'Eyes on the Prize' Returns to PBS After years of legal disputes over copyrights on archival film footage, the landmark six-part documentary series on the Civil Rights Movement that first aired 20 years ago returns to public television beginning Monday night.
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'Eyes on the Prize' Returns to PBS

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'Eyes on the Prize' Returns to PBS

'Eyes on the Prize' Returns to PBS

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I know the one thing we did right was the day we decided to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on. Hold on.

CHIDEYA: Eyes On The Prize is back. The documentary that enthralled the nation almost 20 years ago returns to public television tonight. The six-part series captures the birth of the civil rights era from Emmitt Till's murder to the march on Washington.

Eyes On The Prize hasn't been shown since 1993. It's been stuck in a mire of expired copyrights. But when the film's creator, Henry Hampton, died in 1998, his sister Judith dedicated herself to bringing Henry's masterwork back to the small screen.

For more we're joined by Judi Hampton, now president of her brother's film company, Blackside; and Callie Crossley, one of the film's original producers. She's now on a commentator on Beat The Press, a Boston-based television show and of course on the Roundtable for NEWS & NOTES. Both are at Harvard University's studios.

Welcome to you both.

Ms. JUDI HAMPTON (President, Blackside, Inc.): Hi.

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Producer, Eyes on the Prize): Hi. Good morning.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Well, you know, Judi, let me start with you. Why has it taken so long to bring Eyes On The Prize back to the small screen?

Ms. HAMPTON: Well, we had to raise funds to do it. It takes a considerable amount of time and skill and money to clear the rights, and we had a whole team of people who are involved in doing that. I certainly wanted it to happen but we had some people like Callie who really worked on the series originally come back and give of their time to get this done.

Here in Boston, Sandra Forman and a whole group of people worked on getting the series back. So it took people and money and a dedication from a lot of people.

CHIDEYA: Callie, explain to us in more detail what exactly happened to the rights to the film and why it got into this snafu and how you guys pulled it out.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, as you - many of people may not know that documentaries still make a lot of money. And so you go into it understanding that you're working on a limited budget just to get it done. And so what you want to do is to clear the rights for music, for certain kinds of pictures, for certain kinds of archival footage for as small a period of time as you can because it's quite expensive. So, you know, in any documentary series you have maybe five, you know, 10 years if you're lucky, worth of cleared rights. And when that time comes up, then you have got to what we call re-up the rights and pay for it again.

Remember now when we were doing Eyes On The Prize, Blackside Inc. was a non-entity to most folks out here. We knew that we were doing important work and we were gratified that others found, after we produced it and it aired, that it was a work of some note and some legacy.

So now everybody knows what it is. So imagine trying to go back to clear the rights when you're a known entity and folks want more money for those pictures, for that archival footage and for that music, particularly. It just is an expensive proposition.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. And, Judi, back to you. You yourself were a freedom worker. You lived in a freedom house registering voters. What does this film mean to you personally both because your brother created the project but also because of your own links to history?

Ms. HAMPTON: Well, it resonates with me personally because I'm a teacher now and I got my real training in the movement. It also resonates with me because it was a real awakening for me, personally. I was sort of a, you know, middle-class kid in St. Louis. I certainly was not poor. Suddenly I was in Madison County, Mississippi, where people would risk their lives to support something. So it really taught me a lot about humility and sacrifice that I just didn't connect to before that time. One - please.

CHIDEYA: No, go ahead.

Ms. HAMPTON: I was just going to say on the rights situation, I think it's incredible that we did not have to take anything out of Eyes. And again because of this team and people like Callie we were able to get the rights renewed. So that means if there's no substitute footage in this. This is exactly as the show was aired, which I think is incredible.

CHIDEYA: Well, what's also incredible is the way that you were able to dig up historical audio and video. I want us to just take a listen to this grainy audiotape of a speech that catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to stardom.

(Soundbite of Martin Luther King, Jr. speech)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Political Activist, Leader of Civil Rights Movement): If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Dr. KING, JR.: If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Dr. KING, JR.: If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.

(Soundbite of clapping)

CHIDEYA: Callie, how did your producers come across that tape, your fellow producers?

Ms. CROSSLEY: This is from the show, Awakenings, the first show in the series, in the six-hour series produced by Judith Vecchione and by Lou Smith(ph). Lou Smith was an associate producer on it and he tracked down the one guy who, as a hobby, would record audio at various meetings, but his real job was to take pictures for the black press.

And so he had recorded this audio. Remember, at that time this was 25-year-old Martin Luther King, not capital letters Martin Luther King, Jr. Nobody knew who he was. He was just catapulted to the front because he was the only guy that said okay, well, I'll lead this session. It was all in turmoil. He was nothing. He was just coming to Montgomery to lead his own little church. That was going to be his life.

