Seen and Unseen: Collective Memory and Historiophoty in Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize by Haley Claxton
First aired in 1987, the Eyes on the Prize series sought to go beyond most documentaries, attempting to memorialize an entire complex movement. The documentary series received numerous awards, was viewed by over 20 million Americans, and is still used as a teaching tool throughout the United States (“Eyes . . .: Transcripts”; Blackside Inc.). In an interview with the New Yorker, creator of Eyes, Henry Hampton, explained that a successful documentary “can draw enough attention, maintain your historical integrity, and tell a story… literally ready[ing] a generation to… think and act on [the] material,” as he intended for Eyes on the Prize (“Interview”). Hampton’s statement implies that a documentary must use real historical events to form a narrative of selected visual and audible media, while concurrently maintaining an audience. Not surprisingly, a goal this broad poses many challenges, one of which is contending with the recording of history itself. History is not a fixed past, but is constantly intertwined with the present, a living and changing narrative of what came before and what it means to people today. In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin declares that “we, with …every move we make are History,” indicating that history is defined by the way the past interacts with the present as a never ceasing process of creation (xvi). Hampton agrees and goes a step further, seeing history as “[not] a long list of facts” but “a powerful story,” able to “change the spin of the way people perceive… themselves” (“Interview”). A historically based documentary is therefore an opportunity to create a particular version of the past to alter audience perception. Seizing such an opportunity is simple because of the inherent authority that “accurate” history is granted by society, held up as fact despite constant alteration by public opinion and reapplication to the present in new ways. One of the writers of Eyes noted that “‘We [at Blackside] knew we couldn’t… attempt to tell the whole story, and instead determined to carve stories out of the conflict, with their own inherent drama,’” suggesting that a documentary was unable to thoroughly explore the entire history of the Civil Rights Movement successfully (Bernard 2). However, in limiting the scope of Eyes, certain events were pulled out of their context to form a story, full of drama and all other elements of narrative form that would hold an audience’s attention. Hampton struggled to reach a large audience while maintaining the production quality desired due to finances, and he also struggled with documentary form itself. As a documentary, Eyes was required to portray an engaging story, as well as combine historical facts with public memory, two requirements that were often at odds. In an attempt to achieve all of these things, Hampton made sacrifices and compromises, sanitizing the Civil Rights Movement by excluding all but non-violent protests in order to appease the prospective audience. Though Eyes on the Prize claims the authority of historical accuracy, adherence to market forces, presumed audience response, ideology, and documentary form distort history by overemphasizing non-violence in the Civil Rights Movement.
To gain public attention, a documentary must provide topics audience members can relate to. Documentarians must create “a ‘usable past’… where stories involving historical figures and events are used to clarify the present and discover the future” in order to maintain a link with modern audiences (Edgerton 4). However, even before a documentary is completed, financial concerns must be addressed. For the production crew of Eyes, fundraising was difficult. Not only was the production company of the series, Blackside Inc., in dire financial straits at the time Eyes, was produced, but the primary television station for the broadcast of historical documentaries, the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS), also faced reduced government funding (G’Schwind 108). Due to lack of public financial support, Hampton turned to the private sector for funding, prompting more issues with creating the documentary Hampton envisioned. Private production organizations sought to promote their commercial sponsors to a consumer audience and considered “sponsorship of Eyes politics and history to be a chancy business decision” (G’Schwind 113). Eventually, Eyes received funding to become a 14-part series, but not until three years after “Eyes I” did the remaining eight segments gain the financial support to be televised, largely because of the popularity of “Eyes I.” The main reason for the delayed release of “Eyes II” was that:
Corporate underwriters who had supported Eyes I – which viewed the earlier civil rights struggle in terms of nonviolent protest … were hesitant to support Eyes II because of the violence and racial upheaval associated with that period—Black Panther confrontations with police departments, rioting, school desegregation and busing standoffs. (Norris 46)
Displaying the most controversial elements of the Civil Rights Movement could turn away many audience members who were consumers of Eyes corporate backers’ products. Because businesses aimed to cater to perceived audience desires, Hampton was boxed into displaying the paying public’s desires: a non-threatening depiction of the Civil Rights Movement that promoted events and heroes the audience accepted. Hampton therefore limited the scope of “Eyes I” to non-violence from 1954 to 1964 to appease the audience. Hampton received funding for “Eyes I” from corporate sponsors, private foundations, and most from PBS, all aiming to meet audience expectations (G’Schwind 122). These expectations caused the content and “historical integrity” of Eyes to be restricted.
