I don’t typically pay much attention to the news on social media. There is so much to take in. However, a recent CNN headline caught my attention: “On This Day 55 Years Ago, America Finally Outlawed Segregation,” the date was July 2, 2019. It is a story worth talking about, honoring and celebrating.
On July 2, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. This act ended segregation in public places, ending Jim Crow laws and the principle of “separate but equal” that had, prior to that time been in effect primarily in the southern, formerly Confederate, states. While the signing of the Act by President Johnson was a landmark event, the struggle for equal rights did not end that day. There continued to be much resistance from white officials. As a result of that resistance, another great movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was about to occur in Selma, Ala. that would result in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
While there are numerous documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, none stand out to me like the epic documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” which originally aired on PBS in 1987. No other word explains this documentary better than “groundbreaking.” For the first time, film and firsthand accounts were brought together to tell the story of the Civil Right Movement in America. It was not told by scholars or historians, but by the actual people who were there, changing and experiencing history, often risking or sacrificing their lives. The documentary, which consists of 14 one-hour episodes, thoroughly covers the struggles and glory of the movement from the 1950s to the 1980s. It was a major achievement in television history.
The film was made primarily due to the persistence of a St Louis man named Henry Hampton. He was the founder of Blackside Incorporated, the largest minority-owned film company of the time. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, Hampton was an activist. After King put a call out to activists for national support, Hampton joined the human rights march in Selma in 1965. His inspiration came to him as he was marching on the now infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge. The moment he set foot on that bridge, he knew that someday he would tell the story and that the march, later known as “Bloody Sunday,” would be his driving force in the years to come.
“I was in Selma, and it was a story that at that point — literally it was the only time in my life that I’ve ever been prophetic — it was a moment when we were standing there on the bridge, the Pettus Bridge, in Selma. There were cameras buzzing overhead … the president and federal government in all its power was there. We had terrific villains. There was a man named Al Lingo, who was the head of the Alabama State Police, that most don’t remember. They remember George Wallace, but together they were a formidable opposition who were literally killing people, and I looked around and said to myself, not being a native Southerner, I looked around and said, ‘This could make a terrific movie,’ and put the idea away for 12 or 15 years … something fundamental changed in the country on that bridge and rarely do you get that kind of visual moment that confirms this massive shift in the way that people are going to feel about each other.” (quoted from an interview with Hampton conducted by Chris Lydon on March 31, 1994.
The making of the film was not a simple task. At the time it was highly controversial and sensitive. Afraid that if he waited until the film was fully funded it would never come to fruition, Hampton created and then released the first six episodes in 1985 and the next seven episodes in 1988.
While the documentary covers leaders such as King and Malcolm X, it details the movement at an even greater scale by focusing on the ordinary people who made took action locally, communicating to the public that change had to come from individuals making changes in their own communities. The film received more than 20 major awards and was nominated for an Academy Award. It continues to inspire a new generation of people to continue to cross other figurative bridges to clear the path forward in creating a more equal America.
I was fortunate to hear Hampton speak while I was a student at the State University of New York at Albany, nine years after the film’s release. He passed away three years later in 1998.
Individual extensive interviews from the documentary provided by the National Archives can be found at the Washington University, St Louis website at: digital.wustl.edu/eyesontheprize/browse.html.
I encourage you to view “Eyes On the Prize.” Also, check out the book “Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s,” written by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer.
To learn more about the incident at Selma watch the 2015 film “Selma.” For children I recommend the book “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March” by Lynda Blackmon Lowery. All items are available for loan through the Rampart Library District.
Michelle Harris the library director for the Rampart Library District. Contact her with questions or column ideas at 687-9281 or firstname.lastname@example.org.