The fire hoses and police dogs. The Montgomery bus boycott. The march on Washington. You’ve probably seen scattered footage of these images, but no project ever connected pictures to context with the tenacity of “Eyes on the Prize.”
The 1987 PBS series brought the strategies and struggles of the civil rights movement to new generations worldwide. Now, after years of wrangling over copyright and licensing issues, “Eyes” is finally available on DVD for a new mass audience. (It was already available for educators.)
The six-hour series is a masterwork of visual storytelling and eyewitness recollection, spanning the events from the grisly murder of Emmett Till in 1955 to the marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. In between, we find heroes both famous and obscure, many bearing witness for the first time, others who died for the cause of equality.
For those who have seen “Eyes,” the DVD release is cause for rejoicing. For teens who can’t fathom water fountains and waiting rooms marked “colored” and “white,” it should be a jarring revelation of how far we’ve come in just the past half-century.
“The footage is always something that stuns kids who just can’t put that into place,” says Callie Crossley, a writer, director and producer on “Eyes” who now hosts the “Callie Crossley Show” on WBGH-FM in Boston. (Crossley also works at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, where I was a 2009 fellow.) “They’ve never been in a situation where they’ve seen these signs or seen this kind of nonviolent activity. You have to remind them that this is not ancient history.”
Crossley presents regularly on “Eyes” at colleges and universities, where her audiences often can’t believe what they’re seeing. “Most of them aren’t familiar with the material,” she says. “They just know two names: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.”
Parks and especially King play prominent roles in “Eyes,” which focuses on the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow South. (A second “Eyes” series, not yet available on DVD, heads north and into more complicated issues of what to do with newly earned rights.)
But the most powerful stories come from more anonymous figures.
Leo Lillard, a Nashville, Tenn., youth in the late ’50s and ’60s, recalls telling his mother that the water from the white and colored fountains tasted exactly the same. Ernest Green, one of the students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957, describes the endless maneuvering behind the act of finally walking through those doors. Some of the players were well-known in the movement but got short shrift in history books: Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, instrumental figures in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that tried to integrate the state’s delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, get to shine brightly.
Judi Hampton has multiple reasons to celebrate the DVD release. She is the sister of the late Henry Hampton, who made “Eyes” through his company, Blackside Inc.; as the current president of the company, she has worked tirelessly to renew expired licensing agreements for the music and footage that make up the series. “It’s been a long, hard road,” she says.
Hampton was also an active player in the movement. In the winter of 1964, before her sophomore year at Columbia University and after the murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi, she moved to the state to help register black voters.
“People shared their homes and their food with us because they supported what we were doing,” she says. “They gave us a place to stay and a place to meet. Local people, both black and white, were taking a lot of chances by supporting the civil rights movement.”
This may be the most salient and timeless fact of “Eyes on the Prize.” Yes, an enormous amount of strategy went into the civil rights movement. (Today we can accurately describe this as “community organizing.”) People also risked and gave their lives to ensure rights we take for granted — voting, eating with whomever you like, staying at whichever hotel strikes your fancy.
These rights are the legacy of the movement. “Eyes on the Prize,” 23 years after it aired, remains that legacy’s greatest visual document.