Eyes on the Prize

Executive Produced by Henry Hampton 1987. Documentary.

The greatest documentary series in PBS history (or television history, for that matter) does not belong to Ken Burns (though arguably he would easily place a couple in the top ten). It belongs to the 1987 production Eyes On the Prize. The term "television landmark" may get overused, but this story of America’s mid-century Civil Rights Movement truly deserves that distinction. Produced for PBS by a little-known production company called Blackside Inc., the series can be broken down into two seasons: the original six episode masterpiece Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 and then its less earth-shattering but still relevant follow-up Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965-1985 with eight episodes in 1980. With no credited director, it feels it like it directed itself, as if the world needed it and it sprang up (though Blackside founder Henry Hampton is credited as Executive Producer). The film is made up with talking heads of witness and historians and an avalanche of archival and news footage. There have been a number of significant documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, including two other PBS docs, Citizen King and Freedom Riders, as well as the Spike Lee directed 4 Little Girls, but Eyes on the Prize is the official starting point, the all-encompassing encyclopedia on the subject.

Though there was an accompanying Eyes on the Prize book, the more in depth paper version would be Taylor Branch’s extra thick “America in the King Years” trilogy of histories. Like a book, Eyes on the Prize is made up of chapters (episodes) that unfold, building on each other and creating suspense and outrage. The first chapter, "Awakenings," is where the modern movement started with the Montgomery bus boycott (which in turn introduced the world to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.) and the murder of a young boy, Emmett Till, which stirred the conscious of so many. Episode Two, "Fighting Back," takes place after the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the battle of Southern school integration. Episode Three, "Ain’t Scared Of Your Jails," details the student takeover of the movement with their creation of The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the lunch counter sits-ins and the freedom rides. Episode Four, "No Easy Walk," sees King back in the leadership position as marches in Albany and Birmingham are finally met with the historic March on Washington. Episode Five, "Mississippi: Is This America?," focuses on activists trying to bring voting rights to the state; with the murder of the three civil rights workers and the assassination of Medgar Evers, peaceful activists are met with extreme violence. And finally "Bridge To Freedom," after King wins the Nobel Peace Prize, the fight moves to the streets of Selma and the back rooms of Washington, DC with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 19, 2015 11:32am

Freedom Riders

Dir: Stanley Nelson, 2010. Documentaries.

After the success of student lunch counter sit-ins, anti-segregation forces, led by a little know group called CORE (Committee of Racial Equality), decided to push the envelope in an attempt to secure their rights and bring attention to the discrimination of black Americans in the psychotically racist American South. PBS’s American Experience does it again! Freedom Riders is another historical masterpiece; with spectacular archive footage and engaging talking heads, director Stanley Nelson perfectly lays out this dangerous and complicated story. Along with the epic Eyes on the Prize, Freedom Riders is essential viewing for anyone interested in the civil rights movement or just a fascinating and entertaining slice of brutal American history.

In a post-World War II America, blacks were experiencing new gains both economically and socially in much of the country. By the mid-'50s the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education brought a new promise for equal rights in schools, but the South was doing everything it could to stifle integration in education leading to a number of famous conflicts. In Montgomery a young pastor named Martin Luther King became an international superstar of peace leading their city’s bus boycotts. By 1960 black Southern college students took up the call first in Greensboro and then Nashville, doing lunch counter sit-ins to desegregate the powerful downtown department store restaurants. This all led to a discussion by a bi-racial Northern group called CORE to test the limits of a federal order to desegregate interstate bus travel including Southern bus station waiting rooms, cafeterias, and bathrooms that still had signs declaring “white” and “colored.” The South was not going to let the Federal Government tell them to change their culture and Kennedy’s White House had no interest in getting involved and alienating Southern white Democrats. 

CORE’s leader James Farmer put together a motley mixed-race, mixed-sex crew of pacifists, liberals, and college students (including Nashville student sit-in veteran John Lewis, who would become one of the movement’s most visible leaders) to test the laws.  Mixed-race groups, known as Freedom Riders, would sit together on the buses (illegal in most of the South) and then test the limits of the restroom racial laws. They put two groups on two buses setting out from Washington, DC heading to New Orleans. They would travel through the milder Eastern South and then hit Alabama and Mississippi, two quasi-police states, where violence against activists was sanctioned by all levels of their state governments. If any violence came to them, they hoped that it would force Washington to enforce federal laws.

As soon as the buses hit Alabama the violence ignited. One bus was burned down as the passengers were attacked out on a country road. The other bus arrived in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders were attacked by a massive mob out for blood. Even a Kennedy Administration official, John Seigenthaler, (who was keeping tabs on the riders) was attacked and ended up in a hospital after getting hit by a pipe. The beaten, bruised, and defeated Freedom Riders eventually were taken by plane out of Alabama as no bus driver would drive them, fearing more violence (their airplane was threatened by bomb threats delaying their journey even longer). 

As it began to look as though extreme violence was the only way to stop the movement, Lewis and his Nashville colleagues, lead by the courageous Diane Nash, came down to Birmingham and took over the Freedom Rides, bringing an even bigger spotlight to the action and an even bigger threat of violence to the new recruits. They wanted the country to know that no matter how much pain was inflicted, the movement couldn’t be stopped. Martin Luther King, The Kennedys, Alabama Governor John Patterson, and the state military all became players in an ever growing story. They saw the jails fill up as more and more people came south to join the Freedom Ride and eventually brought an end to Jim Crow for interstate bus travelers.

The Freedom Riders may be the single top accomplishment for the fledgling Civil Rights Movement. It’s about the last time that a quick direct action would pull the nation together and force the government to act. The next few years would see the movement change its focus to voter rights in the South. It would be a long-suffering struggle that depended on a slow bureaucratic process to create and enact new laws culminating in a more symbolic than actual accomplishment. The Freedom Rides also created a new generation of full-time activists who were no longer afraid of going to jail in the name of human rights. The young people spread out with the creation of their own organization, SNCC, which continued to train students in activism. This is where many of the anti-Vietnam War leaders first got a taste of rebellion and America would never be the same.

The PBS American Experience series of documentaries, most available on DVD, has become the best archive of 20th century American life and Freedom Riders is no exception. All the available witnesses and performers in this real-life drama are present on camera to reflect and tell their side of history. These include Farmer, Lewis, Nash, Seigenthaler, and even Patterson who, in an effort to cover his own diabolical politics, now seems to claim that segregation was not about race or racism, but was instead a state’s rights issue. It should be stressed that watching Freedom Riders is not a dull homework assignment but an enjoyable fast ride—a ride I would recommend and urge everyone to take.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 15, 2011 4:08pm

Michael Jackson Number Ones

Dir: Various, 2003. Starring: Michael Jackson. Music.

After Michael Jackson's tragic death, it was interesting to hear about young kids who were exposed to him for the first time (no pun intended). The magic of his personality and performances, as well as the simplicity of his music was easy enough for another generation to grasp and embrace. Like The Beatles, Jackson potentially is an artist who will be able to find a new audience starting with the very young for decades to come. Though I would argue that while The Beatles may have two dozen or more songs that are still considered standards, MJ only has five or six tops.

The DVD Number Ones, which has 15 Michael Jackson music videos, may not be enough for the hardcore Michael Jackson fan. I'm sure they could complain about what's missing (mercifully we are spared those songs he did with Paul McCartney, but it's also missing "Scream" with Janet Jackson and "Remember The Time" with Magic Johnson at his most magical). The DVD has no extras, no frills, just an easy menu that says, "play all."

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 9, 2010 6:15pm
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