Eyes on Racism, Part 1

Chief Laurie Pritchett, Albany, Georgia
Chief Laurie Pritchett, Albany, Georgia, 1962.

In 2004, when I was working part-time at Washington University Film & Media Archive, I researched and wrote a piece on the Eyes on the Prize documentary series. The materials that went into the making of the program are housed at the archive. At the time, those items had not been studied by researchers. I decided to write about the Eyes producers’ dramatic interviews with three segregation-era officials: Chief Laurie Pritchett, Sheriff Jim Clark, and Governor George C. Wallace.

I had studied the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the politics of resistance to integration. Also, my parents had been supporters of George Wallace, so I had insight into the appeal that he held for too many Americans.

I submitted the article relentlessly, from the Atlantic to the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times. No one was interested. Finally, I hit upon the idea of sending the piece to Konch, where it was accepted and appeared in the Winter 2008 issue. I noticed the article was no longer available online, so I decided to re-post it in three parts.

Eyes on Racism, Part 1 (Konch, Winter 2008)

On March 10, 1986, Callie Crossley, a producer of the Eyes on the Prize civil rights documentary, took her film crew to Montgomery, Alabama to interview Governor George C. Wallace. Once the nation’s leading opponent of integration, Wallace had won a fourth term as governor in 1982 due to the support of 90% of the state’s black voters.[1] Crossley, who is African American, asked Wallace some of the most pointed questions he ever faced on camera, and she was keenly aware of the symbolism inherent in their meeting. “I felt very connected to all the people that he’d had a thumb on,” she recalls.[2]

Interviews with segregationists played a large role in the making of Eyes on the Prize, which first aired on public television in 1987 and has become one of the most celebrated documentaries. The series garnered numerous honors, including a Peabody Award for the initial six-episode broadcast, which dealt with events from the 1954 Brown desegregation ruling to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.[3] A theatrical release of the documentary received an Academy Award nomination.

The program offered an unflinching look at the struggle against segregation and included accounts from previously unheralded activists, such as Unita Blackwell of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Fred Leonard of the 1961 Freedom Rides. Another veteran of the civil rights movement, Julian Bond, served as narrator. The first Eyes series also included many clips from producers’ interviews with Jim Crow-era southern officials, but obtaining those interviews often proved a difficult task. Old segregationists were likely to view any documentary on civil rights with hostility and racial and geographic differences exacerbated the problem. Henry Hampton, executive producer of the series, was African-American and his production company was based in Boston. However, each of Hampton’s production teams included a producer who was white. (In order to incorporate different views into the filmmaking process, Hampton appointed teams headed by two producers, making sure that one was black and one white, that one was a man and one a woman.)[4]

Callie Crossley’s interview with George Wallace was the exception: ordinarily, it was the episode’s white producer who interviewed southern officials. All-white camera crews were also standard practice in such cases.[5] Even so, the name of Hampton’s production company (Blackside) posed a problem when corresponding with racist politicians. Producer James A. DeVinney says that in such cases, he preferred to use the address of WGBH-Boston, the public television station for which Blackside made the series, rather than the production company’s own address.[6]

The Eyes team’s correspondence with former Alabama governor John Patterson shows how hard Blackside staff worked to obtain interviews with enemies of the civil rights movement. Patterson had good reason to decline to answer questions about his tenure as governor. He had won that office in 1958 with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, and in 1961 he had refused to protect the Freedom Riders from mob violence. The ex-governor rejected an initial interview request, but associate producer Prudence Arndt wrote Patterson again, promising a non-confrontational approach:

We have no intention of recreating any tired images of Southern politicians as one-dimensional characters. This would serve neither history nor journalism . . . Our interviews are neither “live,” i.e. we can stop the cameras whenever necessary, nor adversarial (as in “60 Minutes”).[7]

In addition to Governors Patterson and Wallace, Eyes on the Prize producers succeeded in gaining the participation of a number of southern mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs, and leaders of the White Citizens’ Councils. Only small clips of any interview appeared in the final program, while the raw footage in each case often ran 30 minutes or more. The complete interviews remained in Hampton’s possession until his death in 1998. Hampton’s trustees donated his archive to Washington University in St. Louis. The donation included all film and audio from Blackside’s various documentaries,[8] along with staffers’ research notes and other written records.

