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Stirring New Chapters in TV's Record of Civil Rights Struggle


EYES ON THE PRIZE II PBS, Monday, 9-10 p.m., first of eight one-hour episodes through March 5 (check local listings). Subtitled ``America at the Racial Crossroads (1964 to mid-1980s).'' MALCOLM X and the Nation of Islam, Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) - the names and organizations conjure up the headiest days of America's civil rights movement.

Now extending its award-winning 1987 season, ``Eyes on the Prize'' - a series that blends historical footage, contemporary interviews, narration, and music - offers eight more one-hour studies of this pivotal aspect of American history.

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While the first series chronicled the decade of marches and lobbying that secured a measure of justice on paper for black Americans, Part 2 explores the movement's many splinters and how each has evolved.

``Black people are dissatisfied ... not only with the white man,'' says a scowling Malcolm X in a 1964 interview, expressing the frustration of the period, ``but [with] these Negroes who have been sitting around here posing as leaders and spokesmen for black people but who are actually making matters worse....''

Looking back on that period from today's perspective, singer Harry Belafonte recalls, ``What Dr. King gave us, what Stokely Carmichael gave us, Malcolm X ... what everybody gave us, whether you agreed with them or not, [was] the energy of that time and the goals we were aspiring to.... [That's] what it was all about at its best.''

Monday's premi`ere shows us Martin Luther King Jr. wiping his brow and exclaiming: ``I'm tired of marching ... for something that should've been mine at birth.''

We see Malcolm X, who adopted the Black Muslim faith in prison, become a charismatic advocate of black separatism; after a split with Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad, he founds the Organization of Afro-American Unity. In the South, we see Stokely Carmichael and his SNCC move from the chant ``Freedom Now!'' to ``Black Power!''

The following installments deal with three- to five-year periods of the black struggle, beginning with 1964.

Producer Henry Hampton, founder of Blackside Inc. multimedia production company [see interview at right], has said one pitfall to avoid in relying on archival film is not to let the availability of film determine the history. In this series, where footage is lacking, the narrative never suffers. A strong list of contemporary interviews fills the gap. The result appears seamless.

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In the first episode, for instance, Mike Wallace recalls his invitation to report on, and his subsequent astonishment at, militant black rallies. Alex Haley remembers the initial stages of ghost-writing Malcolm X's now-classic autobiography, when he could not get the black leader to talk about himself instead of the accomplishments of the prophet Muhammad. Stokely Carmichael, seen today as well as in archival footage, recalls the fear which the slogan ``Black Power'' engendered in whites. who equated it with violence instead of political empowerment.

The differences in the substance, style, approach, and success of the various leaders stand out in sharp contrast. Walking in one Southern march for freedom, a television news reporter asks Mr. King about his advocacy of nonviolence. Then, turning to Stokely Carmichael, he asks, ``Do you disagree with this approach?'' ``Yes, I do,'' says Carmichael unabashedly. In another reel, Malcolm X, tells whites there are many valid means of breaking chains: ``It's good for whites to know that if [Dr. King's methods of nonviolence] are not successful, they will have us to deal with.''

Moving chronologically, the series shifts geographically as well. Program 2 takes the viewer to Chicago and Detroit, Program 3 to Cleveland and Oakland for the forming of the Black Panther Party. Program 4 recounts Dr. King's murder in Memphis. Program 5 follows Muhammad Ali in Washington, D.C., and takes viewers to Gary, Ind., for the first National Black Political Convention. Program 6 recounts the takeover of New York's Attica State Prison in the wake of President Nixon's national ``call to order.'' Program 7 examines Boston's resistance to desegregation and Atlanta's first black mayor, as well as affirmative action and the Allan Bakke case. (Program 8 was not available at this writing.)

After his decade of involvement in the 16-part series, producer Henry Hampton is optimistic about the civil rights movement today, despite its diffusion in recent years. In press material accompanying the series, he writes, ``I really believe that the movement goes underground and surfaces, very much like a river. At any point, you might look and think it's gone away. But it's an involvement waiting to happen again, particularly if we can find the correct leadership to trigger it.''

``Eyes on the Prize II'' reexamines the forces and personalities that gave each facet of the movement its strengths and weaknesses and goes far toward reviving interest in America's civil rights struggle. The series also plants more than a few seeds of introspection by asking, ``Where are we now? How do we proceed?''

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