Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Eyes on the Prize


Here is one of the few documentary series qualified to stand beside the very best documentarians like Ken Burns and David Attenborough. It’s 14 hours long, and produced by black folks, which was still fairly rare even as far from the beginnings of the civil rights movement as the late ‘80s. It was shown in two segments three years apart and for a while it was unavailable. The reason for that was that the production company, Blackside, didn’t have the money to renew the licenses for music and archive footage, which had run out and were getting more expensive to renew every year. The Ford Foundation stepped in and paid off the debts, for which we should all thank them. It’s now available on 7 DVDs.
This series is especially valuable because it was made when most of the people involved were still alive, and are able to comment on the historical footage. This includes surprising people like the mayor of Selma, a man who “accidentally” referred to “Martin Luther Coon … ah, I mean, King,” nyuck nyuck, and Sheriff Jim Clark, one of the most enthusiastic head bashers. It’s important that these things be done in a timely manner, not waiting too long. Some of the people involved are, happily, still alive at this writing of almost-2013, but like WWII vets, we’re losing more of them every day.

I lived through this turbulent era in SE Texas, a part of the south but not deeply involved in this struggle. My world was segregated by law and custom, with separate public facilities and schools. I recall seeing signs to PAY YOUR POLL TAX, which was one of those scams southern states used to keep black citizens from voting. But there seems to have been not much of the fanatic white resistance and racial violence that happened in Mississippi and Alabama. I’m sure most white folks were not happy to comply with the Federal court rulings that were resisted so insanely to the east of us, but apparently white Texans went more or less quietly. I recall no local conflicts. Of course, I was young, and didn’t really become keenly aware of the Movement until the Selma march, when I watched police clubbing and tear gassing peaceful marchers on the infamous Pettus bridge. And though bus stations and rest rooms were integrated in my high school years, I never went to school with a black child. Integration in my home town, as elsewhere (and very much so in the North, as well, don’t forget), was enforced long after the Supreme Court rulings by custom, fear, and real estate agent conspiracies that weren’t dealt with until long after. And even further, of course, to this day that fight continues. There is still a town a few miles from my hometown of Nederland, a little shithole called Vidor, with no black citizens, where the last black couple who tried to live there were basically run out of town. But I’m happy to say that on my last visit to Nederland, quite a while ago now, I was gratified (and frankly, a bit shocked) to see black teens working at McDonalds, and black faces in the high school. Hurray!

So while I was aware of much that was going on, a lot of it didn’t make a deep impression on me at the time. It is great to go back over it and learn much, much more than I knew then. And you can’t help be just stunned by the sheer courage it took for those early demonstrators, protesters, freedom riders, and sit-in people to stand up to the deeply ingrained racism that quickly turned to murderous hatred for those uppity niggers and white sympathizers who dared to challenge what whites saw as “our heritage.” No one will ever know how many died for the cause (many a lynching victim was never found), but the stories of those who did are horrifying.

The Civil Rights Years (1954-1964)

1. Awakenings (1954-1956) Emmitt Till was beaten to death and dumped in a river because he spoke to a white woman in a way she interpreted as uppity. He was from Chicago and didn’t know any better, didn’t realize the danger he was in merely being near a white woman. His mother insisted on an open coffin funeral, which horrified all, white and black, who beheld his battered corpse. It was a defining moment in the movement. This segment also covers the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There are good movies about both these things, including the excellent The Long Walk Home, starring Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg.
2. Fighting Back (1957-1962) I do recall the forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock over the objections of that piece-of-shit governor Orval Faubus, because Eisenhower was finally moved to send in the 101st Airborne Division to protect that little handful of students. (Faubus had sent in the National Guard, but it was to keep the students out; Eisenhower nationalized the Guard and sent them home.) I recall those images on the news, and the hatred on the faces of the thousands of Arkansans who taunted them and spit at them. I recall wondering why they wanted to go through all that. Didn’t they have a school of their own? Also there is the story of James Meredith trying to get into Ole Miss, where there was rioting and burning. Ross Barnett becomes the second piece-of-shit governor in a long line of them.

3. Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961) Mass jailing begins with protesters sitting at lunch counters and waiting rooms reserved for whites. It was no small thing in the South to go to a jail run by whites, many of them KKK members. Also, the “Freedom riders,” groups of whites and Negroes riding on interstate buses through the Deep South, as the ICC ruled must be allowed. Not in Miss’sip, and not in ‘Bama, y’all. Buses were burned, riders beaten almost to death, and the cops stood by and watched.

4. No Easy Walk (1961-1963) The rise of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the most prominent voice of the Movement. Not everyone in the Movement was completely happy about this, particularly SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, but most realized they needed a central figure, for now at least, and King was the most magnificent American speaker of the 20th Century. The conflicts in Albany, Georgia, where the local chief of police was too canny to get lured into violence, and Birmingham, where the shitheads were not canny enough, are also covered. The segment climaxes with the famous March on Washington, 200,000 people, black and white, peacefully assembling and making some of the greatest images of the 20th century on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. How wonderfully symbolic, moving from the beginning of this country to the abolition of slavery! There they heard one of the greatest speeches ever delivered, King’s “I Have a Dream.”

5. Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964) Medgar Evers, a local official of the NAACP, is assassinated by a human turd called Byron De La Beckwith. The killer was tried twice in 1964 and got off both times with a hung jury. Which, I guess, was some sort of lame progress, because the almost universal verdict down in the Deep-in-the-sewer South was not guilty up to then, like for the turds who killed Emmitt Till. (Justice finally prevailed, and in 1993 Byron was convicted. Sadly, he was too old to serve much time. He died in 2001 and went straight to Hell.) Then there was the murder of Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner, two white and one black freedom riders. In a great stand-up moment, Schwerner’s widow, Rita, pointed out angrily that it took the murder of two white boys to get people’s attention. Now that is a woman who sees things clearly. Finally, since the Mississippi Democratic delegation to the national convention in Atlantic City was all white, simply because there were almost no Negroes allowed to register, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, mostly black, was formed and tried to be seated. Because of political arm-twisting by LBJ and his friends, they were not seated. But the white delegation walked out, unwilling to accept the miserable compromise offered them.

6. Bridge to Freedom (1954) This one is largely the voting rights fight in Selma, Alabama, and the resulting march from Selma to Montgomery. George Wallace joins the list of piece-of-shit governors who won’t back down and won’t compromise. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” he shouted.

America at the Racial Crossroads (1965-1985)

The Time Has Come (1964-1966) Malcolm X, his rise to prominence, his split from the horrible Elijah Muhammad, and his eventual assassination, not by white men this time, but black shooters probably encouraged by Muhammad. We’re coming into a transition between the time of Dr. King and the new firebrands, and I’ve been conflicted by it for a long time. I greatly admire King and his works, but I do think that, one way or another, his time had passed. He seemed to feel that the solution to every problem was to hold a non-violent march. I’m not advocating violence, but I’ve always felt that the Black Panthers and others were right in that they didn’t have to take the white man’s shit anymore, that they had to right to armed self-defense. And it’s funny, because we see the Panthers in Sacramento, in the Capital Building, carrying pistols and rifles. Scared the crap out of everybody. And suddenly, the fucking Second Amendment didn’t look so good … uh, we’ve sort of changed our minds about that, you know? It was fine as long as white men were packing heat, but all those armed niggers … shit!

Then we get James Meredith’s courageous and solitary March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi … and I know he was fearless in the best sense, in that he was willing to do this incredibly dangerous thing at all, but terror, as in white terrorism, was a whole ‘nother deal. He was shot from ambush by a piece of shit named Aubrey James Norvell, who served only 18 months and should have died in prison. Now all the civil rights leaders and thousands of others vowed to complete the march for voter registration. Meredith recovered quickly enough to rejoin them. It was a tense time.

2. Two Societies (1965-1968) Martin Luther King goes to Chicago and basically lays an egg. Piece of shit Mayor Daley was too canny for him, and promised him everything he asked for and then made little public relations gestures that didn’t solve anything in housing and poverty.

Then there was the riot in Detroit. I remember that in the summer of ’65 I was living with my Uncle Chuck while I worked a summer job. Watts exploded, and we watched it on TV. Uncle Chuck informed me that there had been a race riot in Detroit in 1943. The National Guard came in and killed 34 people. He declared that the “niggers” had learned their lesson, and that there would be no riots in Detroit. Wrong, Uncle Chuck!

3. Power! (1967-1968) This episode covers three basic subjects. First there was the campaign and election of Carl Stokes as mayor of Cleveland, the tenth largest city in the country. It was not a racist campaign on either side, the opponent being basically a gentleman, but it was highly significant in an era when a black man being elected to an office that high was still a big, big deal. Second, the rise of the Black Panther Party. I was living in San Francisco when most of this went down, and everyone I knew was a supporter of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver. How were we to know that Huey was basically a criminal, who later admitted that he killed the police officer he was tried and convicted of murdering (though he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter). Lastly, there is the fight over community control of neighborhood schools in Brooklyn, where the teachers union tried to paint the black and Hispanic parents as anti-Semites, because so many of the ineffective and clueless teachers clinging to their patronage jobs were Jewish.

4. The Promised Land (1967-1968) The hardest segment to watch. It chronicles the last days of Martin Luther King, his assassination, and burial. I remember those days vividly, as I’m sure we all do who were alive back then. Cities all over the country exploded in racial violence. Everything burned. There seemed no end to it. It was a horrible memorial to Dr. King, who would have deplored every second of it … and yet, to me, it underscored the fact that King’s day was over by then. Had he lived, I believe he would have become increasingly ineffectual, no longer relevant to the young, angry men and women whose very strength was largely attributable to the work of King and all the other pioneers. But that is the inevitable nature of revolutions. The elders have to step aside, even if the young generation’s way of going about things is questionable or even wrong. History moves on. What’s uncanny about it all is that in his last speech, I have been to the mountain and I have seen the promised land, he told the crowd that he may not get there with them … and of course he didn’t.

