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NAACP Chairman Recalls Work on Civil Rights Documentary

February 21, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Following a reprise of the documentary "Eyes on the Prize" that chronicled the civil rights movement in America, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who was part of the movement and the narrator of the series, discusses the series' significance after 20 years.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a reprise of “Eyes on the Prize,” and to Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: Nearly 20 years ago, PBS first aired “Eyes on the Prize II,” a follow-up to the landmark series that chronicled the modern history of the civil rights movement in America.

The eight one-hour episodes have rarely been seen since, the results of a decades-long dispute over rights to the material. The series has finally returned, airing on PBS stations throughout Black History Month.

“Eyes on the Prize” captures much of the turbulence of the times in historical footage and interviews. In this portion, we see the very different approaches preacher Martin Luther King, Jr., and activist Stokely Carmichael brought to a 1965 Mississippi protest march.

NARRATOR: It had been almost a year since Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, but white resistance remained strong. In Mississippi alone, more than 300,000 blacks were not registered to vote.

James Meredith, the first black person to enroll at the University of Mississippi, was determined to change all that. On June 5, 1966, Meredith left Memphis, Tenn., prepared to walk 220 miles to Jackson, Miss. He called it a March Against Fear.

JAMES MEREDITH, first African-American enrollee at University of Mississippi: To point out and challenge, if necessary, this all-pervasive and overriding fear that’s so much a part of the day-to-day life of the negro in this country, and especially in Mississippi.

NARRATOR: On the second day of his march, James Meredith was shot from ambush.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., civil rights leader: We, as you know, have been greatly concerned about the shooting of James Meredith. We have expressed that.

NARRATOR: Leaders of major civil rights organizations rushed to Memphis, Tenn., where James Meredith was hospitalized. They vowed to continue the march for him.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING: And something needs to be done to make it clear that we’re not going to be stopped, we’re not going to be intimidated.

NARRATOR: From the start, there was conflict.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING: If we’re going to be free, we will have to suffer for that freedom. We will have to sacrifice for it.

STOKELY CARMICHAEL, civil rights activist: But I’m not going to beg the white man for anything that I deserve. I’m going to take it. We need power. We need power. That’s what we need. We need power, just like everybody else.

FLOYD MCKISSICK, first black student, UNC Law School: I think it was more of a youth movement in all of the organizations asserting themselves far more than it was competition among leaders themselves. It was a clash of ideas, no question about a clash of ideas.

NARRATOR: The leaders began marching at the point where Meredith had been shot. Mississippi State troopers forcefully prevented them from marching on the road surface. Carmichael, angered by this rough handling, stepped forward to retaliate, but Dr. King restrained him.

STOKELY CARMICHAEL: We’ve got to realize the white folk in the state of Mississippi ain’t nothing but a bunch of racists. And the only people who can stop them are the black folk in Mississippi.

Now, we’ve got to make this march our march. This has got to be the march for the black people in Mississippi. And the only way we can make that our march is that we’ve got to go into every little place and get every black man and black woman, black boy and black girl out, who’s not afraid. And let’s march, and let’s make this our Mississippi.

Rescuing 'Eyes' from obscurity

GWEN IFILL: Julian Bond, now chairman of the NAACP, was a part of the movement and the voice you just heard narrating the series. He joins us now.

Welcome.

JULIAN BOND, chair, NAACP: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We look at these sounds and we look at these pictures, and it's amazing that they were out of public view for so long. Why was that?

JULIAN BOND: Well, first, there were disputed over some of the rights to the music and to other parts of the series, and that kept it from being rebroadcast again. But finally it's back and it's available, and we can relive these moments again.

GWEN IFILL: How did you get it back? Was it money? Was it a money question?

JULIAN BOND: I think it was a money question. Some foundations stepped in. It was fees that had to be paid that hadn't been paid.

And the man chiefly responsible for this, Henry Hampton, the genius behind all this, died suddenly. His sisters took up the baton that he had dropped, but without him, just a much more difficult task.

GWEN IFILL: When you look at that footage again after all those years, even at the time you were doing the narration, does it seem more distant or more immediate to you?

JULIAN BOND: Well, seeing it brings it back to me. It becomes immediate once again. And you know that Floyd McKissick, that Martin Luther King, that Stokely Carmichael, or Kwame Ture, as he came to be known, all these are no longer with us.

And we're so fortunate to have these images of them at a pivotal movement both in their lives and in the movement's history. And we can revisit it once again, which is why this is so precious.

