Archive | December, 2015

The Jack Willis Collection

17 Dec

Film & Media Archive acquires materials of civil rights documentarian Jack Willis

Filmmaker Jack Willis

Filmmaker Jack Willis at Washington University

In 2014 the Washington University Film & Media Archive acquired the collection of prolific documentary filmmaker and producer Jack Willis. The Jack Willis Collection contains film, video, and manuscript material from original, independent productions by Willis. His films tackle racism, poverty, and environmental issues and show his affinity for what he called “unheard voices, unserved voices.”

A native of Milwaukee, Willis was born in 1935. He grew up in Los Angeles and attended UCLA. He got his start in television as an associate producer for David Susskind’s interview show, Open End. Many of the guests on the program were civil rights leaders who had become prominent by the early 1960s. A meeting with James Forman, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led Willis to travel to Mississippi to document the voter registration efforts of the SNCC in 1963 leading up to Freedom Summer. The film that resulted, The Streets of Greenwood (1963), was Willis’ first independent project and one of the most important documentaries of the period. Willis returned to the South to film Lay My Burden Down (1966), which chronicled the lives of tenant farmers in Selma, Alabama a year after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Throughout the 1960s, he wrote, directed, and produced a number of documentaries, including Every Seventh Child (1967), Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People (1968), and Hard Times in the Country (1969). During these years, as he documented the struggle for civil rights, Willis had many hostile encounters with local authority figures, including one with Sherriff Jim Clark in Selma, Alabama.

Between 1966 and 1971, Willis produced a diverse range of documentaries for National Education Television, a forerunner of PBS. He continued developing and producing television programs such as the The 51st State, which ran on WNET in New York from 1972 to 1976. Winner of four Emmy Awards, The 51st State was a groundbreaking news program that often served as a platform for heated debates between audience members and local politicians. Willis also served as co-executive producer of The Great American Dream Machine, a satirical news program that aired on PBS from 1971 to 1973. The show featured Albert Brooks, Chevy Chase, and humorist Marshall Efron and won two Emmy Awards. Of his television work, Willis said, “I wanted to be involved in programming that was more informative and entertaining, to try to reach more people.”

In 1970, a surfing accident left Willis paralyzed from the neck down, but he regained mobility after six months of physical therapy and eventually returned to work. He co-wrote and co-produced the documentary Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang (1979), which investigated the government concealment of health risks connected to radiation and the testing of atomic bombs in the 1950s. The film won an Emmy Award, a George Polk Award, and a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award.

From 1978 to 1980, in preparation for a documentary, Willis conducted interviews with Rosa Parks, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, Ella Baker, and other people who had been deeply involved in the civil rights movement. The project was never completed, and the Jack Willis Collection contains more than 81 original interviews that have never been seen publicly.

The Film & Media Archive also holds the Henry Hampton Collection. Hampton was an acclaimed documentary filmmaker whose many projects included the 14-part television series Eyes on the Prize, which chronicled the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. The addition of the Jack Willis Collection to the archive represents a significant expansion of the unique and original material relating to the civil rights movement that is housed at the Washington University Libraries.


Steve Fayer, writer and producer, dies at age 80

11 Dec

Steve Fayer,  who worked as a writer on thirteen episodes of Eyes on the Prize and many other productions, has died at age 80. Fayer began his career in commercial television and then worked for Blackside, Inc. as a writer for several ground-breaking documentaries including Eyes on the Prize, The Great Depression, and as a producer for America’s War on Poverty. Fayer also wrote George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods On Fire, a biographical documentary about the former governor of Alabama. He was co-author of Voices of Freedom, an oral history of the civil rights movement with Henry Hampton and Sarah Flynn, which gathered a lot of material from outtakes of interviews conducted for Eyes on the Prize.


Fayer was an integral part of Blackside and had a close working relationship with filmmaker and founder, Henry Hampton. In the manuscript material that is part of the Henry Hampton Collection, Fayer’s work, writing, and comments can be found as Hampton, and the other producers and writers of Eyes on the Prize collaborated, discussed, wrote scripts, and fine-tuned the series.