An implicit element of confrontation makes the interviews with enemies of the movement especially interesting. More importantly, these discussions are barometers of change. How had these men’s attitudes evolved in the 20+ years since the struggles over integration? How did their accounts of their actions compare to the facts, and what did they hope to gain by going on record again? James DeVinney points out that Blackside producers made a point of trying to keep discussion focused on events that took place within the scope of the series,[9] but the idea of the New South—a mix of “Sun Belt” economic growth, the rise of more moderate southern politicians in the 1970s, and attempts at racial reconciliation in cities like Atlanta—hangs over these conversations.

Ronald Reagan’s two electoral victories cast a long shadow in a different direction. As historians such as Dan T. Carter have pointed out, Reagan not only opposed all major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, but he also built his presidency on the foundation laid by George Wallace’s campaigns. Much of Reagan’s language on race and civil rights was derived from Wallace, especially the longtime segregationist rallying cry of “states’ rights” and his deceptive, racially charged stories about “welfare queens.”[10] During his first term as president, Reagan opposed the Martin Luther King holiday bill and also tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act before finally giving in to Congress on both issues.[11] Work on Eyes on the Prize proceeded in 1985-86 amid fresh reminders that resistance to the civil rights movement was not merely a historical issue.

Of the interviews with Jim Crow-era southern officials, three stand out because of the subjects’ different roles during and after the civil rights battles of the 1960s. Given his high profile, George Wallace is an obvious choice. As police chief of Albany, Georgia, Laurie Pritchett blocked Martin Luther King’s efforts to desegregate that city in 1961-62, but later became chief in High Point, North Carolina, where he integrated the police force. Jim Clark, the one-time sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, led the opposition to the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign and saw his political career end when he was defeated for re-election the following year.

“It sort of surprised Dr. King.” – Chief Laurie Pritchett

In 1961, before the Birmingham and Selma campaigns, civil rights activists attempted to use nonviolent direct action to integrate Albany, Georgia. Led by Charles Sherrod, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) initiated the effort, joining with local black community leaders such as Dr. William G. Anderson to form the Albany movement. In December 1961, Anderson persuaded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Albany. King was arrested while leading a demonstration and thereafter he and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), became fully committed to the campaign. Enforcing the city’s segregation laws was the chief of police, Laurie Pritchett.

Under Pritchett, Albany police showed more restraint than other southern lawmen when dealing with demonstrators, though there were numerous reports that Pritchett’s officers committed off-camera violence against protesters.[12] In July 1962, a local court convicted Dr. King and his chief lieutenant, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, of disturbing the peace. The two refused to pay their fines and each received a 45-day jail sentence. Two days later, some local businessmen paid King and Abernathy’s fines secretly and Chief Pritchett released the ministers against their will.[13] A week later, the city secured a federal injunction against further demonstrations, but a higher court quickly vacated that ruling pending further hearings. King and Abernathy led another demonstration and were again arrested and jailed, along with 26 others.[14] In early August, the two leaders were released from jail again, this time because the judge suspended their sentences.[15]

Chief Pritchett’s low-key brand of law enforcement prevented any televised incidents that might have galvanized national support for the campaign. With the demonstrations losing numbers and momentum, Dr. Anderson announced that the Albany movement would henceforth emphasize voter-registration rather than direct action. King and the other SCLC leaders left the Albany campaign soon thereafter.[16] SNCC continued local protests, but on a smaller scale than before.[17] Integration proceeded gradually, assisted by a new round of federal court orders. In the national press, however, the story was simply that King had failed to desegregate Albany.[18]

In 1966, Laurie Pritchett left Georgia to become chief of police in High Point, North Carolina and presided over the integration of that city’s police force. He retired in 1974, amid allegations that he allowed illegal gambling. However, a subsequent investigation failed to substantiate those charges.[19] Pritchett died in 2000, but at the time of his Eyes on the Prize interview in 1985, he was living in High Point. James A. DeVinney (who is white) was the producer who questioned the former police chief, and the resulting episode (Episode 4: “No Easy Walk”) paired the Albany story with an account of the movement’s successful 1963 desegregation campaign in Birmingham, Alabama.

The show’s Albany segment featured three selections from Pritchett’s interview. In the first two clips, the old chief explained how he responded to a tip from federal authorities that Dr. King would soon be arriving in town:

I did research. I found his method was nonviolence, that his method was to fill the jails—same as Gandhi in India. And once they filled the jails, we’d have no capacity to arrest and then we’d have to give in to his demands.

I had set [sic] down and took a map and went, fifteen miles, how many jails was [sic] in a fifteen-mile radius? How many was in a twenty-mile radius? On up to maybe a 50- or 60-mile radius. And I contacted those authorities. They’d assured us that we could use their facilities, and we had, when the mass arrests started, we’d have marches and there’d be 200, 300—at one time there, I think we had almost 2,000—but none in our jail.

