ST LOUIS - Washington University in St. Louis has received a four-year, $550,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to preserve Henry Hampton’s award-winning civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 as well as Hampton’s complete, unedited interviews recorded on film for the documentary. The grant is the largest ever received by University Libraries.
Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 is a six-episode documentary on the American civil rights movement.
Originally broadcast in 1987 on Public Broadcasting Systems stations throughout the country, the documentary uses both archival footage of the events depicted and contemporary interviews.
The original documentary film and interview footage were donated to the University Libraries in 2001 as part of the Henry Hampton Collection. The collection is one of the largest archives of civil rights media in the United States and contains materials on other topics as well.
“Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize remains the definitive work on the American civil rights movement, even more than 20 years after its release,” says Shirley K. Baker, vice chancellor for scholarly resources and dean of University Libraries. “With the generous assistance of the Mellon Foundation, Washington University can continue to protect and preserve these priceless archives for students, scholars and the general public for generations to come.”
Among those interviewed for the documentary were Curtis Jones, cousin of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy murdered in Mississippi in 1955; Coretta Scott King, wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice during the Kennedy administration. The footage from all these interviews and many more is held at the Film & Media Archive, a unit of the University Libraries’ Department of Special Collections.
“These records are a crucial part of Americans’ cultural history and heritage,” says James E. McLeod, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and vice chancellor for students. “This partnership between Washington University and the Mellon Foundation ensures that both the documentary itself, along with the interviews that gave life to its stories, will always be available as a source of information and inspiration.”
Preservation: why and how?
Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 was shot entirely on acetate-based film, which is highly susceptible to decay, says Nadia Ghasedi, WUSTL film and media archivist. As part of the preservation process, the film will be transferred to a more stable, polyester-based film.
Once transferred to a more stable medium, the footage will be more accessible to students, researchers and any other interested viewers, Ghasedi says.
“Preservation is the crucial first step in making these priceless materials freely and widely accessible for scholarly and public use,” Ghasedi says.
“The university’s ultimate goal is to have the interviews digitized and available online, but preservation must happen before the materials can be digitized,” Ghasedi says.
Ghasedi says WUSTL’s Film & Media Archive will seek funding for the digitization phase once preservation is under way.
The Film & Media Archive will preserve all six one-hour episodes of the documentary, which include 13,000 feet of picture footage and 13,000 feet of soundtrack. Also to be preserved will be 75 hours of original footage, which includes 160,000 feet of picture footage and 160,000 feet of soundtrack.
Added together, that is approximately 65.5 miles worth of film — enough to drape over the St. Louis Gateway Arch 549 times.
Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 is the first part of the Eyes on the Prize documentary series, which also includes Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965-1985. Eyes on the Prize and Eyes on the Prize II ran during primetime on PBS stations in 1987 and 1990, respectively, attracting an audience of more than 20 million viewers.
The series garnered international acclaim, winning more than 20 major awards. Among the recognitions were two Emmy awards, two Peabody Awards and a 1988 Academy Award nomination for best documentary. Eyes on the Prize was rebroadcast in the fall of 2006, attracting a new generation of viewers. It has been widely used in educational settings.
The footage used to create both Eyes on the Prize documentaries is part of the university’s Henry Hampton Collection. Because Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965-1985 was edited using videotape, which created accessible video copies of each interview, the university is focusing on the preservation of the Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 first, Ghasedi says.
About WUSTL’s Henry Hampton Collection
Hampton (1940-1998), the creator and executive producer for Eyes on the Prize and other documentaries, is a St. Louis native and 1961 graduate of Washington University.
Through his Boston-based film production company Blackside Inc., Hampton chronicled the 20th century’s great political and social movements, focusing on the lives of the poor and disenfranchised.
Hampton’s other documentaries include The Great Depression (1993); Malcolm X: Make It Plain (1994); America’s War on Poverty (1995); Breakthrough: The Changing Face of Science in America (1997); I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts (1998); Hopes on the Horizon (1999); and This Far by Faith (2003).
The materials used to create Hampton’s films were donated by Civil Rights Project Inc., Blackside’s nonprofit affiliate, in 2001 to Washington University’s Film & Media Archive, which is housed in the university’s West Campus Library, as the Henry Hampton Collection. It took more than four semi-tractor trailers to transport the massive collection to St. Louis.
The 35,000-plus items in the Henry Hampton Collection include film and videotape (570 hours of original footage and 730 hours of stock footage), photographs, scripts, storyboards, producers’ notes, interviews, music, narration, posters, study guides, books and other materials.