Hampton’s story-shaping calls into question the historical accuracy of Eyes. In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot contends with the way history is written. Unlike life, Trouillot argues, the historical record is “necessarily emplotted in a way life is not,” following certain storylines with overlapping beginnings, climaxes, and resolutions, like literary fiction (6). However, both fiction and history contain “silences” excluded from the accepted narrative. Many elements of a story are excluded because they are not deemed important to plot development, but the classification of an event’s importance can serve to maintain, or alter, the balance of power between peoples (Trouillot 14). In constructing his version of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1964, Henry Hampton contended with narratives of power in the historical records used to construct his own story, but he also created new narratives himself. Hampton pieced together events that were deemed “important” to whoever recorded them, primarily news media. He was forced to leave in place silences within his sources, and created new ones by emphasizing some moments, while minimizing or excluding others entirely. Hampton is silent in regards to any prominent groups that did not advocate non-violence within the Movement, like the Black Panthers or Nation of Islam, throughout the first six episodes, mimicking audience and financers’ desires.
What then of “integrity?” How can history, influenced more by societal recreation of events than events themselves, have “integrity” true to what actually occurred? Instead of looking at the “facts” of occurrences, Hampton, like many historians, attempts to maintain “historical integrity” by accurately depicting collective memory, to captivate his audience with personalized details of a dramatic story with which they are vaguely familiar. Collective memory is “the aggregated memories of a group,” combining many versions of history into one (Olick 23). In Eyes, the collective memories of two main groups are displayed: black Americans promoting non-violence in the Movement and supportive white Americans. Other groups, including white Southern men, are also depicted, but from a negative outside perspective as oppressive villains working against the Movement. The viewpoint of this group is excluded from the documentary’s chosen “collective memory” because, though some still hold the beliefs prevalent within the racist white Southern demographic of the 50s and 60s in today’s society, the ideas are no longer as perceptively loud or widespread in modern American media and society.
The very focus of Eyes, the Movement in the years between 1954 and 1964, serves to support the sanitation of the white South, separating modern viewers from the virulent racism of the former South. Eyes upholds the decade traditionally known as the “Civil Rights Movement,” though action began long before the 1954 Brown v. Board decision and continued past the1964 Civil Rights Act (Hall 1234). Historian Jacquelyn Todd Hall argues that isolating the Movement within this ten-year span “simultaneously elevates and diminishes the Movement,” presenting the era’s mass media narrative of “white villains rain[ing] down terror on non-violent demonstrators in their Sunday best,” while keeping civil rights action boxed in and separated from today’s world (1234-6). Eyes on the Prize creates its story from news clips and photographs, elements of a “collective memory,” already narratively constructed, to present a dichotomy between white malefactors and non-violent black and white protagonists, building a barrier between the old white racism and the “new” white acceptance.
The exclusion of racist whites and inclusion of sympathetic whites also ties to what sociologist Jeffrey Olick calls “the politics of regret” (122). Olick argues that often “collective memory… is disgusted with itself” seeking “political legitimation” by “learning the lessons of history,” a concept apparent in Eyes. (122). Distinct separation between “good” and “bad” whites in the documentary allows white audiences to identify with the “good” and vilify the “bad” as unrelated to them (Asenas 55). “Bad” whites are often middle-aged male politicians, like Birmingham’s “Bull” Connor, reminiscent of traditionally greedy, demonized cultural archetypes, or police officers using force against apparently peaceful protesters in horrifically violent news clips. However, white audience members empathize with interviewees like Virginia Durr, an unintimidating elderly white woman who recalls white women transporting black women during Montgomery’s bus boycotts, or Craig Rains, attendant of the first integrated high school who changed his mind from staunchly anti-integration to compassion for the “Little Rock Nine” (Blackside, Inc.). Providing these “characters,” Hampton attempts to encapsulate the perceived collective memory of his audience, but the historical accuracy of the portrayal of this memory is questionable.