The third clip addressed Pritchett’s tactic of releasing King and Abernathy.

Pritchett: I knew that if [Dr. King] stayed in jail, we’d continue to have problems, so I talked to some people. I said: “We’ve got to get him out, and once we do, I think he’ll leave here.” An arrangement was made. Frankly, I don’t know who the man was that paid the bond [i.e., the fine].

DeVinney: But it was done at your request?

Pritchett: Yes, it was done at my request, and it sort of surprised Dr. King. This is one time that I—the only time I’ve ever seen when he seemed where he didn’t know which way to go.[20]

On camera, Pritchett appeared relaxed and cordial. James DeVinney was taken aback by the ex-chief’s genial demeanor. “I had to sit there and keep looking at my notes,” he remarks. One of the main subjects in DeVinney’s notes was Pritchett’s claim that he employed nonviolent tactics. Sheriff’s officers in the surrounding county jails beat a number of Albany demonstrators so badly that they required hospitalization.[21] Likewise, in an interview for Eyes on the Prize, Albany SNCC-leader Charles Sherrod reported that he had been “slapped nearly unconscious” by a deputy at the jail where Pritchett sent him, and he poured scorn on the chief’s reputation as a moderate lawman:

Some people say Chief Pritchett was nonviolent. How could a man be nonviolent who observed people being beaten with billy clubs? One young lady was dragged up the steps of the courthouse . . . by her hair. Another man, Reverend Samuel Wells, was dragged into the courtroom by his gonads . . . I just don’t understand how they could come up with this, but it has been the case.[22]

In his Eyes interview, William Anderson offered a more favorable view of Pritchett, saying that “most of us who got to know him closely . . . got the impression that he was a sensitive man.”[23]

Talking to DeVinney,[24] Pritchett inadvertently bolstered Sherrod’s case when he said that he developed his program of police nonviolence after he found out that Dr. King was coming to town:

After learning this [King’s nonviolent strategy] and studying this research, I started orientation of the police department into nonviolent movement [sic]: no violence, no dogs, no show of force, even took up some of the training the SNCCs originated there, like sitting at the counter and being slapped, spit upon.

DeVinney drew out the implications of Pritchett’s statement.

DeVinney: You trained your officers in the nonviolent technique when you knew King was arriving. Does that imply violence in—within the police department before that?

Pritchett: Oh, no . . . We would not have any force, that didn’t mean that we used force on the police department. It was just a method of showing them that if they were arrestin’ somebody, encountered with somebody, and if they were spit upon, they would not lose their cool, so to speak.

When pressed once more about the charge that there was police violence during the Albany movement, Pritchett replied that he did remember one instance, an attack on a local activist. “Camilla, Slater King’s wife,[25] went down [to a jail in a nearby county] and while she was outside the fence—she was pregnant at the time—one of the deputy sheriffs of that county did kick her. It was an unfortunate thing that happened.” Pritchett added that when he heard about the attack, he apologized to the victim and her husband. However, he did not tell DeVinney that Camilla King lost her baby as a result of the assault.

The final cut of the episode did not mention that incident or Charles Sherrod’s blunt account of abuse, the latter of which appeared in Blackside’s published volume of interview excerpts,[26] but DeVinney and Callie Crossley (the other producer of that episode) undercut Pritchett’s claims in other ways. The final program included stock footage that showed the horrendous conditions in the jails, and in one piece of film, Dr. King stood outside a jail and talked to civil rights activists being held inside. The prisoners told King that guards had crammed 69 of them into a cell designed to hold 10.

Despite his zealous opposition to the Albany movement, Pritchett repeatedly told DeVinney that he was not a segregationist, merely a conscientious law enforcement officer:

I did not disagree with [King’s] motives or his objectives—it was his method. I believed in the courts; he believed in the streets. So I’ve never been classified as a segregationist, and not as a [sic] integrationist. I was [an] administrator of . . . Albany Police Department.

It was a convenient distinction, but it was belied by the fact that, after the Albany campaign, Pritchett repeatedly went to Birmingham to advise Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor on how to defeat SCLC.[27] Likewise, the more Pritchett bragged about his measures to keep the city council from having to give in to the demonstrators, the more he undercut his claims of neutrality. Regarding the release of King and Abernathy, he remarked:

After it was all over, we discussed this, and [King] told me, he said, “This is one time, not only did you out [non-]violent me, but this is one time you outsmarted me” . . . It was a shrewd move, but it accomplished what we wanted to do.

