" /> Jason Holborn | Cybercarnet/Weblog - Black History Month 2014: EYES ON THE PRIZE

Black History Month 2014: EYES ON THE PRIZE

This year, I had intended to read The “Autobiography” of Martin Luther King for Black History Month, however, the winter has really depressed my energy levels and I really balked at the idea of reading a book, as ridiculous as that sounds (well, I did just finish WAR & PEACE; perhaps there’s a relation). I decided that a documentary would be the perfect, lazy answer to the situation, and I have often wished to see PBS’s EYES ON THE PRIZE.

It was surprisingly easy to get it from the Toronto Library; in fact, the Parkdale branch just up the street had a copy on the shelf! I expected it would be tough to obtain it during Black History Month, and let me say that a) I’m grateful, and b) we need to work on increasing demand for this documentary series during February of all months, because it was really quite a well-made serial, well-constructed and clear and linear, which I highly recommend.

My understanding of the civil rights movement from the late 1950’s thru to the early-to-mid 1960’s is a lot clearer now, having watched EYES ON THE PRIZE; before, I knew generally that Emmet Till had been murdered and how his (courageous) mother had given his disfigured corpse an open-casket funeral, and that Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat in the front of the bus to a white passenger and how she had been charged over that incident. To me, earlier, this were tragic and frustrating incidents which had happened “in the past”, in “a certain region”. EYES ON THE PRIZE put these events into the context of a larger story, linking the anger and frustration of Till’s murder and the release of his guilty murderers to the wide support and mobilization efforts for the bus boycott following Parks’ brush with the law, not long afterwards. These events had never been connected before in my mind/in my understanding. I had understood EYES ON THE PRIZE to be 14 hours long; my copy was, alas, only 6. Some day, I shall happily watch the fuller, longer 14 hour version, because I gained a great, great deal of greater context linking up several civil rights battle stories which this documentary connected together into a larger narrative.

We have unknown resources in ourselves, which can surprise us (as a pertinent example, Martin Luther King never knew he was pretty good speaker until he blew away an audience for the first time). I am an awful, damned, fallible person, and I sometimes am aggravated by the frivolity and meaningless I see at, say, the mall, or on-line, or at parties. My liking of THE FOUNTAINHEAD stems mainly from the meaning which the protagonists are determined to suck out of life. Gossip about jean styles and drugs and sex bores me; boredom makes me frustrated and cross. Often, at such times, I wonder, in my head, behind my eyes, “Is this really what people are all about?” No, it isn’t — we are products of times and places, and rarely has this been clearer to me than in watching EYES ON THE PRIZE all Sunday, February 9. The gravity and the opportunity and the meaning of the situation gives everyone engaging and involving themselves a focus and meaning and eloquence that a viewer can be more accustomed to seeing in the grimmer moments of staged fiction like STAR TREK, and I think that what impressed this upon me the most in the series was the students. At 17 and 23 and etc, they are able to speak from their souls with a power and earnestness which you can be hard-pressed to find in political leaders three and four times more experienced than they; it was as it the Spirit was speaking thru them. If you seek Beauty, you shall find it, they say; well, Truth is Beauty, and everyone on the side of Good in this documentary sees the Truth, and it is remarkable how it flows from them so seemingly effortlessly. From John Lewis down to the hospitalized white kid off the attacked Freedom Ride (not to mention, of course, the adults (ministers and lawyers and doctors)), speaking impromptu, without notes, without preparation, the people shown speak plainly and sincerely and straight-forwardly, and it is pure and right and good, but more than that, it’s arresting, and engaging, and captivating, as much as or even more so than most prepared and rehearsed speeches can deliver(!). Barack Obama is an exception; he happens to be a powerfully gifted speaker. Most politicians, tho, from Mitt Romney to Stephen Harper to David Cameron to whomever whomever, with paid consultants and teams of speechwriters and dialogue coaches cannot rise to the (staged) occasion to speak as movingly as some of these high school (high school!) and college students can.

EYES ON THE PRIZE contains quite a lot of footage I didn’t even realize existed before; I guess it makes sense considering television news programs, yet I was surprised to be so introduced to Mamie Till Bradley, and Mose Wright, for example. I take it for granted that the ubiquity of home cameras today gives everyone a voice; someone actually recorded an outdoors confrontation between a Reverend Vivian chastising a posse of deputies standing aside their Sheriff, Joe Clark… and ultimately, the same Reverend being beaten and bloodied. This clip gave me a lot to think about and consider; this man’s eloquence in the face of such stern, official state intimidation was remarkable to me (I strongly doubt I have it in me to remain so composed before such an empowered and evil presence), and at the same time, I was somewhat taken aback at how stoically the deputies withstood the Reverend Vivian’s comparing them to Nazi stormtroopers working for Hitler. This is the Old Confederate Jim Crow South, after all. Now, that stoic reserve on the part of the deputies makes much more sense when I realize that they are, of course, RIGHT ON CAMERA, and that they *know* that they are camera. And yet, things DO come to a point where the Reverend is bloodied up, and turns back, bleeding, to continue to speak. So, even RIGHT ON CAMERA, they DO ultimately lose their composure. Cameras do make a difference in our behavior (any kind of human witness changes our behavior, not just cameras), and yet, our passions are such that even — literally — the eyes of the world cannot compel us to hold our anger in check forever.