To determine whether or not collective memories displayed are historically precise, one must look to the medium used: documentary form. Documentaries seek two basic goals: to inform and to persuade (Bluem 14). Informing the public, particularly in historical documentaries, relies on the recording of the past to provide information. However, persuasive goals are met in the selection of historical information to include, influencing an audience to perceive past events in a certain way. Historian Robert A. Rosenstone notes that most of modern society’s historical knowledge comes from visual media, but also that this media is shaped by non-historians, like documentarians or journalists, who have a commercial stake in the version of history they display (1174).Unable to exist without subjectivity, “the documentary is never a direct reflection of an outside reality, but a work consciously shaped into a narrative that… creates the meaning of the material displayed,” seeking to inform the audience while persuading them to believe a certain version of history (Rosenstone 1179). Each photograph, video clip, or sound bite is expressly chosen by documentarians to support the goals they are attempting to reach. Historian Hayden White defines the method used to construct a documentary as “Historiophoty: the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse” (1193). White implies that true “history” and “our thought about it” are inherently combined in something like a documentary, supplementing the legitimacy of Hampton’s attempt to record collective public memory.
Still, one must remember a complete memory is not the record in the annals of history and that “we see not the events themselves, [nor] events as experienced or even witnessed by participants, but selected images of those events carefully arranged into sequences to tell a story or to make an argument” (Rosenstone 1180). The sources used suggest historical accuracy, as“the veracity and point of the archival footage are never questioned or even treated as problematic,” despite having been narratively constructed in initial recording and again within the documentary (Ruby 55). In Eyes, each element is part of a layering of fact-based fictions. The initial narrative of each source is defined by the reason it was deemed necessary to record, followed by Hampton’s selection of certain sources to fit into his own narrative’s themes. Hampton selects a theme of non-violence to focus on, relying on the historical events themselves and the collective memory of his prospective audience.
From the advent of each episode of Eyes on the Prize, a narrative of unified non-violent protest is constructed by music and images. The title segment in each episode of Eyes on the Prize addresses non-violent protest as a deeply American form. “I know the one thing we did right,” begins the traditional spiritual sung by single female voice, soon joined by a few others, “was the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize, oh Lord! Keep your eyes on the prize, oh Lord!” The singing is strengthened as the frame zooms out from the image of a single black shoe to display many individuals marching in straight lines. The marching lines evolve into an American flag, and the title of Henry Hampton’s series appears beneath it. Here, forms of non-violent protest, like singing, marching, and picketing, are linked with American patriotism. Each line of people in the animated clip is united, organized, orderly, and calm, their voices not in unison, but in harmony. Much like the collective memory Hampton attempts to display, many individuals form a larger group, an amalgamation of protests and ideals. The song also highlights an argument Hampton makes in Eyes: that the end goal of the Civil Rights Movement has not yet been reached. The lyrics hold no resolution, only the ambiguous suggestion that one join the “fight,” keeping their “eyes on the prize.” Historians and many more have argued and continue to argue over what “prize” Civil Rights protest seeks and what sort of “fight” is appropriate. Though the “prize” is not concretely defined, alluded to in vague terms like freedom, justice, and equality, “Eyes I” suggests that non-violence is the appropriate way to fight, showing no alternative. Each element of the narrative of historical events and characters constructed by Hampton perpetuates the success of non-violent action, not only to match up with collective memory, but also to offer commentary on the effectiveness of non-violence. Under the theme of non-violence, key elements include youth, victimization, the ability for average people to cause change, integration, and contending with adversity.
The first episode of Eyes begins with a brief overview of America’s integration, including World War II’s army integration and the decision of Brown v. Board in 1954. The condensed integration history is abruptly followed by the murder of Emmett Till, an event which has captivated public attention since Till’s death in 1955. Visiting his uncle in Mississippi, teenaged Till allegedly whistled at a white woman. Later, two white men brutally murdered the boy. Till’s was neither the first lynching in the South, nor the last, but still created an unparalleled media circus. Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, insisted upon an open casket funeral so the public could see the atrocity that had occurred and outrage grew across the country. Images of Till’s mangled body were quickly propagated throughout the nation. Civil rights activists frequently used images to garner support, as seeing the physical damage of Southern racism encouraged a widespread response, not only in regards to Till’s case, but to the Movement as a whole (Eyes on the Prize). The considerable role of media coverage supported the use of documentary form to depict the Movement.
As the story of Emmitt Till was told and retold, it “fascinated the literary imagination,” and was shaped into the powerful narrative upheld in collective memory (Pollack & Metress 7). Beginning his own narrative with the influential, albeit narrativised, event making Till an innocent victim of segregation and the racist South, Hampton begins the documentary with memories that are no longer strictly facts, but a dramatically edited story. Till’s legacy is more than the facts of his murder, incorporating passion, deep sorrow and outrage, emotions given as much weight as the event itself. The story sets up the entire documentary to be more than objective facts; it becomes a subjective story composed from collective memories and emotions, and it introduces the difficulties of desegregation and the victimization of African Americans by racist white Southerners, along with emphasizing the importance of youth involvement and non-violent action and reaction.
