Remembering Henry Hampton and "Eyes on the Prize"

Jan 19, 2016

Two events put Henry Hampton on the path to creating an award-winning documentary series about the Civil Rights movement. That's according to his friend, human rights and environmental activist Dianne Dillon Ridgley.

The first was the lynching of Emmett Till by two white men in Money, Mississippi in 1955. Till was close to Hampton's own age when he was killed. Dillon Ridgley calls it a defining moment for Hampton, who grew up in St. Louis, the son of physicians. The killing and mutilation of 14-year-old Till, and the decision by his mother to have an open casket at the memorial service shined a light on the brutal treatment of blacks in the Jim Crow south, and helped spark the Civil Rights movement.

The second moment that inspired Hampton to create "Eyes on the Prize," was the march over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. Hampton, who had polio when he was 15 and walked with the assistance of leg braces, was near the back of the crowd when police began beating the protestors, hospitalizing more than 50. 

"He really wanted to show future generations the strength, the courage, the bravery, the conviction of the marchers. And he wanted a righteous response to the hate. And he wanted to show the resilience and nobility of the human spirit," says Dillon Ridgley.

Hampton founded Blackside, Inc. in 1968 and began collecting archival footage of participants in and opponents to the Civil Rights Movement. In some cases he found canisters of film in the dumpsters of local TV affiliates. In 1987, "Eyes on the Prize" premiered on PBS stations with six episodes spanning from 1954 - 1964. The second season premiered in 1990, with eight episodes that document the years from 1965 - 1985. The series won numerous Emmys, a Peabody Award and received an Academy Award nomination.

In this edition of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Dillon Ridgley. Nebbe also speaks with Joyce Bruce, who participated in the Katz Drugstore sit-in in Des Moines, which was instrumental in a landmark Supreme Court ruling that made it illegal for businesses to deny service based on race. 

Iowa State University Assistant Professor Katy Swalwell also joins the conversation to talk about the civil rights movement in Iowa, and a summer course available to teachers, students and the public.