"Eyes on the Prize"

American Experience

If the headlines of the day are leaving you hopeless, if the latest wars and horrific genocides and enviromental screw-ups are breaking your spirit ... you may need to take a trip back in time to 1955, when a resident of Montgomery, Alabama named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Her neighbors gathered in a church, an anonymous young preacher named Martin Luther King stepped up to provide careful leadership, and a far-reaching protest movement was launched against the most discouraging of odds.

The amazing thing about the protest movement that began in 1955 is that it worked. This is why I'm really glad PBS is rebroadcasting Eyes on the Prize, a six-hour documentary on the American civil rights struggle that originally ran in 1987. Cynicism is the dominant mood today, as governmental failures and fatal deadlocks abound from the Middle East to Africa to New Orleans.

Eyes on the Prize is good medicine, because these shows remind us to believe, to hope. In fact, the crowd of beaten-down Americans who gathered in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to organize against bus segregation had little reason to believe their mission would ever be taken seriously.

The first episode of Eyes on the Prize covers the murder of teenage Emmett Till in Mississippi (for wisecracking to a white woman) and then moves on to Rosa Parks and the bus boycott. The news clips included here leave no doubt that Martin Luther King's personal force of character was critical for the movement's success. The preacher set out to follow Mahatma Gandhi's playbook for non-violent protest, and one can only imagine how alone he must have felt as he coached his church full of angry citizens in the difficult and demanding approach they would have to take to achieve their goals.

Hyperbole is always off-putting, but it's hard to talk about Martin Luther King without going overboard. A hundred years from now, his picture may be on the dollar bill, or at least it should be. George Washington faced a cold winter at Valley Forge, but I daresay he never faced the challenge of teaching an entire nation the meaning of satyagraha.

The second episode of Eyes on the Prize focuses on the fight against school segregation and specifically on James Meredith's struggle to enroll at the University of Mississippi. While the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott remained a problem for a city to solve, the school segregation battle involved a Supreme Court decision and quickly became a standoff between state and federal governments.

Eyes on the Prize wisely avoids demonizing the white majority that stood against school segregation throughout the south, and the news/video clips help us understand the depth of the debate. When the US government sends in troops and a white politician declares on television that his state is now "under occupation", the word "occupation" hits hard. Is that what federal support for integration amounted to? What light does this shine on USA and Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Sudan and the refugees of Darfur? These issues were never easy, and they're still not.

I think I was primed to appreciate this rebroadcast of Eyes on the Prize because I'm still reeling from Spike Lee's When The Levees Broke, a disturbing chronicle of the 2005 New Orleans flood. That ordeal proved how far we still have to go in America.

Eyes on the Prize helps us figure out how we might get there.


Although I did not see Eyes on the Prize, after reading this blog, I am very interested in viewing this PBS special. The information made me remember growing up during the 60's and the issues that were so pertinent - but not thought about for a while. I agree with the author that although we have come a long way, I'm not sure that we have made as much growth as is necessary for us truly to be able to work together in such a diverse society.

I first viewed this series while taking a course as an undergrad on Civil Rights in the early 90s. I will never forget the footage of young African Americans being sprayed with fire hoses. Frightening. I am so thankful for all the work that has been done and for the work that continues today. I take heart in organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center. I think as a nation we are still working through issues of salvery and White Previledge. Thank you to PBS for this important programming.

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