Julian Bond, Civil Rights Activist and “Eyes on the Prize” narrator, dies at 75

17 Aug
Julian Bond with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Atlanta, 1963.

Julian Bond with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Atlanta, 1963. Photo by Richard Avedon.

Julian Bond, civil rights activist and “Eyes on the Prize” narrator, has died at 75. Bond was present at the start of the civil rights movement during the 1960s as a co-founder and communications director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He participated in many early campaigns and voter registration drives in rural Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. He entered politics in his twenties and was elected to four terms as a Representative in Georgia, and later served six terms in the Georgia Senate. He was also chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1998 to 2010 and was the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Julian Bond was the narrator of the series Eyes on the Prize for all fourteen episodes. After Henry Hampton’s death Bond was a champion of Hampton’s work and the Film & Media Archive where all the materials that went into making Eyes on the Prize are housed. When the Film Archive opened to the public in 2002, Bond delivered the keynote address and spoke about Hampton’s original plan to have an onscreen narrator,

I was to be the on-screen narrator, describing movement scenes for a viewing audience as archival film and interviews with participants carried the story forward. And so we went to Montgomery, Alabama, and Henry poised me in the balcony of the Holt Street Baptist Church, where on December 5, 1955, at the first meeting of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King made his first-ever civil rights speech. And we traveled to Selma, and in the early morning mist, I stood at the apex of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and intoned, in my best and deepest television voice, the words Henry had given me. And then we went to Money, Mississippi, and I stood on the Tallahatchie River banks at the spot where Emmett Till’s body had been discovered, and I did a stand-up in front of the store where young Till had sealed his fate by saying “Bye, baby” to the wife of the storekeeper. And as I stood there, my back to the road, pickup trucks with shotguns in their windows rolled slowly by and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up. But I remember thinking, “This is going to be great. And I’m going to be the person that introduces viewers to all this drama. I’m going to be the person who serves as master of ceremonies on the great stage where twentieth century America’s greatest and most exciting dramas will unfold. Everybody’s going to see me.” Well, that project didn’t succeed. –Julian Bond, Keynote Address, September 20, 2002 – Washington University

After the initial project fell through, Hampton re-grouped and the next time he approached Bond about being the narrator,

He told me the on-screen narration did not work. The on-screen narrator would intrude between the viewer and the images and the sounds. It would be the narrator’s story, and not the story of the women and men who made the movie. And he knew exactly how to get me to agree. He told me that I often appeared in some of the archival film that they’d rescued from the basements and wastebaskets of television stations, but as the narrator I couldn’t appear both on-screen and off-screen. Instead, I’d have to be an off-screen presence and my image would never appear. And Henry told me I had a choice. I could have my image appear for fleeting seconds in one or two of the hours of the series or I could have my voice appear in all. Well, it was easy to agree. And of course he was right. No one could have appeared on-screen in this series without serving as a major distraction from the story, because for Henry the story was paramount. —-Julian Bond, Keynote Address, September 20, 2002 – Washington University

Bond and Hampton continued a collaboration which culminated in a series that went on to be seen by over 20 million viewers and is considered the definitive work on the civil rights movement. Washington University Libraries Film & Archive was honored to have Julian Bond commemorate the opening and to hear him speak about his experiences of working with Henry Hampton on Eyes on the Prize.

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