Featured Documentary

PBS | Eyes on the Prize | Season 1 Episode 2 | America's Civil Right Years 1954-1965 | Fighting Back (1957-1962) 1987 - 55 min.

Director: Judith Vecchione

One in this series of documentaries that examines the African-American civil rights movement. Included are interviews and archival footage, accompanied by narration. This episode chronicles the battles over school desegregation, which occured in the Southern states between 1957 and 1962. First is a brief description of Autherine Lucy's thwarted attempts to attend the University of Alabama in 1956. Constance Baker Motley of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund remarks on activists' surprise by the violent Southern resistance. Next is a profile of the turmoil surrounding the "Little Rock nine": in 1957, nine academically gifted African-American high school students were chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. On the first day of school, Governor Orval Faubus mobilized state troopers to prevent the nine students from attending. As Thurgood Marshall recognized, the Governor's use of state troops changed the situation from a battle for civil rights to a war between state and federal government. President Dwight D. Eisenhower took a stand against Faubus's actions and the nine students returned to Central High, sneaking through a side entrance to avoid angry mobs. Included are scenes of the hostile crowds at Central High flooding police barriers. James Hicks, executive editor of The Amsterdam News, recalls that the three African-American journalists covering the event came under attack. Two of the "Little Rock nine," Melba Pattillo Beals and Ernest Green, discuss their experiences at Central High after Eisenhower sent in federal peacekeeping troops and escorts for the nine students. Other Southern states also resisted federally enforced school integration, such as Arkansas and Virginia, where high schools were closed down, and an attempt to send four black first graders to white schools in New Orleans, Louisiana, led to citywide riots. In 1961, James Meredith filed for admission at the University of Mississippi; in spite of court orders that Meredith be permitted to enroll, Governor Ross Barnett personally turned Meredith away from two campuses. Included are the following: an explanation by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge John Minor Wisdom of the legal defense that Barnett used for blocking Meredith's enrollment; excerpts of telephone negotiations between Barnett and President John F. Kennedy; remarks by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Burke Marshall on the necessity of direct federal enforcment; and recollections by Univ. of Mississippi student Jan Robertson on the explosive feelings among students when President Kennedy sent in hundreds of U.S. marshalls to enforce Meredith's enrollment, leading to riots by militant, armed Mississippi students. Ultimately, Meredith registered at the Univ. of Mississippi.