Thursday, November 16, 2006

BOB HERBERT: A Story of Struggle and Hope

Watching “Eyes on the Prize” again was like reminiscing with an old friend or relative about the bad old days that, in some important respects, were also the good old days.

Already the story so brilliantly told by this masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, is fading, like the images on old film stock, from our collective consciousness.

It’s fantastic to have a memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall in Washington. But “Eyes on the Prize” is the most powerful reminder we have of how broad the struggle was, how many people of great courage — from small children to very old men and women — signed on to it, how many of them suffered and sometimes died, and what all of us owe to all of them.

“Eyes on the Prize” shows us the many tragic byproducts of insane bigotry, like the hanging bodies of blacks who were lynched, their heads and necks forever frozen at grotesque angles. It shows us young whites beating the daylights out of unresisting protesters who had the temerity to take a seat at a segregated lunch counter.

These are things that should never be forgotten.

The bigotry of the period was so pervasive it flowed easily from the mouths of people who considered themselves sympathetic to the plight of blacks. A well-groomed, obviously middle-class white woman smiles into the camera and says, “I have thought for a long time that nigras should be allowed to sit at the counters where we are served downtown.”

“Eyes” first ran in 1987 and is being shown again this fall on PBS. Understated, mostly in black and white, it has lost none of its startling emotional impact. There were moments, as I watched the episodes unfold, when I wanted to jump through the television and throttle somebody.

Because of a logistical mix-up on Sept. 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford, a 15-year-old black student who dreamed of becoming a lawyer, showed up alone on the first day of the attempted integration of all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Eight other students, accompanied by adults, arrived at the school in a group.) Ms. Eckford was met by a mob of whites and a contingent of National Guard soldiers who were determined to keep blacks out of the school.

The images of this frightened young girl in sunglasses and a white dress surrounded by adults who were all but foaming at the mouth, calling her the worst names, and screaming that she should be killed, lynched, for trying to go to school, never fail to enrage.

I think of “Eyes on the Prize” as a gift from the filmmaker Henry Hampton, whose goal was not just to document the struggle but to show it from the perspective of the people who were there. He once told me: “You have to get the story right in order to get its meaning. And the way to get it right it is to listen to the people who lived it.”

Mr. Hampton, who had suffered from polio as a child, died from the effects of lung cancer in 1998. He was only 58.

For all the hideous occurrences documented in the series — the murder of Emmett Till, the church bombing in Birmingham that killed four young girls in 1963, the tragic “freedom summer” in Mississippi the following year — there is nevertheless the stirring sense of achievement that runs like a golden thread through the narrative.

The bad old days were also the good old days in the sense that one can look back at many wonderful things that were associated with the movement — the iron-willed commitment of so many people, the sense of a great and common endeavor, the lifetime friendships that were forged, and the pride that came from an unwillingness, in even the darkest hours, to accept defeat.

There are many people now who have never heard of Emmett Till or Roy Wilkins or James Farmer, or the Edmund Pettus Bridge or the 16th Street Baptist Church, which is reason enough to want “Eyes on the Prize” to be with us forever.

Black Americans are far better off in almost every respect than they were in the mid-1960s, thanks in large part to the successes of the movement. But racism and discrimination persist, and there are still substantial disparities between blacks and whites on most indicators of social and economic well-being. There is also much still to be done about the self-inflicted wounds that have hindered the progress of many blacks.

“Eyes on the Prize” is a demonstration that even the greatest challenges can be overcome. It’s a national treasure, important for all the reasons that history is important.

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