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

2 Dec

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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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KsXv7EOFlU

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

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