Emmett Till’s story is framed by black and white news clips of Emmett’s uncle and mother describing the murder and a modern interview with Till’s cousin Curtis Jones, witness to Till’s encounter with the white woman. Deeply sorrowful spiritual tunes overlay visuals with few interruptions by the series’ narrator, Julian Bond. The lack of interruption displays the deep connection of Eyes to subjective memory, as opposed to narration that is generally perceived as an objective, omniscient voice to clarify the documentary’s story (Griffin, “Movement”). While narration is used throughout to explain images and describe their connection to events, fitting them into the structure of Eyes, narration is nearly absent in telling Till’s story, suggesting that the images easily fit and evoke an emotional response from the audience without explanation (G’Schwind 169). The audience is able to associate the visual cues with universally relatable motifs of family, tragedy, and death.
The black and white graphics used to tell of Till’s murder and other events throughout the documentary provide three associations for the audience. First, the clips are “likely to suggest historic authenticity” to an older audience who recall the television clips seen in their childhood and to younger audiences who associate the grainy colorless visuals with the past (G’Schwind 150). These images also literally divide black and white. Though this method was the standard in television at the time, the dichotomy also echoes segregation and metaphorical lines drawn along “black” and “white” racial lines at the time when they were first broadcast. Finally, the juxtaposition of black and white clips and modern color clips, often displaying the same individual at different ages, poses a visual indication of change.
Following Till’s narrative, Martin Luther King, Jr. is introduced. King, the “shining star” character of Hampton’s Civil Rights narrative, is also one of the most historiographized icons in American history (Asenas 55). Countless artistic renderings have constructed and projected an immortal image of King as nearly the sole promoter of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement. Eyes provides a multifaceted view of King, focused on the most widely upheld image of King as a gentle savior of Civil Rights, along with a more humanized version. Eyes makes King relatable by showing more than well-known video clips and images of his life, containing a segment about lesser known sermons given by a young King at the Holt Street Church in Alabama, as well as interviews with those who were close to the living King, including his wife, Coretta, and friend and fellow organizer, Ralph Abernathy. As the series continues, the Eyes narrative displays the evolution of King’s ideology, implying that King was not a stoic near divinity, as he is commonly portrayed, but a changing human being. Though in Eyes King is depicted as more human than in other works, he is still elevated above other activists, in part due to King’s high place in collective memory as figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement, but also to serve as a guiding force through the narrative. Hampton promotes the ability for anyone to make a difference in the ongoing Civil Rights struggle, providing King, an average and an extraordinary man, as a role model for his audience to emulate.
In episode two, “Fighting Back: 1957-1962,” more “characters” emerge, including members of the “Little Rock Nine,” shown in news footage from the integration of Central High School and in modern interviews. Like many of the interviewees, these individuals were children during the decade on which Eyes focuses. This creates a common and relatable history for older audience members who are able to remember events like the integration of Central High, based on experience, what they saw in the media at the time, or both. Interviews with those who were youth during the 50s and 60s also helps young audience members connect to a time they cannot recall.Youths do not have direct memories of the time period, so that memory must be provided to them in order to explain the current course of Civil Rights, granting the documentarymuch power. After its release on PBS, countless tools were created for use by teachers to supplement students’ watching the documentary.1 Eyes teaches youth its version of history telling about what happened and attempting to leave young watchers with life lessons, despite omitting crucial elements to understanding an ongoing Civil Rights Movement. According to the PBS website, one of the major lessons Eyes on the Prize teaches is that “Ordinary people can change the world,” which is displayed throughout the documentary with interviews of apparently ordinary individuals (“Eyes . . .: Transcripts”). Another lesson taught by “Eyes I” is the appropriateness of non-violence. If teachers displayed only the first six episodes of Eyes in the classroom, which silences all but non-violent portions of the Movement, the suggestion presented would be that the only way to achieve goals then and now is through non-violence (Asenas 72). This would obscure a youth audience’s implanted memory of the Civil Rights Movement by excluding details of more violent protest led by Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and others, omitting relevant historical elements.
