Eyes on the Prize, the landmark 1987 documentary that tells the riveting story of the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of everyday Americans, is now available for streaming, thanks to a partnership between GBH WORLD and PBS. We chatted with Liz Cheng, GBH and GBH WORLD general manager for television, and Chris Hastings, executive producer and editorial manager for GBH WORLD, about why the series continues to impact generations, especially those new to the program.
Q: Why now?
LC: During the contentious 2016 Presidential election, we thought it was important to bring back the iconic civil rights series, Eyes on the Prize, especially for younger generations trying to understand in a larger context the then burgeoning Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. And now with the resurgence of BLM due to the national outcry surrounding the killing of several African Americans, we felt the series could again inform and advance the conversation on racial reckoning.
CH: Back in 2015, there was an uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of local police. As we headed into 2020 with the pandemic raging, the killing of George Floyd by police again triggered protests and a national conversation about racial justice. We believe people need to be reminded that due to systemic racism, our country has been in turmoil for generations. We have lessons to re-learn and new solutions to put into practice. And Eyes on the Prize is the perfect catalyst to help this work get done.
Q: What makes Eyes on the Prize so distinct?
CH: If you asked people of color what’s been great about public media, people might say Sesame Street, MASTERPIECE, Eyes on the Prize, FRONTLINE and NOVA. Eyes on the Prize is always in the conversation. When GBH presented Eyes on the Prize in 1987, Henry Hampton’s groundbreaking work became the model and inspiration for so many filmmakers who came later—from Stanley Nelson and Ken Burns to Skip Gates.
LC: Eyes on the Prize concentrated on everyday personal stories of people putting their lives on the line for civil rights. In previous documentaries about world movements, the focus remained on what leaders were thinking, experiencing and doing. Eyes on the Prize is really about ordinary people who rose to do extraordinary things.
Q: What impact do you hope the rebroadcast has?
LC: We hope that if people can see where we came from, they will recognize how we arrived here today. Some might say we've come a long way from those times, but clearly, we still have a long way to go. No one should miss the episode featuring the unprecedented 1974 court ruling to desegregate Boston schools that resulted in busing in Boston. Today, the pandemic has made inequities here and across the country more starkly evident. Connecting events of the past with those of today makes the fight for civil rights even more relevant and vital.
CH: It's important to understand what we can learn from those early heroes and leaders who led a revolution in America. They are models for leaders today because change happens when ordinary people stand up and walk across a bridge protesting for their rights. Eyes on the Prize is a map, a guide, if you will, filled with strategies and courage, showing how to make change. Eyes on the Prize gives young people, who are so hungry for change, the opportunity to learn from legendary civil rights activists like the late John Lewis, C. T. Vivian, a minister and associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others. While they are no longer with us, their fight lives on.
The broadcasts are accompanied by a comprehensive package of multimedia resources: GBH WORLD and PBS will host national online events to discuss themes in the series and connect audiences to how those themes impact our society today. Individual episodes will also be included in PBS At-Home Learning broadcast schedule on GBH WORLD, which was created in response to the pandemic. Those broadcasts will be supplemented with additional resources from PBS LearningMedia, a free service that includes thousands of contextualized learning materials aligned to state and national standards. PBS’s Civil Rights: Then and Now collection presents video clips, activities, discussion questions and lesson plans.
The American Archive of Public Broadcasting has released a new online exhibit Freedom Song: Interviews from Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965 – that explores the history behind and making of the groundbreaking civil rights series Eyes on the Prize.