Intro | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5
By: Rachel L. Martin
Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965), the documentary series that changed the public’s perception of the civil rights movement, debuted 30 years ago. In the lead-up to its premiere on PBS, some executives worried about airing the six-hour series. Would there be enough interest to justify giving it a prime-time slot? Today, the series is such a ubiquitous part of American culture that the sitcom Black-ish used it to frame jokes for an entire episode.
Documentary filmmaker Henry Hampton conceived of his epic, multi-episode account of the struggle for equality while standing with protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1967. He believed that America needed a better understanding of what the civil rights movement had accomplished, and what battles were left to fight. Hampton founded his film and media company, Blackside Inc., in 1968. It would take him almost 25 years to gather the team and the funding needed to bring to life the story he cared so deeply about.
By 1987, when Eyes on the Prize aired on PBS, many Americans thought the civil rights movement had been successful—and that its work was over. The courts had outlawed school desegregation. Congress had enshrined voting rights and other civil rights into law. But the country was at a turning point. Residential segregation was intensifying. White flight was accelerating, resegregating many of the nation’s schools. The war on drugs had targeted minority communities, disenfranchising the children of the protesters who had fought for the right to vote. The AIDS crisis was about to hit, and the disease would decimate minority communities in both urban and rural areas. Some activists were heading back to the streets.
Four days before the debut of Eyes, a contingent of about 80 protesters started marching from Cumming, Georgia, to the local county courthouse. They were led by the Reverend Hosea Williams, a veteran civil rights organizer. The small North Georgia community had been a hotbed of racist organizing. Popular opinion held that no African Americans had lived in the county since lynchings and riots had driven them out 75 years earlier. (In fact, the census reported that the town had one black resident in 1980.)
Rock-throwing opponents attacked the racially mixed group while they were still on their bus, busting several windows. Still, they marched. Another group of almost 500 white segregationists awaited them just a few miles down the road. The segregationists broke through the marchers’ police protection. Reverend Williams was hit in the head with a rock. Not long after, PBS viewers would tune in to Eyes on the Prize and see Reverend Williams lead another march that had ended in bloodshed: the showdown that had unfolded 20 years earlier, on the Edmond Pettus Bridge.
“I guess our courage came out because we didn’t have nothing, and we couldn’t lose nothing,” civil rights activist Unita Blackwell explains in the opening sequence of the first episode. “But we wanted something for ourselves and for our children. And so we took a chance with our lives.” With those words, Henry Hampton had viewers hooked.
Three decades later, his account of the black freedom struggle has transformed how students, scholars, journalists, politicians, and citizens understand American democracy. Today Eyes on the Prize remains vital and relevant—sometimes uncomfortably so. The same is true of the story of its creation.
This oral history is based on interviews with more than a dozen people who were involved in making Eyes on the Prize or whose work has been influenced by the series. Necessarily, their recollections are subjective, and this is not intended to be a comprehensive history.
For the movement song, see Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. For the album, see Eyes on the Prize (album).
Eyes on the Prize is an American television series and 14-part documentary about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The documentary originally aired on the PBS network and also aired in the United Kingdom on BBC2. Created and executive produced by Henry Hampton at the film production company Blackside and narrated by Julian Bond, the series uses archival footage, stills and interviews of participants and opponents of the movement. The title of the series is derived from the folk song "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," which is used in each episode as the opening theme music.
A total of 14 episodes of Eyes on the Prize were produced in two separate parts. The first part, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954–1965, chronicles the time period between the United States Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965. It consists of six episodes, which premiered on January 21, 1987 and concluded on February 25, 1987. The second part, Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965–1985, chronicles the time period between the national emergence of Malcolm X during 1964 to the 1983 election of Harold Washington as the first African-American mayor of Chicago. It consists of eight episodes, which aired on January 15, 1990 and ended on March 5, 1990, and was made widely available to educators on VHS tape. All 14 hours were re-released on DVD in 2006 by PBS.
The film originated as two sequential projects. Part one, six hours long, was shown on PBS in early 1987 as Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954–1965. Eight more hours were broadcast in 1990 as Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965–1985.
