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"Eyes on the Prize" is getting new life. The 14-part documentary was held as a masterful examination of the American civil rights movement when the series first aired in 1987. But it has been illegal to broadcast "Eyes on the Prize," or even show it in classrooms, since 1993. That's because the movie is filled with copyrighted material whose licensing needs to be renewed. Well, now the Ford Foundation and a wealthy philanthropist have stepped up to help. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

If you were in school or tuned to public television anywhere in America between 1987 and 1993, you probably saw at least part of "Eyes on the Prize."

(Soundbite of "Eyes on the Prize")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I know the one thing we did right...

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Right, hey...

Unidentified Woman and Chorus: (Singing in unison) ...was the day we start to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize. Oh, Lord.

ULABY: The film spans 30 years of the civil rights movement, from the Montgomery bus boycotts to the rise of black mayors in the 1980s. Henry Louis Gates Jr. heads the African and African-American Studies Department at Harvard University.

Mr. HENRY LOUIS GATES Jr. (Harvard University): "Eyes on the Prize" is the most sophisticated and most poignant documentary of African-American history ever made. It should be shown in every school once a year. Every American can see it. It's a fantastic documentary.

ULABY: Part of the film's power is how deeply it takes viewers into the movement's heart. While wrenching footage shows people facing water cannons and police dogs, "Eyes on the Prize" also focused on the intimacy of the heroes' lives. In one episode, Martin Luther King Jr.'s staff celebrates his 39th birthday.

(Soundbite of "Eyes on the Prize")

Unidentified Man: Now some folks celebrate Abraham Lincoln, but we gonna celebrate Martin Luther King's day today. Don't let him out of here.

Group of People: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday...

ULABY: "Happy Birthday" is under copyrights, and the filmmakers' permission to use it lapsed.

Ms. SANDY FORMAN (Blackside): There are approximately 120 song titles in the series that require clearance.

ULABY: Sandy Forman is an attorney for Blackside, the production house that made "Eyes on the Prize." She is now its project manager, and she says permission to use hundreds of songs, photographs and archival footage has lapsed. Forman says when director Henry Hampton was making the film, Blackside was a small production house that could not afford to license material for the long term.

Ms. FORMAN: There were attempts to license, I think, all of the rights in perpetuity. Rights holders are not inclined to license those rights, particularly music publishers.

ULABY: When Henry Hampton died in 1998, he left Blackside to his two sisters. The business fell into disarray and was unable to maintain rights payments. So the anti-copyright group Downhill Battle organized illegal screenings. Then Henry Louis Gates Jr. contacted businessman Richard Gilder. Gilder is a conservative philanthropist with an interest in American history. He committed $250,000. The Ford Foundation followed with a grant of $600,000. Sandy Forman says that will help pay rights to get "Eyes on the Prize" back on screens.

Ms. FORMAN: It's not for home video. We can't afford rights for home video.

ULABY: Forman is negotiating to get "Eyes on the Prize" into classrooms and on television by next year. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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