Eyes on the Prize: Americas Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 by Juan WilliamsEyes on the Prize utilizes the tactic of revisionist history -- that is, telling historical events from perspectives not often considered. For instance, the master narrative or textbook version of the Civil Rights movement is generally focused on Martin Luther King and how he empowered a repressed people.
Eyes on the Prize approaches the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s with a different perspective. It starts by introducing the social elements and people between the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964, and explains how the second Civil Rights movement gained momentum and spread.
I was particularly struck by the story of Kenneth Clark and how his Dolls Study was used as evidence in the Briggs v. Clarendon County case. I think this instance is a great example of the combination of legal strategy and action with the intent to change public opinion. It is clear they were aware of the charged nature of this decision from the quote on page 20,
It was highly unorthodox evidence to present in a courtroom, but the situation called for unusual legal ammunition.
I think this choice must have had more impact in the legal and public spheres than is focused on in this book, as it is now relatively common for a court of law to seek the expert opinion of a mental health worker. Psychologists and others who work with the mentally ill are often tainted with a sort of stigma-by-association, yet in a high-stakes trial, they chose to highlight not only a psychological study, but a study done by a black psychologist. It is clear why: Not only is the study itself sound, the ramifications are unsettling on an instinctual level. To prove the effect of discrimination on innocent young minds is an extremely effective way of inciting both sympathy and desire to act in the viewer -- it draws on the innate human desire to protect our children from harm.
In many ways, both the legal strategy and the public action danced around this concept. Charles Houston drew on it when he focused his initial efforts of educational desegregation oat the higher education levels, knowing that it would be less threatening to whites if it started in adult institutions rather than with children. He drew on this human instinct, too, whether consciously or not, when he filmed the contrasting situations of white and black children in their segregated learning environments. I suspect it is easier for a moderate white to be unconcerned about the plight of black children if they are not aware of the reality of that plight.
Clearly, hard-core racist segregationists didnt particularly care if black children were in school, in the gutter, or dead. But it wasnt the hard-core segregationists they needed to sway; it was the moderates and public opinion in general. I think Martin Luther Kings advocacy of nonviolent, passive resistance also appealed, in a sense, to the parents desire for their childrens safety. The nonviolent movement showed through both word and actions that blacks were not the threat segregationists were trying to paint them as. Indeed, as the movement progressed, the juxtaposition of dignified non-violent resistance of the blacks and their white allies to the lashing anger and rage of the of segregationists highlighted who the real danger to society was.
This is further alluded to on page 113, in an interview with a white student at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas:
Other Whites, however, lost sympathy for the governor. I began to change, remembers Craig Rains, a white senior at Central during the 1957-1958 school year, from being . . . a moderate, who, if I had my way, would have said, Lets dont integrate, because its the states right to decide. I changed to someone who felt a real sense of compassion for those students, and felt like they deserved something that I had, and I also developed a real dislike for the people that were out there causing problems. (pg 113)
I wouldnt go so far as to argue that the entire civil rights movement was predicated on the human urge to protect the children, but I do think that a sensitivity and awareness of this shared instinct permeates the movement. It present in the cases they choose to argue and the order they chose to pursue them in. It was a consideration in the way blacks and their white allies presented themselves to the public.
In the arena of national attention, they often focused on the violence done to black children. In the arena of legal cases, they chose defendants who were either children or adults who were not considered a threat to those who needed to be protected. They also chose to focus on litigation that either did not affect children and was therefore not perceived as a threat to white children, or that focused on the harm done to black children, which incited sympathy in moderate whites. On top of these choices was the conscious decision to employ children in many marches and boycotts, which both made for moving publicity and allowed their parents more freedom of movement behind the scenes. Whether these choices were conscious or subconscious, they positively impacted both the participants in and the observers of the freedom movement on a very instinctive level.
The impact of this was even evidenced by segregationists, who in the immediate wake of the Emmet Till murder were, outraged at what happened,(43) and promised justice would be done. As it turned out, justice was not done -- but I do think its telling that in the immediate aftermath of the murder, the reported reaction of, all decent people, was outrage and horror. The Southerners did not initially respond with a meh, or (worse), glee: They reacted with the disgust any right-thinking person should feel upon learning of such an incident. As the media attention grew and swelled, the white community drew back on itself and became defensive and angry, but their first reaction to the murder of a child was one of horror.
Today, many social activist groups say, Think of the children, when they try to defend or argue some stance or other. I suspect the segregationists said this phrase, too, or some 1950s equivalent of it. It is interesting that a successful social movement is the one that does think of the children, and that considers the impact of their movement on all children, rather than just their children.
Eyes on the Prize: 2america's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965
A comprehensive television documentary about the American Civil Rights Movement, utilizing rare historical film and present-day interviews. Disc 1: 1. Awakenings Focuses on the Mississippi lynching of year-old Emmett Till and the subsequent trial; Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott; the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and the entry of ordinary citizens and local leaders into the black struggle for freedom. Board of Education decision to the efforts of the first black high school and college students to integrate white schools. Disc 2: 3. Ain't Scared of Your Jails Chronicles the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the participation of young people and college students in lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides, as well as the Civil Rights Movement's influence on the presidential campaign. No Easy Walk Examines the emergence of mass demonstrations and marches as a powerful form of protest by documenting the anti-segregation march of Alabama school children against the spray of fire hoses and the historic March on Washington, DC.
Having been teaching courses on the struggle for racial equality for some two decades, I know only too well the paucity of quality documentary media materials on this subject. We labored together on some grant proposals and on the pedagogical needs of such a telecourse. Then I lectured in the "Civil Rights School," an intensive crash course for the production team on the themes and events of the black struggle. My work done, I waited—expectantly and hopefully. Eyes on the Prize fulfills my expectations, although not all my hopes. The series of six one-hour programs on the civil rights movement, premiered on PBS on Wednesday, January 21, is quite simply the most authoritative and stirring documentary yet produced on this critically significant topic of our history. The first segment, Awakenings , highlights the courageous testimony of Mose Wright in the trial of two white men for the murder of his nephew, Emmett Till, in Mississippi in , and the actions taken by Rosa Parks, E.
Note: This is a bit off topic, but I did want to recommend a book from the ETS diversity library as a great bit of historic writing. Hopefully I won't stir up anything too controversial. A book review that has been pending, but is timely once again is Juan Williams' Eyes on the Prize which recounts the Civil Rights struggle from I actually inherited this book when I took over some materials from semi-forgotten a diversity project at ETS and started reading it a few years ago. It's timely now though because both ITS my mother ship at Penn State is trying to increase diversity awareness and because the period is on our minds again due to the recent film version of the The Help.
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