His last project was to build a “Resurrection City,” a sort of Hooverville of plywood tents, filled with poor people, on the Mall in Washington. It was built, in his memory and to carry on his work, but it was a disaster. When it rained the whole place was a foot deep in water. It slowly fell apart, and was bulldozed. It was a real low point in the Movement.

5. Ain’t Gonna Shuffle No More (1964-1972) It’s hard to remember now just how unusual and revolutionary Muhammad Ali was in the ‘60s, with all the in-your-face black people we have today. The Louisville Lip, he was called, among many much worse things. The dude just would not behave like a humble credit to his race, like all the other sports stars … and most of them hated him. “I am the greatest!” You had to either love him or hate him, and I soon learned to love him.

“Black pride” was just emerging as a concept. Howard University, the traditional training ground for black people who aspired to a better life, found itself clashing with its own students, who wanted a curriculum that included the newly emerging black culture. The administration correctly pointed out that there was no “black physics” or “black mathematics,” but conveniently failed to mention that there was such a thing as black history, and that no one was studying it.

Then we get the National Black Political Convention, just as contentious and messy as any Democratic convention. It was in danger of all falling apart when Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones, and I have to say, a very bad poet) stepped to the podium and managed to get some sort of order out of it all.

6. A Nation of Law? (1968-1971) Fred Hampton was basically assassinated by the Chicago Police Department. They said the panthers were firing on them, and they just returned fire, but they stupidly forgot to seal off the house where the murder occurred. The bullet holes told the story. The panthers fired one shot. Every other hole in the bullet-riddled house was fired by the pigs. (I seldom use that term, but when it comes to murder, pigs is pigs.) Hampton was shot twice in the head at point-blank range. “He’s good and dead now,” one of them said. No one was ever punished for this blatant assassination.

After that came the Attica prison rebellion. Once again, it was the cops who did all the killing. There were 39 white hostages, and ten of them died, all of them from police bullets. After the prison was rushed the cops brutally beat all the inmates. Basically, it was a second riot. Nelson Rockefeller should have been tried for murder, but instead Gerald Ford picked him to be vice-president.

7. The Keys to the Kingdom (1974-1980) Here’s something that was a revelation to me when it happened. Being from the South, I had been bearing a lot of liberal guilt about my heritage, and indeed, about some of the things I believed (without really thinking about them) when I was young. When you’re surrounded by racism and don’t know anything else, and are too young to have experienced much in life, what are you going to do? Mind you, I never knew any Klansmen, wasn’t aware of lynching, and would have hated it if I had known. I had interacted with Negroes only at my granddaddy’s 5&10 cent store in Corsicana, Texas, and that only to ring up the things they were buying. I never had a black classmate until I went to Michigan State University. But I frequently used the word “nigger,” and if you’d asked me I probably would have said they smell bad, aren’t real smart, etc., because that’s what I’d been told.

I came to believe that the ugliness of racism was a purely Southern thing. So when the rabidly racist residents of South Boston, “Southie,” hurled rocks at school buses and shouted “Nigger go home!” on the evening news, I was shocked. I knew there were racists everywhere, but I had no idea racism in the North could move whites to the same horrors as it had in the South. I came to understand that the biggest difference in the North and the South was that racism was institutionalized in Dixie, whereas it was hidden behind a liberal façade in Detroit, Boston, New York, Chicago. It made me feel less guilty about what I had been, prouder of what I had become … and less sanguine about the human race. If racism was not just a festering sore in Alabama and Mississippi, but was widespread, there was nothing we could do to eradicate it anytime soon, if ever.
After that we get the campaign of Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of a Deep South city, Atlanta, and his insistence that 20% of the contracts for building the gigantic new airport be black-owned. And the place was built on schedule and on budget. When’s the last time you heard of that happening? Also, the concept of reverse discrimination rears its head in the Bakke case in California.

8. Back to the Movement (1979-1983) On to 1980, and the Miami riots over the murder by police of a black man on a motorcycle, beaten to death. And nothing has changed. No one went to jail when the all-white, all-male jury acquitted the murderers in blue. With the election of Harold Washington in Chicago, we wrap up the series.
Now I have one question. Spike Lee, how about a continuation, covering the last thirty years? We’ve had black astronauts, black college presidents, (any black Nobel Prize winners, other than the Peace Prize? I don’t know), black entertainers in all the arts as big as or bigger than any white man or woman, adored by white people. Blacks doing pretty much everything they had been deprived of for 400 years. A black president, for cryin’ out loud. But the race issue is still there. It will still be there when I die, I have no doubt. Things are better, but there is still more to do. How about it, Spike?