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TRUE SOUTH by Jon Else


Henry Hampton and Eyes on the Prize, the Landmark Television Series that Reframed the Civil Rights Movement

by Jon Else

Pub Date: Jan. 24th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-101-98093-4
Publisher: Viking

Memoir, history, and biography meld in this account of the creation of a famed civil rights documentary.

Producer and cinematographer Else (Journalism/Univ. of California Graduate School of Journalism), a MacArthur Fellow whose honors include several Peabody awards and four Emmys, offers a revealing chronicle of the making of the 1987 PBS series Eyes on the Prize. The author became involved in the civil rights movement in 1963 when he was a 19-year-old college student and took up political activist Allard Lowenstein’s challenge to “draw fire and publicity in Mississippi” by registering black voters. John Kennedy and Medgar Evers had just been shot, and Else was filled with “missionary zeal.” In 1964, he left school to work in Mississippi full time, courting danger in an area where the Ku Klux Klan flourished. Twenty years later, responding to an article in a Corporation for Public Broadcasting newsletter, he “cold-called” Henry Hampton, involved in a project to produce a TV series about the civil rights struggle. Else characterizes Hampton, who had joined the NAACP as an undergraduate at Washington University and who stood with Martin Luther King Jr. on the Pettus bridge in Selma, as nothing less than a genius, a “visionary leader” who “insisted on a bold multicultural, multiethnic, collaborative production process” that involved men and women, blacks and whites: “For him, diversity in teams trumped the powerful statement that an all-black production would have made.” Hampton also privileged the voices of ordinary men and women who participated in the movement rather than focus on people and images that had, by 1985, become iconic. Hampton viewed the civil rights movement “as a patriotic story of America’s realization of its ideals” and wanted white Americans to react positively to it. In detailing the financial struggle involved and the arduous process of finding interviewees and eliciting their stories, Else reveals the complexities of any such production.

An illuminating look at racial strife and TV history.