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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?”












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.


Emmett Till and “Eyes on the Prize”

28 Aug
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.

August 28, 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the Emmett Till’s death. The murder of Emmett Louis Till in 1955 was one of three lynching in 1955, but his mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral and the subsequent attention surrounding Till’s case galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. Till was from Chicago and had been visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi when he reportedly flirted with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant who ran a grocery story with her husband, Roy Bryant. There are varying stories of what exactly occurred at the store, but a few nights later on August 28 Till was taken from his great-uncle’s home by Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam and then brutally beaten and murdered. The extent of Till’s injuries was so extreme that his mother Mamie Till Bradley asked for an open casket funeral to show the brutality of what had been done to her son. The funeral was documented in a Jet magazine story, published on September 15, 1955.

This event shocked the nation helped galvanize the modern civil rights movement.This article and the accompanying photo of Emmett Till’s mutilated body were seen by a young Henry Hampton. Hampton, who was the exact same age as Till, lived in St. Louis, Missouri–not that far from Money, Mississippi–and never forgot Till’s story. It had a lasting impact on him, and when he made his documentary series, Eyes on the Prize he began the story of the civil rights movement with Till’s murder. The Film & Media Archive has many documents, photos, and material relating to the history of lynching and the Emmett Till case. For this section of the documentary, Hampton interviewed Curtis Jones, Till’s cousin, journalist William Bradford Huie, who interviewed Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam for Look magazine, and journalist James L. Hicks, who covered the trial.

Mose Wright stands and points to J. W. Milam, a white man accused of kidnapping and murdering Wright’s 14-year-old great-nephew Emmett Till, during the murder trial in Sumner, Mississippi, September 1955.

Hicks described how Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright testified and identified Till’s killers,

He was called up on to testify as to, could he see anybody in the courtroom identify anybody in that courtroom that had come to his house that night and got Emmet Till out. He stood up and there was a tension in the courtroom because we had been told…that, hey, the stuff is going to hit the fan when they stand up and identify, when Moses Wright stand up and identified J.W. Milam and the other fellow…And he looked around and there was a tension and he says in his broken language, “Dar he.”

Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp who directed the 2004 documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, did extensive research at the Film & Media Archive. This film and subsequent publicity surrounding it led to the reopening of the Till case in 2005. The Film & Media Archive provided interview transcripts and documents to the Justice Department while they were investigating the case. The FBI concluded their investigation in 2006 and passed on recommendations to chief prosecutor for Mississippi’s Fourth Judicial District, Joyce Chiles to re-open the case. Chiles did conduct an investigation but at the end declined to press charges against Carolyn Bryant or any of the other people who were allegedly there the night of Till’s murder.

Despite this outcome, the Film & Media Archive continues to be a valuable resource for primary source materials on this case. Please contact the archive for more information on any of these resources.

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.

We Shall Overcome

8 May

“[This song] became the theme song of this movement. It’s a powerful song and you can go anywhere in the world today where there is trouble and you will find this song and still see people in the streets marching and singing it. It is our gift to the world.”

— Freedom Singers

Guy Carawan, one of the musicians who helped popularize the protest song We Shall Overcome died last week at age 87.

In 1989 Ginger Group Film Productions created a documentary, We Shall Overcome, about the song and its place in the civil rights movement. Filmmaker Henry Hampton acquired the original film interviews, stills, and sound and picture elements for We Shall Overcome from the Ginger Group and it is now part of the Henry Hampton Collection at the WU Film & Media Archive.We Shall Overcome traces the roots of the song from its beginnings in African-American spirituals and union songs to becoming the anthem of the civil rights movement both nationally and internationally. The holdings in the collection include original interviews with Bernice Johnson Reagon and the Freedom Singers, Guy Carawan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Taj Mahal, Julian Bond, and many others.

The film traces the history of the song and how it came to be sung as a political anthem, and how the lyrics and music jumped national lines and were eventually sung in countless protests and movements across the globe from the American South to South Africa. The song first appeared as a work song sung by slaves, then it surfaced as a gospel tune first published by Charles Albert Tindley in 1901 as “I’ll Overcome Someday.” Later the song, sung in a faster tempo, was used as part of political protest in 1945 in Charleston, South Carolina as part of a strike by tobacco workers.

