‘Documenting Change’ symposium offers programs that commemorate the civil rights struggle and celebrate the Henry Hampton Collection

Mississippi in 1964, veteran civil rights activist Robert Moses once remarked, was like “a little apartheid” right here in America. Viewing the vote and the empowerment of people as necessary to the democratic process, thousands of young people black and white traveled to Mississippi that summer to change America. The next year, civil rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate for voting rights in Alabama. Turned back at the Edmund Pettis Bridge that day by the brutality of Alabama State Troopers, the marchers returned to the site of Bloody Sunday as an even greater contingent of people from across America came to repeat the demonstration. Crossing the bridge that day, Washington University graduate Henry Hampton commented: “this would make a great movie.”

Two decades later, Hampton himself made that “great movie” with the seminal film series, “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years,” and its sequel,”Eyes on the Prize: America at the Racial Crossroads,” a critically-acclaimed and widely popular 14-part series chronicling the American civil rights movement. Together they garnered more than 23 awards, including two Emmys, a Peabody and the Edward R. Murrow Brotherhood Award for Best National Documentary. It also received an Oscar nomination.

“The series is an example of how media can render American history as a means to transform a nation,” observes Leslie Brown, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and of African and Afro-American studies in Arts & Sciences, who developed the concept for a symposium focusing on the struggle for civil rights in America. “Forty years ago, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, ending the long disenfranchisement of African Americans and their exclusion from the democratic process. These events commemorate the struggles and celebrate the progress,” she added.

“Documenting Change” symposium co-sponsors include the University Libraries, the Association of Black Students, the Assembly Series, and numerous departments in Arts & Sciences (African and Afro-American studies, American culture studies, film and media studies, history and political science departments).

It includes two film screenings — one episode each from the two series of “Eyes on the Prize”– a lecture by civil rights hero Robert Moses; an exhibition of historic prints depicting abolition, the Civil War, and Reconstruction; and a panel discussion featuring “Eyes on the Prize” filmmakers Judy Richardson, Orlando Bagwell, and Louis Massiah, all of whom were producers of the original series. They will be joined by David Rowntree, special media collection archivist for the Libraries.

The two-day schedule is as follows:

Tuesday, April 5, 7 p.m., Louderman Hall Room 458

Two 50-minute episodes from “Eyes on the Prize” documentary will be shown:

• “Mississippi: Is This America?” (begins at 7 p.m.)

• “The Promised Land” (begins at 8 p.m.)

Both screenings will feature an introduction by Professor Brown.

Wednesday, April 6:

11 a.m., Graham Chapel: Lecture by civil rights activist Robert Moses

4:30-6:30 p.m., Ginkgo Reading Room, Olin Library: Opening reception and program for the exhibition entitled “. . . And henceforth shall be free.” This exhibition includes historic prints depicting abolition, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, from the collection of James Schiele. An opening reception will be held 4:30 p.m. followed by a program featuring remarks by Schiele; Wayne Fields, Ph.D., professor of English and American culture studies; and former U.S. Senator Tom Eagleton, at 5:30 p.m.

7:30 p.m., Whitaker Hall Auditorium: Panel discussion featuring “Eyes on the Prize” film producers Judy Richardson, Orlando Bagwell and Louis Massiah; and David Rowntree, special media collection archivist for WU Libraries.

Hampton died in 1998, but his contribution lives on in his collection, which was awarded to the University Libraries in 2001. Both series were broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service: the first six programs were aired in 1987; the eight-part sequel was broadcast in 1990. They were produced over the course of twelve years by Hampton’s Blackside, Inc., film company, one of the oldest minority-owned film and television production companies in the country. The Henry Hampton Collection consists of materials that were collected in connection with the various documentary films made by Hampton and his production company. Hampton was a native St. Louisan. He received a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in 1961.

In addition to its positive reception from television critics and professionals, “Eyes on the Prize” was also lauded by historians and educators. Using archival footage and contemporary interviews with participants in the struggle for and against civil rights, the series presented the movement as multi-faceted. Watched by over 20 million viewers with each airing, it served as an important educational tool, reaching a generation of millions of Americans who have no direct experience with the historic events chronicled. Though the series included such landmark events as the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott of 1955-56, the 1963 March on Washington, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, it also documented the workings of the movement on a grass-roots level, presenting events and individuals often overlooked.

For more information on the symposium, call (314) 935-5285.