Incidentally, watching that same Jim Clork gave to me an interesting personal viewing experience. Reader, I struggle with racism. Altho it it’s contradictory to hate hate, I admit I often do. Racist attitudes can deeply provoke and anger me, and I can feel a flood of hot hatred gush thru me when I encounter those attitudes in full, empowered force. Still, on a mental level, in my head, or brain, disconnected from the emotional level of my heart and soul, I believe that racists are people, too: they’re victims of a sad mentality, and that there but for the grace of God go I. I know that if I grew up in Jim Clark’s shoes, I would hate uppity niggers as much as he ever did. I mean, this guy was a piece of work — he gives Bull Connor stiff competition for title of Most Despicable Public Official In America. I didn’t even know who Jim Clark was prior to watching EYES ON THE PRIZE, and I was sort of shocked by him. We all know that the police forces in southern regions during the 1960’s, and before then, too, gave shoddy, inhuman and cruel treatment to their black brothers and sisters, and yet, how *personal* Jim Clark took the matter really took me aback. Watching him jab his police baton at and into people, even without provocation at all, surprised me. This was not a matter of believing “Negroes are animals”, because no one — no one — treats animals with such a *personal* animosity. In fact, I’d say those jobs into peoples’ ribs belie any kind of “Negroes are animals” “belief”, because only a realization that the being before you is a *human* can possibly rouse such *personal* feelings. I felt a disgust and a hatred rising up in myself; for a second, I wanted to take a baseball bat to this reptile’s head — but, I caught myself, and I reminded myself that, at least on a mental level, racists are people, too. And you know what? For the first time in my life, I felt that sentiment on a truly emotional, soulful level, too: I pitied Jim Clark, in my heart. I felt a *sorrow* at the bulk of his subsequent actions; I felt *sorry* for his thinking and feeling. Well, of course, I felt quite a lot sorrier for his victims, including the ones he merely verbally assaulted and harassed, and yet there remained a level of pity for him, too. Recently I have tried to increase my understanding of Buddhism, and watching Jim Clark, I didn’t angrily look on an inhuman degenerate, as I once would have; I saw instead a deeply suffering being, unable to cope with and deal with his suffering. Here was a man overwhelmed by suffering, and unable to shoulder that suffering, in stark contrast to the non-violent followers of the SCLC, who were obviously suffering a great deal *more* than he was, and still opening their hearts to goodness and glory. Yet, to debate about angels on pins, if your inability to deal with a lesser suffering leads you to such a dark, evil place, then arguably, your suffering is perhaps greater than those oppressed others, who could hold up under their suffering with a dignity and grace than Jim Clark ever could. Let’s face it, tho — the people I *really* felt sorry for were Jim Clark’s kids and grandkids and great-grandkids. There’s a family legacy I’d rather not be burdened with, thank you very much. So, overall, I felt like I was watching these events with a greater, wiser spiritual or emotional maturity than I’ve been able to reach before.

(In fact, my interest in Black History Month is probably a result of my interest in Martin Luther King, and the reason I like him is my admiration of his spiritual and emotional maturity (which I myself lack). How he reacted with such a passionate love against such a seething hate is a marvel to me; it’s more than I am able to understand. I’m not interested in non-violence because I’m a naturally non-violent person, but because I am a naturally violent person. Watching this series made me think and hope that perhaps I am evolving.)

There are some giant, historical figures in the Civil Rights movement that we all know: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, John Lewis, Robert Kennedy, Rosa Parks, or George Wallace. One thing I appreciated mightily in EYES ON THE PRIZE was its shared focus on lesser known names. I had not known the Reverend Vivian beforehand, or of Medgar (and Myrlie) Evers, or Unita Blackwell. To be honest, I have already forgotten some of the names and faces I learned while watching the documentary. The woman who went without sleeping to mimeograph and scissor up the 30,000 handouts for the bus boycott is one whose name I already cannot recall (tho I do remember her face quite plainly, at least), yet whose story deeply touched and impressed me. I lost track of the many reverends leading the movement; it’s easy in today’s world of Catholic priest scandals to wonder what the point of religion is, and so it’s fascinating to watch or read anything about Civil Rights and realize how little of it probably would have happened without black church leaders at the head of the movement (including, obviously, Martin Luther King). I’ve gotten some small, growing bit of personal education from Black History Month learning about a giant like Frederick Douglass, or more about a celebrity like Paul Robeson. Having watching EYES ON THE PRIZE, I feel I’ve been mostly impressed with the “little” people who are left unknown and unremarked in history which the show featured, like Unita Blackwell and Myrlie Evers. This documentary exceeded my hopes; I’m awfully glad that I didn’t feel like tackling a book this month. It may sound and be lazy on my part, yet it led me to discover a documentary entirely worth watching.

I only wished that EYES ON THE PRIZE was longer; it was somewhat disorienting when Lyndon Johnson was suddenly President, with no mention at all of JFK’s assassination. The Kennedy assassination can be considered overdone, and omnipresent in our shared consciousness, and yet I still wished that just a token mention of it might have been included, just to help along the larger contextualization that the series was providing to me. There’s also no mention of Martin Luther King’s murder, either, or Robert Kennedy’s; MLK is alive when the series closes after the successful Selma-to-Montgomery march. In fact, the series does contain another 20 or 40 seconds after that march is finished, to teasingly mention America’s shock at the L.A. race riots — which I wanted to know more about. There’s no real, true mention of Malcolm X (tho there is a brief, brief clip of him speaking at one point), and I would have liked to come away with a stronger knowledge of who the other driving, national black leaders of the Civil Rights movement were. I see that EYES ON THE PRIZE is based on a book of the same name; I may yet read it, too. Wikipedia says there *is* a 14 hour version of this series; count me in for that full cut of this top-notch documentary, someday.