Why Eyes on the Prize still resonates (Bob Herbert)





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....

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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