During the interview, Pritchett also allotted himself a larger role in the battle against the movement than he had claimed in previous years. The ex-chief’s remark that it was his idea to pay King and Abernathy’s fines differed from the account he gave an interviewer a decade earlier: “I was not instrumental    . . . I sat and observed.”[28] While boasting to DeVinney, Pritchett claimed that he “never did look upon [King’s departure] as a win or loss,” but his other remarks made that one ring hollow. When the producer asked why there was so much resistance to integration in Albany, the ex-chief slipped even further back into his old role as a segregationist official:

We didn’t—when I say “we,” myself and the city council, and the mayor—did not want to be forced into doing something by force, intimidation. And this is, in one sense, is [sic] what it was. We were intimidated; we were threatened

That clip was the only other part of the interview to appear in the series: producers used it in the “teaser” at the beginning of the episode.

Pritchett’s portrayal of Albany resembled his depiction of his own actions. The chief was eager to show that the town was a progressive urban area and to distinguish events there from the worst of southern resistance to integration. He offered an interesting twist on the old southernism about “outside agitators,” drawing a sharp line between the sophisticated white inhabitants of Albany and white troublemakers from more rural areas. When DeVinney raised the issue of the Ku Klux Klan, Pritchett noted that he had banned Klan meetings within city limits, leading that group to hold its anti-integration rally some 500 feet outside town boundaries.

When Pritchett told how he warned Klan-leader Robert Shelton to stay out of Albany, his voice became more emphatic than at any other point during the interview: “[I] told him, ‘You cannot come in this town.’” Summing up that episode, he said: “we did not enforce the law one-sided. We enforced it, we tried to equally keep the whites and the, and so to speak, the rednecks down.” The former chief pushed his assertions about Albany’s urbanity to bizarre lengths, even trying to deny that the town’s politicians were segregationists: “It wasn’t that the city officials of Albany were segregationists. We had a Catholic mayor; we had a Jewish judge . . . We were a metropolitan city, so to speak.”

Pritchett preferred to see the integration battles in Albany as a genteel affair, and accordingly, he had words of high praise for Dr. King, calling him a “great man” and remarking that “one thing that I regret about all of this is Dr. King was killed in Memphis. He did not fulfill or see the fulfillment of his dream.” Of course, such comments were rare among southern officials from that era, and they prompted the interviewer to ask some unusual questions. During a discussion about the freedom songs that came out of the Albany campaign (Pritchett said that he owned an album of them), DeVinney impishly asked the former chief to sing one of them, intending to cut that clip together with footage of one of the Freedom Singers performing the same song. Pritchett would not play along and today DeVinney says, “That was a cute idea that probably deserved not to work.”[29]

Pritchett differed enough from other southern lawmen to make a favorable impression on some of his opponents. SCLC’s Reverend Andrew Young wrote that during his visits to see Dr. King in Albany jail, the chief often expressed misgivings about his role in enforcing segregation and “apparently knew that what he was doing was wrong in the eyes of God.” A few years later, when Pritchett applied for the job in High Point, Young recommended him to black community leaders there.[30] During his Eyes interview in Atlanta, William Anderson heard from DeVinney that Pritchett was also in town to be filmed. Anderson came back later to see the ex-chief. The two men hugged and went out to dinner, along with their wives. “I thought, this is just getting too weird for me,” DeVinney remembers.[31]

Among opponents of the movement, Pritchett was the most eager to appear in the series and clearly wanted publicity. “Laurie Pritchett was thrilled to be interviewed. He couldn’t wait,” remarks Callie Crossley.[32] Pritchett’s Eyes on the Prize appearance allowed him to achieve the share of fame that he wanted. The program showed how the chief’s tactics succeeded in thwarting the desegregation campaign. Also, Pritchett came off as morally superior to his Birmingham counterpart, the uncontrollably violent Bull Connor—even if the episode did cast doubt on the Albany lawman’s claims about his methods.

Pritchett’s attempt to blame Albany’s racism on rural outsiders did not fare so well. The episode did not include the “redneck” quote, but it did highlight the chief’s hand-in-glove relationship with the virulently racist rural sheriffs who housed his prisoners. Pritchett also failed to settle the contradiction between his professions of regard for Dr. King and his pride in blocking the civil rights leader’s campaign. His closing remark to DeVinney was true to form. “Frankly, I was hoping that [King and SCLC] would accomplish what they were doing,” he said. Cracking a slight smile, he added, “but after they left Albany.”