And so the guy recorded this thinking this is a 25-year-old young guy and I'd like to have maybe some audio from this, and that was that. It was tucked away in his house for years. Lou Smith tracked him down. He found out he had it. I got him to agree to allow us to use it. Great.

Fast forward a few months from now, Lou calls back to get all the arrangements made and his wife answers the phone and says who are you and what are you talking about? This is the day of the funeral for my husband. And so we -needless to say, we're devastated. So Lou offered condolences and then said well, you know, would you think about this, this is really - we're trying to make a historic document here.

And she did and agreed to allow us to use it. So because of that these are the words that nobody else knew. I mean various people could try to remember, well he said this or said that, but you know what that's like, that's hearsay. This is the actual recording.

Later on, when CBS decided to do a docudrama, and the actor who played Martin Luther King was actually able to say these words because we had the actual recording.

And there are many instances throughout the series where we have uncovered footage, audio, stuff that has just not been seen before. So it's a wonderful historic document on so many levels.

CHIDEYA: Judi, tell me about your brother. He's someone who started this project back when he had no money. He went on faith that he would find the funds and the resources to make this happen. Tell us about him and then also now about your involvement in Blackside.

Ms. HAMPTON: Well, with Henry I think one of the things that made this resonate with him, as you probably know, Henry got polio in high school. And I remember him saying that before that he was not as connected to - compassionate about understanding of people who are not accepted in this society to put it rather bluntly.

And Eyes for him was not only recording history, which he saw when he was on the Pettus Bridge with that group that so courageously large, but it was a personal triumph for him to be able to show how individuals - with due respect to our leaders, Dr. King and others - this is about the individual person, like the person listening to this. Nobody knows their name. They just took incredible risks to get something. And that's why I think it's inspiring to look at it over and over again. And as far as Blackside is concerned, I think at the moment my big focus is on the team of people who helped us bring this back.

We have an archivist, Cindy Kuhn, who knows every inch of Eyes. Sandy Foreman, I mentioned, who ran the team and came in when I was just so discouraged about trying to get it back on the air. We have Alison Bassett and Rena Kosersky. These people came along - Judy Richardson. Judy offered her time without any pay to do and help get this series back.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's listen to another moment from your series, an interview with Melba Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine.

(Soundbite of documentary, Eyes on the Prize)

Ms. MELBA BEALS (Member, Little Rock Nine): The mob was getting past the wooden saw horses, because the policeman would no longer fight their own in order to keep - to protect us. And so someone made a suggestion that if they allowed the mob to hang one kid, they could then get the rest out.

(Soundbite of mob of people)

Ms. BEALS: And a gentleman, who I believed to be the assistant chief of police, said: How are you going to choose? Are you going to let them draw straws? He said: I'll get them out. And we were taken to the basement of this place, and we were put into two cars - grayish, blue-colored Fords - and the man instructed them. He said once you start driving, do not stop.

CHIDEYA: Callie, having worked on so much of this film, how do you think making it available today will affect the generations who are young today and future generations who may not have any personal experience with what's going on?

Ms. CROSSLEY: I think it's so helpful for them to see that these are real people. Judi mentioned the nameless, faceless others. A lot of people didn't know Melba, either. She's one of the Little Rock Nine. And the thing about Eyes on the Prize that I like to repeat over and over again: We enter the history through the lives of real people. It is not history like oh God, I'm going to go to sleep now, I'm so bored with the thought.

This is exciting, real stuff that happened right here in this country. I'm not that old, but this stuff was happening. So it changed my life in a seminal way. And so if you can get people in front of the screen to see it, they will see persons like themselves. And they're not all adults, by the way. All of Birmingham is really a child's story. It's about the children marching. It's about teenagers understanding what was at stake for them.

And so when you can see that these were organized groups of teenagers, organizing for a common good in a non-violent way and changing the face of this country, I mean, that's pretty powerful stuff. So I think when I travel around on college campuses and students say to me well, we're all apathetic, and we just don't have any interest, and this and that - I think inspiring to see that with a lot fewer resources than they have today, these kids were out front and center - believing, committed determined, and those are the kinds of real stories that just can't help to fire you up and get you excited.

CHIDEYA: Well, we're just going to have to leave it right there. Callie Crossley, one of the film's original producers, now a commentator on Beat the Press, a Boston-based television show and NEWS & NOTES. Judith Hampton is the president of the documentary film company Blackside, which produced Eyes on the Prize. Both joined us from the studios of Harvard University. Again, Eyes on the Prize returns to public television tonight. To see clips from the film, go to npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, with the mid-term elections a month away, what will Congressman Mark Foley's e-mails do to the Republican party? And historically black colleges are a booming business for the city of Atlanta. We'll discuss these and other topics on our Roundtable, next.

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