NAACP, SCLC, and CORE. In his interview, SNCC field secretary Ivanhoe Donaldson argues that what the media identified as conflicts between organizations were, in fact, merely differences in approach. "SNCC tended to be to the left, as was CORE. NAACP tended to be to the right. But this was a complementary struggle not orchestrated by the leadership, but it’s the nature of struggle in and of itself." Donaldson says the group's differences "blended into a complementary struggle of what became—what is or was then the civil rights movement."
This section identifies activists affiliated with CORE, the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC. These were not the only groups active in the movement; many others—from the Women’s Political Council to the Lowndes County Freedom Organization-were also engaged in the fight. These four groups, however, are the ones best represented in Eyes I and the interviews.
Civil rights groups organized marches, voter registration drives, and demonstrations. This section identifies interviewees' roles in various campaigns, but it focuses on two: the sit-in movement, which helped give rise to SNCC, and the Freedom Rides, chiefly organized by CORE. Sit-in activists requested service at whites-only lunch counters to fight discrimination in department stores and other public spaces. The Freedom Riders traveled in integrated groups on commercial buses to challenge segregation in interstate bus travel and bus station waiting areas.59 The exhibit addresses other important battles in the civil rights struggle in other sections, including the Montgomery bus boycott (Economic and Labor Activists and the Business Community) and the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (Students and Educators, Litigators and De-Segregators).
The following lists identify interview subjects with the groups in which they were most active. Some of the interviewees assumed prominent positions in these groups after 1965; however, they are only identified here by their roles between 1954 and 1965, the period covered by Eyes I.
Dave Dennis: CORE assistant program director; participated in the Freedom Ride from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, that began May 24, 1961, and a demonstration in a Trailways terminal on August 4, 1961
Annie Devine: Active in CORE’s voter registration efforts in Mississippi
Wyatt Tee Walker: Helped co-found a chapter of CORE; took part in the sit-in in the Trailways terminal in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 25, 1961, and the June 21 Freedom Ride from Montgomery to Jackson (see also SCLC)
James Farmer: CORE co-founder and architect of the 1961 CORE Freedom Rides
Lawrence Guyot: CORE project director
James Peck: CORE member; participated in the Journey of Reconciliation or "first Freedom Ride" in 1947; leader during the Freedom Ride from Washington, DC, to New Orleans, Louisiana, that began May 4, 1961
Bayard Rustin: Organized the Journey of Reconciliation, or "first Freedom Ride" in 1947, setting a precedent for the Freedom Rides of the 1960s, which he helped CORE organize (see also SCLC)
William Coleman: Attorney, LDF; although he did not participate, Coleman defended the rights of the Freedom Riders in court
Myrlie Evers: Wife and secretary of NAACP chapter field secretary Medgar Evers; later chairwoman of the NAACP
Amzie Moore: NAACP chapter president; vice president of the state conferences of NAACP branches
E. D. Nixon: Montgomery, Alabama, NAACP chapter president during the Montgomery bus boycott
Rosa Parks: Secretary to E. D. Nixon, who was Montgomery, Alabama’s NAACP chapter president
Joseph Rauh: NAACP executive board member
Arthur Shores: Attorney who worked with the NAACP on several desegregation cases
Fred Shuttlesworth: Membership chair of the Alabama chapter of the NAACP until 1956
Robert Williams: President, Monroe NAACP chapter, 1950s to 1961; assisted the Freedom Riders during a stop in North Carolina
Ralph Abernathy: SCLC co-founder, executive board member, and president following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination
James Bevel: SCLC director of direct action; as chairman of the Nashville student movement, was a participant in and organizer of the Freedom Rides
Coretta Scott King: Assisted in the SCLC’s administration and fundraising efforts; wife of SCLC co-founder and first president, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Bayard Rustin: SCLC organizer; organized the Journey of Reconciliation, or "first Freedom Ride" in 1947, setting a precedent for the Freedom Rides of the 1960s
Fred Shuttlesworth: SCLC co-founder and fifth president; took part in the sit-in in the Trailways terminal in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 25, 1961
Albert Turner: SCLC Alabama field secretary
C. T. Vivian: SCLC executive staff member; helped coordinate the Nashville sit-ins and boycotts; Freedom Rider who continued the journey that started in Montgomery from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi
Wyatt Tee Walker: SCLC board member; executive director, 1961 to 1964; Took part in the sit-in at the Trailways terminal in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 25, 1961, and the June 21 Freedom Ride from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi
Andrew Young: SCLC executive director, 1964
Victoria Gray Adams: SNCC field secretary
Marion Barry: SNCC’s first chairman; was instrumental in organizing the sit-ins in Nashville and the Freedom Rides
Unita Blackwell: SNCC project director
Amelia Boynton Robinson: SNCC supporter
Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture): SNCC field organizer; participated in the Freedom Ride from Jackson, Mississippi, to New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 4, 1961
Courtland Cox: Nonviolent Action Group representative on SNCC Coordinating Council; organizer
Ivanhoe Donaldson: SNCC field secretary
James Forman: Executive secretary for SNCC from 1961 to 1966; participated in the Monroe, North Carolina, ride that began August 17, 1961, the Trailways station demonstration on November 1, 1961, and the ride from Atlanta to Albany, Georgia, that began December 10, 1961
James Lawson: Mentor to students in SNCC; leader during the Nashville sit-ins and helped organize and participated in the Freedom Rides
John Lewis (1979) and (1985): SNCC chairman; leader in the Nashville sit-in movement and one of the first thirteen Freedom Riders who traveled from Washington, DC, to New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 4, 1961
Kwame Leo Lillard: SNCC organizer, Nashville movement office; leader in the Nashville sit-in movement and assisted in the Freedom Rides
Robert Moses: SNCC field secretary and director of the Mississippi Project; one of the leaders of the Freedom Summer project
Diane Nash: SNCC co-founder; leader in the Nashville sit-in movement and helped organize the Freedom Rides
Peter Orris: SNCC activist, participant in the Freedom Summer project
Bernice Johnson Reagon: SNCC field secretary and member of the Freedom Singers; participated in the sit-ins
Hollis Watkins: SNCC member and Freedom Summer organizer; jailed for his participation in a sit-in in Mississippi