[1] Dan T. Carter, Politics of rage: George Wallace and the origins of modern American conservatism, Second Edition (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 464.

[2] Callie Crossley, telephone interview with the author, May 19, 2004.

[3] Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (Six episodes). Produced by Blackside, Incorporated for WGBH-Boston. Creator and executive producer: Henry Hampton. Original airdate: 1987.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Prudence Arndt, interview with the author, May 19, 2004; Jo Ann Mathieu to John Horhn, October 24, 1985. Washington University, Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320558, Container number: 9970.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Prudence Arndt to John Patterson, January 27, 1986. Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320558, Container number: 9938.

[8] The interviews were shot on 16-mm film with audio recorded separately on ¼-inch tape. The archive does not currently possess equipment that can play the ¼-inch audio. However, it is possible to make a transcript from audiocassette recordings of the original audio, and then (after some lip-reading practice) to use the transcript to follow along with the silent footage.

[9] DeVinney, interview, April 7, 2004.

[10] See Carter, Politics of rage, 471-74; Dan T. Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the conservative counterrevolution, 1963-1994 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), 55-59, 62-66.

[11] Charles W. Hucker (managing editor) et al., Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 97th Congress, 1st Session, 1981, 416-418 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1982); Hucker (managing editor) et al., Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 97th Congress, 2nd Session, 1982 (C.Q. Inc., 1983), 374-76; Kathryn Waters Gest (managing editor) et al., Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 98th Congress, 1st Session, 1983 (C.Q. Inc., 1984), 21; Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich, 58.

[12] See page 6.

[13] David J. Garrow, Bearing the cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow, 1986), 202-04; Taylor Branch, Parting the waters: America in the King years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 601-07.

[14] Branch, Parting the waters, 616-621.

[15] Stephen B. Oates, Let the trumpet sound: The life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 197-98; John A. Ricks III, “‘De Lawd’ descends and is crucified: Martin Luther King Jr. in Albany, Georgia” in David J. Garrow (ed.), We shall overcome: the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, Volume III (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carson Publishing, 1989), 986-993; Stephen G. N. Tuck, Beyond Atlanta: The struggle for racial equality in Georgia, 1940-1980 (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 141-48.

[16] Garrow, Bearing the cross, 215-17.

[17] Tuck, Beyond Atlanta, 152.

[18] Howard Zinn, The Southern Mystique (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 160-199; Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 216-17; Branch, Parting the waters, 631; Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, with Sarah Flynn (eds.), Voices of freedom: An oral history of the civil rights movement from the 1950s through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1990), 111-14; Oates, Let the trumpet sound, 189-199. See also Jason Sokol, There goes my everything: White southerners in the age of civil rights, 1945-1975 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 64-83.

[19] Kelly Hall, “Colleagues recall former police chief,” High Point Enterprise, November 14, 2000, online edition: http://www.hpe.com/2000/11/14/news/1114news7.html.

[20] This article follows the convention of deleting incomplete words and expressions such as “uh” or “um.” The only exception is when someone is interrupted after saying “uh” and the word is preserved to show that they had not finished speaking.

[21] Branch, Parting the waters, 614-16, 622-24; Tuck, Beyond Atlanta, 151; Zinn, Southern Mystique, 174-79.

[22] Charles Sherrod, Eyes on the Prize interview audiocassette (Washington University, Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320546, Container number: 9101). Interview conducted by James A. DeVinney, December 20, 1985.

[23] William G. Anderson, Eyes on the Prize interview audiocassette (Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320546, Container number: 9074). Interview conducted by James A. DeVinney, November 7, 1985.

[24] All references to Laurie Pritchett Eyes on the Prize interview pertain to interview audiocassette (Henry Hampton Collection, Barcode: 320546, Container number: 26663) and 16-mm work print (Barcode: 320446, Container number: 11530). Interview conducted by James A. DeVinney, November 7, 1985.

[25] The Kings of Albany were no relation to Martin Luther King.

[26] Hampton et al., Voices of freedom, 107.

[27] Pritchett, Eyes on the Prize interview; Diane McWhorter, Carry me home: Birmingham, Alabama: the climactic battle of the civil rights revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 339-41, 431-33.

[28] Howell Raines, My soul is rested: Movement days in the Deep South remembered (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977), 362.

[29] DeVinney interview, April 7, 2004.

[30] Andrew Young, An easy burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the transformation of America (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 178.

[31] James A. DeVinney, telephone interview with the author, April 6, 2004.

[32] Crossley, interview.

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