In addition to scripts and other manuscripts, in an another document Fayer responds to treatments put together by Hampton and other producers for the third episode of Eyes on the Prize II: Power! with these remarks,

Exploring the influence of Malcolm [X] on ‘the future of American civil rights” is too narrow a construction. I thought his story is included in the series to show his influence on black people, on their aspirations, their perception of themselves whether in or out of the civil rights movement with particular emphasis on folk in the ghettos of America’s cities who will very soon steal the headlines from the movement.

Again, the question: Is the apparent (but not real) absorption of SNCC into the BPP the emotional payoff for wha[t] has happened in the Panther story, and in the hour? Is it more media event than real? If people believe that it is a sign of a new American revolution, have they been misled? What do mainstream blacks think? Whites?…I guess what I am asking is what is the truth here, the whole truth about empowerment of black folk in America? That’s what the hour has been about: concrete battles, a victory, a defeat. What do the Panthers represent on that spectrum?”

Fayer’s writing reveals that he wasn’t afraid to ask the tough questions that helped shape what became Eyes on the Prize. He won an Emmy for his script of Mississippi: Is This America? and a Writers Guild of America award for his work on George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire.

Unita Blackwell in "Mississippi: Is this America?"

Unita Blackwell in “Mississippi: Is this America?”












Washington University Libraries to Digitize and Reassemble Interviews from Eyes on the Prize

2 Dec


Washington University Film & Media Archive was awarded $150,000 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission’s Digital Dissemination of Historical Records program to digitize and reassemble the interview outtakes from the seminal documentary series, Eyes on the Prize. By Fall 2016, the Eyes on the Prize Digitization and Reassembly Project will make the rare, complete interviews from the first six episodes of the series available for the first time.

Eyes on the Prize attracted over 20 million viewers when it aired in the 1980s and 1990s and was praised by the Boston Globe as “one of the most distinguished documentary series in the history of broadcasting.” Eyes on the Prize consists of two series, the six-episode Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, and the eight-episode Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965-1985. More than 20 years after the broadcast of the entire documentary series, it remains the definitive work on the Civil Rights Movement, covering three decades of history, from the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 to the election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first African American mayor in 1983.

Henry Hampton - Photo by Dave Henderson.

Henry Hampton – Photo by Dave Henderson.

In 1968, Henry E. Hampton, Jr., a St. Louis native and Washington University alumnus, founded Blackside, Inc., the film and television production company that produced Eyes on the Prize, setting the stage for Blackside to become one of the nation’s most acclaimed documentary film companies. Over its 30-year history, Blackside won, or was nominated for, every major award in the documentary industry, including a Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism.

During the research and production of their series, Blackside created or collected thousands of items, including interviews, archival footage, correspondence, scripts, and producer notes. Washington University was selected in 2001 to be the sole repository and steward of The Henry Hampton Collection, which includes all materials from the Eyes on the Prize series and materials from other significant Blackside productions dealing with such diverse topics as the Great Depression, African Americans in the Arts, and America’s War on Poverty.

The interviews conducted for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 provide a unique perspective on the central events of one of the most important periods of American history. Covering the time between the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which mandated school integration, to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Blackside interviewed a wide range of participants involved in the Civil Rights Movement. As we commemorate such events as the 60th anniversary of the killing of black teenager Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, and as we continue to live through racially-divisive tragedies, such as the killing of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it is imperative that we make accessible these first-hand accounts not only to serve as artifacts of our collective memory, but also to serve as tools to facilitate discourse surrounding the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

Emmett Till in a photograph taken by his mother on Christmas Day 1954, about eight months before his murder.

Emmett Till in a photograph taken by his mother on Christmas Day 1954, about eight months before his murder.