Eyes on the Prize also intends to teach its entire audience that achieving any goal is never effortless. Though non-violence is elevated by Eyes, the documentary does display some set-backs for this method of protest. In episode four, events in Albany, Georgia are highlighted. Unlike prior violent police responses to non-violent actions, Albany’s police chief Laurie Pritchett took a different approach through non-violent mass arrests, avoiding fueling the media fire coming from televised scenes of police brutality. The Albany Movement is historically depicted as a failure for non-violence because the protesters failed to get their demands met or generate more images of police brutality to further enrage television viewers. There were also no images of King as a wrongly jailed heroic martyr to stir up anger. In a modern interview with Laurie Pritchett, the police chief proclaims that when he requested King’s fines be paid so that King could leave the jail, King “didn’t know which way to turn” and told Pritchett that he would rather stay (“Eyes…: Transcripts”). In the same interview, Pritchett continues, saying that King, vulnerable, told him he did not want to leave the jail so easily because he would “lose face” (Blackside, Inc.). This portion of the interview, however, is omitted from the documentary, maintaining the image of King as the always successful, underdog hero of Civil Rights. Eyes portrays Albany as only a minor set-back that did not have too devastating an effect on the Movement as a whole, and preserves King’s place as a strong and never failing leader of the non-violent movement. The narrative continues with one of the “biggest victories” of the Civil Rights era: the March on Washington. By juxtaposing these two events, Hampton calculatedly negates doubts audience members may have about the effectiveness of non-violent tactics.
The final episode, “Bridge to Freedom: 1965,” also brings up questions regarding the success of non-violence, promptly answering them with a display of non-violent victories to finish out the series. The episode focuses on the struggle for voting rights in Selma, Alabama beginning with video of Malcolm X asking that “Negroes… take whatever steps necessary to defend themselves,” followed with a video of the aftermath of a bloody race riot (“Eyes…: Transcripts”). Overlaying the video, narrator Bond asks, “Could non-violence work in a society which grew angrier each day?” implying, using the past tense “could,” that the question had already been answered by history (“Eyes…: Transcripts”). “Eyes I” provides the answer that non-violence did work, strengthening this position by disproving opposing opinions. In discussing protests in Selma that became violent on “Bloody Sunday,” interviewee Andrew Young describes his feelings about the futility of using violence against a white police force, stating that when one asks people “questions about … the specifics of violence… they realize how suicidal and nonsensical it is,” an idea relied upon in the documentary to counter the film’s nods toward tactics other than non-violence (Blackside, Inc.). The final event emphasized in the film is the eventual march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. Once again, non-violence is shown as successful, a depiction that much of the audience would support, but brought to a halt in the last minutes of the documentary, a cliff-hanger foreshadowing violence and a lack of non-violent resolution. Initially, episode six was the last segment shown, so this ending was strategic to maintaining an audience for “Eyes II” and encouraging the audience to consider a continuing struggle for civil rights after 1965.
In the first six episodes of “Eyes on the Prize,” Hampton attempts to build a historical bridge between the present and the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1964, but leaves many gaps. These gaps are present not only because of Hampton’s financial need to cater to audience expectations, displaying a far from accurate “collective memory,” but also because of the “historiophoticized” documentary form and his own ideology, used to silence all but non-violent portions of an isolated, decade-long Civil Rights Movement. Silencing certain facts not only alters the perception of historical events for people that hold personal memories, but also holds dire consequences for a younger audience unable to remember the Movement. The use of Eyes as a teaching mechanism provides historical memory for youth, one subjectively structured to exclude any who did not advocate non-violence. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” as the old adage goes, and progress in civil rights today is obstructed by omissions left out by teaching only a non-violent version of the Civil Rights Movement. Distorting historical facts makes the continuing Civil Rights struggle more likely to be misunderstood by an up-and-coming generation only aware of non-violence and King, while ignorant of Malcolm X and many others. Hampton, held back by financial strain, chose to display audience desires and his own ideology over accuracy in the first portion of Eyes, and told an incomplete story of non-violent success, hindering a true understanding of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole and the future of progress in the ongoing struggle for civil rights.
1. Paratexts relating to Eyes on the Prize are extensive and include, but are not limited to: Juan Williams’ companion book Eyes on the Prize: The Civil Rights Years 1954-1964, published in 1988 with a 25th Anniversary Edition published in 2013; Henry Hampton’s Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s; The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990,edited by Clayborn Carson, et al.; and Eyes on the Prize: A Study Guide published by the Facing History Organization.
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Haley Claxton is a junior at Kansas State University, majoring in History with an English minor and an emphasis in Pre-Law. She wrote this essay for a Law, Literature, and Politics. Haley says that the essay seeks to explore the accuracy of “documentary form” as a historical record and to contend with the way history itself is often “narrativized” to meet particular goals.