Books

Recalling ground-breaking documentary that reframed history of civil rights movement

Henry Hampton recording “Eyes on the Prize’’ vocals in 1986.
Henry Hampton recording “Eyes on the Prize’’ vocals in 1986.

When Henry Hampton first headed north to Boston in the early 1960s, the St. Louis native wasn’t yet sure what he wanted to do with his life, but he did know this: Maybe in a new city he could forget about being black for a while.

“Like James Baldwin going off to Paris,” he told his friend Jon Else, “it’s part of the black experience to want to be free of it.”

That’s not the way it worked out. The Boston that Hampton found was essentially a segregated city, one that would erupt in a busing crisis the following decade. But it was also a place for ambition, creativity, and radical reinvention. And Hampton took full advantage, founding a film production company called Blackside, which would produce a television landmark: “Eyes on the Prize,” a 14-hour documentary series that revised the history of the civil rights movement.

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It’s been nearly 20 years since Hampton died in 1998 at 58 of complications from lung cancer. Just as there had been a sense during the making of “Eyes on the Prize” that Hampton and his team were working against time to chronicle the civil rights era while many of the players were still around, the filmmakers involved in the project worried that their friend’s legacy might slip away.

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Now, however, on the program’s 30th anniversary the story behind Hampton’s achievement has been preserved in “True South: Henry Hampton and ‘Eyes on the Prize.’ the Landmark Television Series That Reframed the Civil Rights Movement,” a new book by Else, his onetime producing partner. The book testifies on behalf of the extraordinary vision of Hampton and the diverse team of young artists who came together under his leadership.

Jon Else (with sharecroppers near Toomsuba, Miss., in 1964), Henry Hampton’s onetime producing partner and author of “True South,” a book about Hampton and “Eyes on the Prize.”
David Crittenden
Jon Else (with sharecroppers near Toomsuba, Miss., in 1964), Henry Hampton’s onetime producing partner and author of “True South,” a book about Hampton and “Eyes on the Prize.”

Else, a veteran documentary maker and a professor in the University of California-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, was series producer on “Eyes on the Prize.” Speaking on the phone from the Sundance Film Festival, he says he kept Hampton’s lessons at the top of his mind while writing the book.

“Henry set an extraordinarily high bar for all of us, in all senses,” he says. “How to live life as a citizen, how to be ethical in journalism, and thorough in nonfiction filmmaking. I tried to hew to those same high standards.”

Hampton was schooled in the rigorous academic tradition of the Jesuits before attending college at Washington University. He marched in Selma, Ala., and, having contracted polio as a child, captained championship teams in a wheelchair basketball league. He could be by turns obstinate, indecisive, and inspirational.

Henry Hampton (center) marching in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
Thomas Adams Rothschild/Unitarian Universalist Association
Henry Hampton (center) marching in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
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“He could charm anyone,” recalls Laurie Kahn, a researcher on “Eyes on the Prize” who went on to become an acclaimed documentary producer herself, like so many of her fellow Blackside alums. “If you said no to him, he’d say, ‘Come on. Let’s go to lunch,’ and by the end of the lunch, he had you. It was unreal.”

When the first six hours of “Eyes on the Prize” premiered in 1987, it was revelatory. Americans knew about Martin Luther King Jr., but many were oblivious to the details of critical incidents, such as the brutal murder of Emmett Till. Twenty years after the civil rights gains of the 1960s, the heroic actions of thousands of black activists, leaders, and regular citizens had been forgotten in favor of a far simpler narrative involving a few charismatic leaders.

Hampton’s method? It was a straightforward “antistyle” — no reenactments, no commentators, only archival footage and interviews with people who’d actually been present at the episode in question. That unfiltered approach gave the series its unique power, says Else, who has gone on to make films on subjects ranging from the human impact on nature (“Cadillac Desert”) to a troubled big-city police department (“The Force,” his latest).

“Henry felt that Americans had little understanding of how the movement had been driven from below as much as from above,” he says. “It was not a matter of white folks coming in and rescuing oppressed black people, but of those people taking charge of their own destiny and forcing the nation to change.”

For Callie Crossley, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her work as a producer on the “Bridge to Freedom” episode, Else proved to be the right man for the job of securing Hampton’s legacy in a book.

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“He’s so highly respected among all of us,” says Crossley, known to local audiences as a longtime host of radio and TV programming for WGBH. Else’s “True South” captures Hampton’s best qualities as well as his most frustrating ones, she says with a laugh: “People will get a good sense of who he was — the stubborn genius visionary whose executive skills could sometimes be ‘less-than.’ ”

‘Henry [Hampton] set an extraordinarily high bar for all of us, in all senses.’

Just as the movement itself was often called “the struggle,” Blackside’s work on “Eyes on the Prize” was routinely fraught with difficulty. The project was chronically underfunded, and Hampton sometimes couldn’t pay the staff.

“People had to scrounge for their own furniture,” says Kahn. In the book, Else recalls one editor working under a tarp inside Blackside’s South End building to ward off the rain from a leaky roof. With bitter humor, they took to calling their workplace “Bleakside.”

In hindsight, however, all those 16-hour days made for the kind of unusual convergence that can seem magical to those who were involved. The collaboration at Blackside was like “our miniature version of the Bauhaus in 1925,” Else writes, “the Left Bank in 1930, Motown in ’65.”

“I feel extremely proud of the work we did with that series,” says Crossley. “People use it all around the world, and that is so exciting to me.”

“Eyes on the Prize” showed the world that the civil rights movement was shaped by many more people than just Dr. King and “a couple of mad-dog sheriffs,” as Else puts it: “They were just the tip of an enormous iceberg of courageous and dogged local organizers — cooks, maids, sharecroppers, janitors, professors.”

And, he might have added, a team of young filmmakers led by a man who exemplified the movement in his own way.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com and on Twitter @sullivanjames.