In episode one, Awakenings, journalist James Hicks and activist Amzie Moore discuss the murder of Till and describe the tension in the segregated courtroom in which two white men who later admitted murdering Till were acquitted by an all-white jury. Many interviewees also discuss the network of activists that was already in place before the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 and the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national leader of the movement. They also describe the toils of walking long distances during the boycott and the evils and absurdities of racism which persisted after the bus line was integrated.

Episode six, Bridge to Freedom, focuses on voting rights. Interviewees include John Lewis and James Forman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Dr. C.T. Vivian, and Reverend Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Ameila Boynton of the Dallas County Voters’ League. Vivian discusses his dramatic courthouse confrontation with the local sheriff, Jim Clark, who physically attacked Vivian in front of television news cameras. Clark was also interviewed for the series, along with other segregationists such as Governor George Wallace. Vivian also speaks of his determination: “It does not matter whether you are beaten; that’s a secondary matter. The only important thing is that you reach the conscience of those who are with you and of anyone watching.”

C.T. Vivian - Interview from "Eyes on the Prize"

Interview with C.T. Vivian  in “Eyes on the Prize”

In an effort to provide a level of accessibility, the Film & Media Archive has made the interview transcripts comprising Eyes on the Prize available online with full-text search capability possible with the use of Text-Encoding Initiative (TEI) mark-up. This resource, a collaborative project with the Digital Library Services, is unique in that each transcript represents the complete interview. Inclusion of the interviewers’ questions and the portions of the interviews not used in the final program provides users with invaluable oral histories and enables the user to think critically about the choices of series producers in selecting footage to tell their story.

In spring 2015, the Archive completed the preservation of the the 16mm, acetate-based A & B rolls and master sound elements, as well as the approximately 75 hours of interview outtakes and accompanying ¼ in. audio from the series’ first six episodes with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In 2014,the digitization and reassembly pilot was completed to inform project timelines and workflows. To view the pilot please visit:

Crawford Media Services will provide digitization services, and reassembly will occur in-house. Once completed, the interviews will be made freely available with enhanced metadata through the Avalon Media System.

–Nadia Ghasedi – Principal Investigator

Rosa Parks and the 60th Anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

1 Dec
Rosa Parks with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Source: Ebony Magazine

December 1, 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This boycott, a pivotal event in the history of the Civil Rights movement, began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on December 1, 1955. She was arrested, sparking a year long boycott and protest, and a Supreme Court case which ended segregation on public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama.

Ms. Parks had been active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) throughout the 1940’s and the incident in 1955 was not the first time she had objected to the segregated bus laws. It wasn’t until 1955 that she was arrested, and this incident brought Ms. Parks to national prominence as well as a local preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. Both went on to play major roles in the Civil Rights movement.

Rosa Parks was interviewed by Blackside for “Eyes on the Prize” in 1985. In this interview she gives a very detailed history of her previous interactions with various Montgomery bus drivers, the oppressive atmosphere for African-Americans in the South at that time, and how the boycott unfolded after December 1, 1955.

The full interview can be read via the Film and Media Archive’s website. This interview was preserved as part of a grant from the Mellon Foundation and will be digitized as part of a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

From the interview:

And when he saw me still sitting, and that had left the three seats vacant, except where I was, he asked me if I was going to stand up and I said, no I’m not. And he said, well, if you, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have you, call the police and have you arrested. I said you may do that. And he did get off the bus and stayed for a few minutes and I still stayed where I was and when two policemen came on the bus, the driver pointed me out and he said that he needed the seats and other three stood, that one, he just said that one would not. And when the policeman approached me one of them spoke and asked me if the bus driver had asked me to stand and I said yes. He said, why don’t you stand up? I said, I don’t think I should have to stand up. And I asked him, why do you push us around? He said, I do not know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.

— Rosa Parks

Blackside interviewed other people who were involved with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, including E.D. Nixon, Jo Ann Robinson and Ralph Abernathy. More interviews can be found here: Eyes on the Prize Interviews, The Complete Series.

For more information about any of these interviews, please contact the Film and Media Archive.