A few years later in 1947 the tobacco union activists attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee with local African-American activists and shared the song with them. Zilphia Horton, Highlander’s musical director started using it in workshops. In an audio documentary produced by NPR, Horton described the song as,

A spiritual, sung by many different nationality groups. And it’s so simple. The idea is so sincere that it doesn’t matter that it comes from tobacco workers. When I sing it for people it becomes their song. –Zilphia Horton

Horton eventually sang the song for musician Pete Seeger. The music and lyrics were then published in a music magazine and popularized. Guy Carawan was another musician who eventually learned the song at a workshop at Highlander. He and others began singing the song at protests and it became an unofficial anthem for the movement. The influence and power of the song reached an apex when President Johnson used the phrase as part of a speech when he called on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Johnson’s use of the phrase “we shall overcome,” was a direct and explicit show of support for the Voting Rights Act and for Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

While the song was symbolic and appropriated by politics at times, its real power was felt at the numerous demonstrations where people stood and marched for long hours. The song has taken many forms and been arranged by countless musicians. Below are some different versions of it.

Judy Richardson and Scarred Justice

21 Apr
Judy Richardson

Judy Richardson

Filmmaker, producer, editor, and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) member Judy Richardson will attend a free screening of her film Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968. With a Q&A Session following the film.

Free Screening ~April 23, 2015 ~7:30 PM

Etta Eiseman Steinberg Auditorium

6465 Forsyth Blvd., Danforth Campus

Judy Richardson was one of the first producers on the Eyes on the Prize team the series created by filmmaker Henry Hampton and was instrumental in the production of the groundbreaking series about the civil rights movement. She began working on what would become Eyes on the Prize in 1978 and was a series research consultant, and then a series associate producer for Eyes on the Prize II. After Hampton’s death, Ms. Richardson continued to work in film as a senior producer at Northern Light Productions, as well as lecture, create exhibits,  and hold teacher-training workshops on the civil rights movement.

In this video clip from Brown University, Judy Richardson talks about what her goals were when working on Eyes on the Prize. She says,

The main thing about Eyes is it showed you people who looked like you in the audience. They were the ones who were the leaders. They were the ones who were plowing these fields long before any national organization gets there. And they are amazingly brilliant and amazingly brave and all of that stuff, and they look like the folks in the audience…but what Eyes does is it shows all these regular folks who made the movement, and sustained it, and they were just like those people in the audience.

Other interview clips with Richardson can be found here.

Continuing the work she did with Blackside, Richardson creates works which highlight little-known, underplayed, or ignored episodes in the history of the movement. Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968 tells the story of a confrontation between law enforcement and students from South Carolina State College and from Claflin University when the students tried to integrate the only bowling alley in Orangeburg, SC. The bowling alley had a whites-only policy despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act four years earlier.

When the students conducted a protest at the bowling alley, they were met by local police who forcibly tried to remove them from the bowling alley. After an altercation, several students and one policeman needed medical attention. Tensions continued to run high as the governor deployed the National Guard and two nights later on Feb. 8 there was another clash between the students and the state troopers. The officers fired into the crowd repeatedly with shotguns loaded with high-caliber buck shot. According to medical records, 30 students were struck, nearly all of them in the back or side as they were fleeing. Some were shot in the feet or legs while prone on the ground. Three men, Delano Middleton, Samuel Hammond Jr., and Henry Smith, died as a result of their injuries. A later FBI investigation concluded that the only gunfire had come from the police and state troopers.

The All-Star Lanes bowling alley was forced to integrate following a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, but no one has ever been prosecuted for the deaths of Delano Middleton, Samuel Hammond Jr., and Henry Smith.

This film screening is part of  the Henry Hampton Minority Documentarian Series which aims to share documentary films made by minority filmmakers or that depict the stories of often underrepresented groups with a focus on the African-American experience. Co-sponsored by African and African-American Studies Department, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, and Cinema St. Louis.

This event is part of the Law, Identity and Culture Initiative, in the School of Law, (Un)Civil Mediations: A Civil Rights and Visual Culture Symposium, co-sponsored with the Washington University Libraries System; African & African-American Studies and the American Culture Studies programs, the Department of Art History & Archaeology and the Center for the Humanities in the College of Arts & Sciences; the Missouri History Museum and the Post Race? Interrogations, Provocations & Disruptions Lecture Series with support funding from the Office of the Provost, Diversity & Inclusion Grants.