Eyes on the Prize

We recently finished watching Eyes On the Prize, a six-hour documentary on the civil rights era from the 1950s through 1965. It aired on PBS in the 80s; I have vague memories of hearing the title song when I was young.

It’s particularly captivating because it relies heavily on period video footage; you watch events unfold, rather than hear scholars talk about them. For this same reason the documentary was long out of print due to the difficulty and cost of securing rights to all of the various video clips.

It was finally reissued in 2010 and I picked it up on Amazon for a bargain price. (It’s also available from Netflix.)

I can’t recommend this documentary enough. It’s a potent reminder of our recent racial history; it’s a nuanced look at the interplay of politics, religion, and society; and it’s a profoundly moving true story of human bravery.

The struggle of southern blacks to obtain basic civil freedoms — such as the right to an education, the right to associate, the right to vote, and the right to be treated as equals in a society that had “liberated” them more than a hundred years prior — is heart-wrenching to observe. The bigotry, hatred, condescension, and small-mindedness of southern whites who viciously fought this movement is evident in raw period footage. At times it is difficult to watch: you cringe, for instance, as an old black preacher is beaten by a mob of young whites as he peacefully tries to walk away. But ignorance is not a satisfying alternative.

Segregation was not only socially entrenched, it was also politically institutionalized. Policemen, mayors, and governors openly expressed (and acted upon) the vilest sentiments as a matter of public policy — and received widespread popular support for doing so.

The starkest feature of this civil struggle is the unique historical position blacks held in southern society. The were not merely hated, they were humiliated. The had to fight centuries of inequality not just of rights but of percieved human value. Their non-violent tactics were brilliantly calculated to expose the moral shallowness of the southern ruling class, but actually acting upon those policies required immense courage. They were beaten, expelled, demeaned, jailed, rebuffed, and evicted time and again by their old white masters. They suffered degradation after degradation. They faced not only white citizens acting without accountability as the law looked the other way, but also the law itself, which actively and aggressively supported segregation.

They had no recourse but the conviction that the world at large would take notice of their plight, even though it had failed to do so for centuries. They had no weapon but the certitude that what they were doing was fundamentally right.

Nonviolence only succeeds in a larger context. In a closed environment, it can easily fail because the oppressors simply don’t care; it must engage a broader moral community. So the movement required a coordinated effort of public relations to complement its nonviolent action.

One of Eyes on the Prize’s greater successes is its exploration of this latter facet, for which Martin Luther King played a huge role. (He was obviously a great moral force for the former, as well.)

Dude could speak. His combination of flawless rhetorical skill and arresting delivery yielded a kind of godlike oratorical prowess. Eyes on the Prize has many clips of his famous speeches, and also of his lesser known interviews and engagements.

I say without exaggeration that he is quite possibly the best orator the modern world has seen. I found my heart catching in my throat nearly every time he spoke — an upwelling of emotion, not just from the powerful content of his words, but from a sense of wonder and gratitude, that this man, who clearly exists on some otherworldly plane of competence, is also a human, and shares DNA with the likes of me.

If all you can recall is “I Have a Dream”, the documentary is worth watching for Martin alone. Here is a powerful clip from his speech on the day before he was assassinated (not in Eyes on the Prize, but just a reminder):

There is an Eyes on the Prize II, which covers 1965 through the 1980s, but it hasn’t been re-released yet. As it is, though the series ends on a positive note (the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965) the overall arc is fundamentally disquieting. In the 1860s, slaves were freed by a federal order and a civil war, not by their owners’ choice. These erstwhile owners, still full of hatred, engaged in segregation and racism for a hundred years. In the 1960s, after an intense multi-decade battle, further freedoms were granted, but again they were issued by the courts and the federal government, not by the voluntary choice of (most) southern whites. Thought it might now be better hidden, racism persists today, and is all the more insidious for it. Eyes on the Prize is essential watching if you want to understand how that’s possible.

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