Activists Mark Rerelease of 'Eyes on the Prize'

The acclaimed civil rights documentary has been shelved by years of copyright battles over archival footage. Its screening is limited to educational use.
The acclaimed civil rights documentary has been shelved by years of copyright battles over archival footage. Its screening is limited to educational use. (Photo Courtesy Of Prn)
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 19, 2006

It has been more than 50 years since Emmett Till was taken from his home, beaten, shot and drowned in Money, Miss., for supposedly whistling at a white woman.

But time didn't make it easier for the Rev. Reginald Green to view the image of the dead 14-year-old's disfigured face.

"That picture is still hard to look at," Green, a veteran of the civil rights movement, whispered to former D.C. Council member Frank Smith as they sat in a television studio at Howard University and watched footage from the early days of the civil rights struggle they remember so well.

The two men were among a small group of local activists and leaders who gathered at WHUT recently to discuss and celebrate the rerelease of the documentary "Eyes on the Prize."

The 14-part series won critical acclaim for chronicling the civil rights movement. The first six parts aired in January and February 1987, followed in 1990 by the final eight segments. But the documentary had not been shown on television or video since the mid-1990s because of limited copyrights on the archival footage.

Much of the footage obtained to make the movie is owned by a variety of entities, including private libraries and major stock film corporations, such as Getty Images. Judy Hampton, sister of the film's executive producer, the late Henry Hampton, worked for years with members of the film's production team to raise enough money to secure the rights to rerelease it.

"It took teams of people to rerelease 'Eyes,' " Hampton said.

Although the Ford Foundation and others donated thousands of dollars toward the effort, the documentary still can be shown only for educational purposes, she said.

PBS is offering seven DVDs or VHS tapes for $375.

Hampton participated in a panel discussion last month after a viewing of the first segment of the film at Howard. Others on the panel included longtime District activist Lawrence Guyot and Norman Hill, president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

Guyot said he got involved after college students in Boston launched their own protest to get the film rereleased by illegally downloading copies of it from the Internet. The challenge today is to get a new generation to appreciate the film, he said.

"Let's be clear," Guyot said. "We have to start a new campaign around 'Eyes on the Prize' because our young people don't know this history. We must have an intergenerational movement."

Underscoring his point was the fact that only about two dozen people showed up for the celebration and discussion, and most were veterans of the civil rights movement.

Justin Thwaites, 24, who graduated from Howard last year with a degree in audio production, was among the few younger people in the audience.

" 'Eyes on the Prize' is the greatest film I have seen about civil rights, and many people don't know about it," Thwaites said.

Ebony Vann, 25, a senior communications major from Springfield, Mass., said she was inspired by what she saw.

"This does motivate me to go back home and teach more people about 'Eyes on the Prize' in the classroom," Vann said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company