Telling the story first-hand

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned Henry Hampton, who was the executive producer for the series. And he was quoted as saying, "A hundred civil rights stories had been told, but it was always black people being saved by whites. In 'Eyes,' we brought our people up in history." Was that an important point about this?

JULIAN BOND: Oh, absolutely. And what was so important is that Henry and the people who put this together were able to salvage this video from a variety of sources.

They told me stories about I think going into a TV station in Birmingham and asking for this stuff. "We don't have that." So, "Oh, let me look in the basement." And they look in the basement, and there it is, right on the edge of being thrown away. And yet they rescued it, and now we'll have it forever.

GWEN IFILL: It is amazing to look at the full eight hours of this and discover how many times you could hear the voice of things you read about in books. It's one thing to read a Pulitzer Prize-winning retelling of the civil rights movement; it's another thing to hear the words coming out of the mouth of the actors.

I wonder how much of that made its way in the years since "Eyes on the Prize" first aired into kind of the public psyche.

JULIAN BOND: Well, a greater deal of it was because it broadcast on PBS over and over again. It was used in schools. I use it in my own classes at the schools where I teach. Millions of people have seen it, but it fell out of public view for a long time.

And so a generation grew up that had no knowledge of this and no reminder of it. And as you say, it's one thing to read about in a book, "Stokely Carmichael said this." But it's another thing to see him talk about it, to see the emotion in his eyes, the emotion in his face. It's an entirely different situation.

Personal sacrifices

GWEN IFILL: How did you get involved in the project?

JULIAN BOND: Henry Hampton asked me if I would narrate it. I'd never done any narration before. I thought I'd watch Martin Luther King march up a hill and I'd say "Martin Luther King marched up a hill." Of course, it's very different from that.

You sit in a small booth. You have a script. Each piece is timed out exactly so. If you do too long, too short, you've got to do it again.

And Henry told me that I had the choice of not narrating it and being in some scenes or narrating it and not being in any scenes, because he felt it disruptive for you to hear the narrator and see the narrator doing something else.

The only scenes in this I'm in are when I'm refereeing a fight between Muhammad Ali and Maynard Jackson, the mayor of Atlanta, and the mayor knocks him out.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that's not a bad scene to be in.

JULIAN BOND: It was a great scene.

GWEN IFILL: As you watch it now again, or even then, does it cause you to reflect at all about the costs, I guess, of participatory democracy as we see it in this country?

JULIAN BOND: Oh, absolutely. Not only were there lives lost -- and amazingly not that many lives lost -- you have to think that the whole experience stunted a lot of lives and squashed a lot of lives, but relatively few were actually lost.

But you see a kind of emotional toil in some of the people. And from my own experiences, I know colleagues who in some ways were ruined by this, ruined by their participation in this. It just took too much out of them, and they're not survivors of it. They're alive, but they weren't survivors.

So a tremendous cost was paid by lots of people.

Optimism for the future

GWEN IFILL: When you look at this now, in 2008, we have on one end of the spectrum in racial history the Obama candidacy and the potential there. On the other hand, we have the Jena Six and the incidents of nooses being hung on college campuses and other places around the country.

It seems like the full spectrum of good and bad in racial history of the United States is on display. Do you despair or are you hopeful?

JULIAN BOND: I am always an optimist. I've always been. My students tell me thing are worse than they ever were, and I say, "Listen, you have no idea how bad they were."

This is one reminder, this "Eyes on the Prize" series, of how bad they were, but they were worse than that, and they are now better than that. They are far, far from perfect. Nobody can say that.

But you see about this black guy getting elected in Cullman, Ala., 96 percent white county, another black guy getting elected in an overwhelmingly white county in Mississippi, and you have to say, "Is this the Mississippi, is this the Alabama I grew up with?" No, it's not. These are different places.

Again, they're not perfect places. Nobody's saying that. But they're so different, they're so much better. And the people we see in this "Eyes on the Prize," these are the people who made it better.

GWEN IFILL: So the students you teach at the University of Virginia and at American University here in Washington, do they get that? Do they seem hopeful or do they seem despairing?

JULIAN BOND: I think they're hopeful, and they're hopeful because they want to know about this movement that existed before they were born and see what lessons, if any, they can learn from that to create a movement of their own today.

I think they're optimistic people. Like many young people, they aren't satisfied with what they see about them, but they are confident they can help make it better, and I believe they will.

GWEN IFILL: Julian Bond, a participant in the movement, a narrator of the movement, and a continuing feature in the movement. Thank you very much for joining us.

JULIAN BOND: Thank you for having me.