- Historic Sites
Up By The Bootstraps From Slavery
December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
“Eyes on the Prize,” skillfully woven from vintage news footage and newly filmed interviews with survivors of the struggle, shows how he and thousands of others did just that. It does not sentimentalize its story; defeated white opponents are heard from along with the civil rights workers who overcame and outwitted them. Nor does it ignore the genuine contribution made by white participants, whose simple presence in a demonstration often drew special lightning from enraged mobs. It does not flinch, either, from the conflicts over tactics and clashes of generation and personality that inevitably made the Movement’s task more difficult; in one interview, Stokely Carmichael (now known as Kwame Turée) sounds very like any one of a dozen small-town sheriffs, remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a disruptive outside agitator.
The series resists the temptation to focus exclusively on King and the other, only slightly less charismatic leaders of the Movement, giving long overdue attention instead to the foot soldiers: Mose Wright, a venerable Mississippi black man who, in 1955, did not shrink from testifying against the men accused of murdering his fourteen-year-old nephew, Emmett Till, for daring to say “Bye, baby” to the white woman who waited on him in a general store; Edward Nixon, the grizzled president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, who laughs as he recalls the evening, early in the bus boycott, when he realized he no longer needed to work on behalf of civil rights for his children alone: “Hell,” he told a meeting, “I’m going to enjoy some of this stuff for myself”; Ernest Green and Melba Pattilo Beals, two of the nine students chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, who remember with obvious joy the spring day in the school cafeteria when, after nearly a year of daily harassment from white schoolmates, one of their colleagues emptied a bowl of chili over the head of an especially noisy tormentor, to the silent astonishment of the white students and the wild applause of the all-black kitchen staff.
In most Civil War books written before 1970, slaves spoke, when allowed to speak at all, in minstrel patois.
Despite the beatings, and jailings and killings, a vein of grim, candid battlefield humor runs through the veterans’ reminiscences. The late James Hicks, a black journalist from New York, grins recalling the disbelief with which a Mississippi sheriff greeted the news that a black congressman, Charles Diggs of Michigan, was waiting to enter the courtroom in the Till case: “ This nigger here,” he told a deputy, “said there’s a nigger outside who says that he’s a congressman!” Andrew Young, remembering the Selmato-Montgomery march with which the series ends, explains why so many darksuited ministers walked in the vanguard alongside Dr. King: there had been death threats, and “Martin always wore the good preacher’s blue suit. And … I figured since we couldn’t stop him from marching, we just had to kind of believe that it was true when white folks said we all look alike. So everybody that was about Martin’s size and had on a blue suit I put in the front of the line with him.”
Lincoln could not control the pace of emancipation, once it began; “events,” he said, “have controlled me,” and preeminent among those events were the actions of the slaves themselves. Nor could Dwight Elsenhower slow school integration, though he issued familiar warnings about “going too far too fast” before mob violence at Little Rock finally forced him to send in the 101st Airborne to enforce the law. John and Robert Kennedy were equally powerless to halt the lunchroom sit-ins or freedom rides once they had begun—their periodic calls for cooling-off periods were politely but firmly ignored by a Movement with its own fixed agenda—and they were at last compelled to come to the demonstrators’ aid.
Much of the television footage included in the series is harrowing—bombed churches, bleeding freedom riders, dogs and fire hoses, and what one Movement survivor remembers as “too many funerals.” There can be few pieces of film more chilling than those that show Sheriff Jim Clark’s mounted posse clattering across the Edmund Pettis Bridge at Selma, there to tarnish what was left of the Lost Cause by riding down twelveyear-old schoolgirls while giving the Rebel yell. And as this moving final program implicitly reminds us, it was public reaction to the sight of that televised brutality which the demonstrators were willing to endure for their cause—not simple common sense or respect for existing law—that persuaded Lyndon Johnson to place all his formidable power behind the Civil Rights Act.
A portrait of Lincoln the Emancipator traditionally hung on the wall of the homes of former slaves; after Dallas and Memphis and Los Angeles, pictures of the Kennedys became nearly as ubiquitous in lower- and middle-class black living rooms as those of Dr. King. Black loyalty to those who eventually came to their aid is gracious and understandable, but on the evidence, mirrors might seem more appropriate.