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`Eyes on the Prize': reliving the civil rights struggle

Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-65 PBS, tomorrow and each Wednesday through Feb. 25, 9-10 p.m. (check local listings). Executive producer: Henry Hampton. Narrator: Julian Bond. Presented by WGBH, Boston. ``I was on the bridge at Selma. But I was at the back of the line, and I had no idea what was going on in the front of the line, much less in President Kennedy's Oval Office in the White House or in Gov. George Wallace's office,'' says Henry Hampton, executive producer of ``Eyes on the Prize,'' which documents the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Voting Rights Act.

The series is already being hailed as PBS's most significant public-affairs programming ever.

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``It was history happening in a variety of locales,'' Mr. Hampton continues. ``This series finally gives us a chance to see it all in the perspective of history.''

He is a soft-spoken Boston television producer, the son of middle-class black parents, and he is proud that he gave up a comfortable existence during the early days of the movement to take an active part in the fight in the South.

``Eyes on the Prize'' uses newsreel footage, interviews, and even TV outtakes to provide a balanced perspective on one of the great humanistic movements of contemporary America - the 1954-65 civil rights battle.

Although clearly in favor of the movement, the makers of the series try to give all points of view. Even those who lived through it will discover aspects they may not have known. It is an inspiring, emotional story, told with loving care. ``Eyes on the Prize'' is perhaps the quintessential adventure story - an exciting step-by-step history of the march toward victory for the righteous.

Why do the series now?

``I guess it is an itch I had to scratch,'' says Hampton. ``I had to do it for the young people who see what is happening in South Africa and have no reference point. Better than half of today's population is too young to remember Selma and Montgomery.

``Today people talk about affirmative action and busing, which came out of this period, and it is perfectly understandable that some of them take exception, but they have that right only if they have some understanding of the price the country paid to reach this point.

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``I hope the series will help people to understand the emotional aspect as well as the factual aspect of the civil rights movement. Television does that so well.''

While there are many blacks on Hampton's staff, many whites took part in the production of the series, too.

``It became clear to me that I could not do this series, psychologically or quality-wise, without having a diversity of people on the production staff, men and women, black and white,'' explains Hampton.

He feels that the resentment of white participation in the black-power movement in the post-1965 period was never as widespread as reported in the media. ``It got blown out of all proportion.'' As black leadership asserted itself, whatever resentment there was of whites diminished. ``We're through that period,'' he says with finality.

But he makes it clear that, ``if it were up to you or me, the civil rights movement would probably never have happened.

``If you watch the series and study the history, it is absolutely clear that the generating force for all of this was, most often, the rural American South - unlettered, uneducated people, who simply reached a point where they said, `No!' It was only after that that the church and the black and white middle class got involved. The catalyst then and in the future has to be the indigenous classes, not government bureaucracy. Leadership then and now has to be found within that element.

``Perhaps this series will stir young blacks to do something more along the same lines rather than sit and wait for great charismatic leaders. The trouble is: It is on PBS, which tends to reach people already motivated. I'd like to have the series shown in church basements.''

Were there any intellectual revelations for Hampton as he reviewed all the archival footage for the series?

``Several. I was amazed to discover just how sophisticated the early movement actually was. I had not known that Montgomery people were so ready for the bus boycott. They were prepared with everything, including mimeograph machines.

``They'd turned down other people who had first wanted to start the battle and waited for Rosa Parks because she was politically a more acceptable choice.

``I had no idea there was so much understanding of the Gandhian nonviolent kind of protest within the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference].

``Also, most people don't know that Dwight Eisenhower played such an important part in the movement. It was Eisenhower who appointed many of those Republican judges in the South who stood up for what blacks were trying to accomplish.

``On the other hand, John F. Kennedy appointed some of the worst judges in the South, because he was tied to the Southern Democratic party. So, working on this series demythologized part of this history for me, and I hope it will do so for viewers, too.''

Hampton is pleased that the series will be viewed as part of ``telecourses'' in over 200 colleges, that it will be available in book form, with excerpts appearing in school readers, and that PBS is distributing viewer guides.

He hopes sometime soon to bring the civil rights story up to the present in another series.

``Eyes on the Prize'' is important, especially now, according to Hampton, because places like Howard Beach still exist. ``Viewers will get a sense of promise that the problems of the underclass can be solved,'' he says.

``I want black kids to understand the discipline and long-term impact and brilliant strategies that were put together to accomplish the objective.

``They will see the absolutely crucial role of leadership and the fact that you must have it emerge out of the population most affected.

``You can't watch these programs without realizing that the people who accomplished the most were not exceptional people by most criteria. But they took responsibility for making the changes themselves.''

Hampton believes that ``the movement had much more to do with white America than with black America. It takes an awful lot of energy to maintain an apartheid system. It is expensive - it costs part of your soul. I hope the world will take note that once the major battle was resolved, there was enough energy in the nation to move into other important movements - feminism, human development, antiwar. It freed the country to take its next steps in its drive toward making America - and the world - a better place.''

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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