In 1992, it was released on home video (in VHS and Laserdisc). By the mid-1990s, both rebroadcasts and home video distribution were halted for several years due to expiration of rights and licenses of copyrighted archive footage, photographs and music used in the series and increasingly higher rates imposed by the copyright holders. Grants from the Ford Foundation and Gilder Foundation enabled Blackside and the rights clearance team to renew rights. While the return of Eyes on the Prize to public television and the educational market involved the contributions of many dedicated people, four individuals in particular were responsible for the long and complicated undertaking of rights renewals and the re-release of the series: Sandra Forman, Legal Counsel and Project Director; Cynthia Meagher Kuhn, Archivist and Rights Coordinator; Rena Kosersky, Music Supervisor; and Judi Hampton, President of Blackside and sister of Henry Hampton. None of the archival material in the fourteen hour documentary was removed or altered in any way. PBS rebroadcast the first six hours on American Experience on three consecutive Mondays in October 2006, and rebroadcast the second eight hours in February 2008. After a gap of almost eight years, Eyes on the Prize was rebroadcast on World Channel on fourteen consecutive Sundays beginning on January 17, 2016.
PBS reissued an educational version of the series in the fall of 2006, making it available on DVD for the first time. It is now available to educational institutions and libraries from PBS on seven DVDs or seven VHS tapes. A consumer version of part one (1954–1965) was released in March 2010.
The licensing issues from 1993 to 2006 generated what was called Eyes on the Screen, an effort to disseminate the series by file sharing networks without regard to copyright restrictions.
America's Civil Rights Years 1954–1965
America at the Racial Crossroads 1965–1985
The book Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965 was created as a companion volume to the series during post-production by the producers and publishing staff at Blackside, Inc. They were assisted by Juan Williams, a Washington Post journalist. First published by Viking Press in 1987, the book used a portion of the iconic photograph of the Selma to Montgomery march taken by Look magazine photographer James Karales on its cover.
The series has been hailed as more than just a historical document. Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University history professor and editor of the published papers of Martin Luther King Jr., said that "it is the principal film account of the most important American social justice movement of the 20th century". Because of its extensive use of primary sources and in-depth coverage of the material, it has been adopted as a key reference and record of the civil rights movement.
Episode six, Bridge to Freedom, produced by Callie Crossley and James A. DeVinney, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1988 during the 60th Academy Awards.
- Boucher, Norman (1990). "The Vision of Henry Hampton: Eyes on the Prize I and II". The World: Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association. 4 (1): 8–11.
- Carson, Clayborne (1991). The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990. Viking Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140154030.
- DeMarco, David (Summer 1987). "Keep Your Eyes on Henry Hampton, Creator Readies Eyes on the Prize". Black Film Review. 3 (3): 14–15.
- Else, Jon (2017). True South: Henry Hampton and Eyes on the Prize, the Landmark Television Series That Reframed the Civil Rights Movement. Penguin Publishing Group. ISBN 9781101980934.
- G'Schwind, James A. (1999). Eyes on the Prize: American Historiophoty in Documentary Film (Ph.D. dissertation). Indiana University. OCLC 56509312.
- Hadley, Elizabeth Amelia (1999). "Eyes on the Prize: Reclaiming Black Images, Culture, and History". In Klotman, Phyllis Rauch; Cutler, Janet K. Struggles for Representation: African American Documentary Film and Video. Indiana University Press. pp. 99–121. ISBN 9780253213471.
- Hampton, Henry; Fayer, Steve (2011). Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s. Random House Publishing Group. ISBN 9780307574183.
- ^Sheila Curran Bernard, "Eyes on the Rights - The Rising Cost of Putting History on Screen", Documentary Online Magazine, June 05 Issue, International Documentary Association. Retrieved 2009-10-28.
- ^Katie Dean, "Cash Rescues Eyes on the Prize", Wired.com, 08-30-2005. Retrieved 2008-02-21.
- ^A Special Presentation of American Experience: Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1985, PBS.org. Retrieved 2008-02-21.
- ^PBS News: PBS Celebrates Black History Month with an Extensive Lineup of Special Programming, PBS.org. Retrieved 2008-02-21.
- ^PBS Education - Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Movement DVD 7PK - AV Item
- ^"IMDb: Eyes on the Prize". IMDb. Retrieved 2008-11-19.