How John Lewis kept his ‘Eyes on the Prize’

March 7 marks 55th anniversary of 'Bloody Sunday' in Selma

(Video: Tom Malkowicz/Washington University)

Fifty-five years ago, on March 7, 1965, the events of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., forever changed the civil rights movement and the life of Rep. John Lewis.

“I had no idea that, that, that we would be beaten, that we would be trampled or tear-gassed,” Lewis recalled in 1985 for “Eyes on the Prize,” the landmark documentary series. “In spite of the fears or the misgiving or the reservations you may have, you tend to lose that sense of fear and you keep your eyes on the prize.”

All interviews from “Eyes on the Prize” I  are available online through Washington University in St. Louis Libraries’ Film and Media Archive. Other “Bloody Sunday” interviews include conversations with Sheyann Webb, Rachel West Nelson, Amelia Boynton Robinson, Mayor Joseph Smitherman, Sheriff James Clark and Gov. George Wallace.

“To hear the stories of ‘Bloody Sunday’  — unfiltered and unvarnished — straight from John Lewis and others who made history on that day is a powerful reminder of the enduring value of ‘Eyes on the Prize,’” said Nadia Ghasedi, associate university librarian. 

The videos are part of the Henry Hampton Collection. Hampton graduated from Washington University in 1961 and founded Blackside Inc., which produced award-winning documentaries about social justice, politics and culture. In 2002, Washington University acquired the vast, 35,000-plus piece collection and has since digitized thousands of interviews, audio, scripts, research and photographs for public access. The work is ongoing, and University Libraries soon will complete digitization of additional “Eyes on the Prize” II footage. It recently finished digitizing an early  Blackside film called “Listen to a Stranger: An Interview with Gordon Parks.”

Lewis speaks at Washington University’s 2016  Commencement. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Lewis was born the son of sharecroppers 80 years ago, Feb. 21, 1940, outside of Troy, Ala. As a student at Fisk University, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., and went on to serve as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Democrat was elected to Congress in1986 and has served as U.S. representative of Georgia’s 5th District since then. In 2016, he spoke at Washington University’s 155th Commencement, urging graduates to use their  education and energy to protect and expand the freedoms that he and other civil rights leaders fought for a half-century ago.

“You must leave here and get in the way,” Lewis said. “When you see something that is not fair, not right, not just, you must have the courage to stand up, to speak up and find a way to get in the way.”

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