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Henry Hampton

By Ellen Gold.

It may be hard for you to imagine a time when African Americans did not have the same rights and freedoms as Americans with light skin. After all, an African American, Barack Obama, became our President in 2009. But there was a time, not so long ago, when discrimination—treating people differently—was legal and part of American culture. Children with brown skin could not go to schools that were for Caucasian kids—and they were usually the better schools. People whose skin was brown were made to sit at the back of public buses, use separate drinking fountains and put up with unfair, disrespectful treatment from people with lighter skin.

Let's try to imagine those times of inequality. Picture someone opening a newspaper or turning on the TV news. Do you think that person would see people with a variety of skin colors, as you see today?

(Pause for responses. Affirm that before Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement, it would be rare to see African Americans on television or in the newspaper unless they were famous or in trouble.)

In the times before, the African American story was almost like a secret. African Americans knew it, but there was no public place to share it with everyone. It was a story with slavery, unfairness, and harm: an American story that was not one to be proud of. Maybe the storytellers—the movie makers and news producers, who were mostly white—were too ashamed to make that story public.

A filmmaker named Henry Hampton made the African American story part of the public record and changed forever the way we make and see television. His movies presented factual information about the history and lives of African Americans. Henry was African American, and he strongly believed in civil rights for all. As a young man, he took part in some of the famous 1965 Civil Rights marches in Selma, Alabama . Blacks and whites marched together in support of equal voting rights for everyone. The marchers faced armed police who were not afraid to use violence against a peaceful demonstration.

Henry Hampton was deeply affected by his and others' experiences during the Civil Rights Movement. He had a story to tell. And in 1968, he found a way to tell it. He started a company he called Blackside, Inc.

In 1968, the Civil Rights Movement was on everyone's mind. Henry Hampton was not the first to turn the cameras toward African Americans. But he was one of the first to do so who was African American himself. He was telling the story of African Americans, and telling it his own way.

At that time, it was rare to find an African American person behind the camera, making decisions about what to show on television or in a movie. The people in charge of films, television, and newspapers were mostly Caucasian. They told the stories and photographed the images from their point of view. Once Henry Hampton and Blackside began making movies, real African American stories and lives became visible to all.

Blackside's most famous documentary series was called Eyes on the Prize. Hampton called it an "honest telling of the Civil Rights Movement." The road to making the series was extremely long and difficult. He needed a lot of money, a lot of help, and the cooperation of many, many African Americans whose stories he wanted to include. These were people who had first-hand experience living as African Americans when discrimination hurt them and first-hand experience being part of the Civil Rights Movement. Henry Hampton never gave up. He made sure the Eyes on the Prize movies told real stories of ordinary citizens and showed their strength, courage and wisdom.

Henry Hampton was not just trying to tell his side—the black side—of a story. He always looked for truth. Perhaps that is one reason he could always count on the Unitarian Universalist Association as a partner. In fact, he worked for our congregations before he started Blackside, Inc. He was famous for his strict research methods, always checking, double-checking and triple-checking every fact.

Eyes on the Prize finally premiered in 1987 on PBS. Maybe you watched Sesame Street on that station when you were little. Eyes on the Prize won many awards, including six Emmys (the Emmy is an award for excellent television shows). More important, Eyes on the Prize helped people learn African American history and understand that it is part of every American's history. Students in colleges, high schools, and elementary schools watch and discuss Eyes on the Prize every year.

Imagine you were a brown-skinned child around the time Henry Hampton was a child. If you watched television, you would not have seen many people who looked like you discovering anything, leading anyone, or making a difference for justice and peace. Now the picture is different—you can see every color of skin. No matter who you are, someone has probably made a television show about an inspiring person who has something in common with you. When you see a story similar to yours, told by someone who looks a bit like you, you might grow up believing that your actions, your voice, and your story are important, too.

Henry Hampton did more than bring true African American stories to television. He changed who makes television. Hundreds of television researchers, producers, writers, camera people and editors from diverse racial and ethnic groups learned filmmaking at Blackside, Inc. Now these people bring their own points of view to the films and television programs they make, and some of them teach others how to turn their own point of view into a true, honest television show. Maybe some of you will grow up to do this kind of work, too.

Here is more you should know about Henry Hampton: He was connected to Unitarian Universalism, just as you are. Henry studied English literature in college. He went to Boston to continue his studies and worked for a while as the Unitarian Universalist Association's Director of Public Information. Our denomination, Unitarian Universalism, benefited when Henry Hampton blended his voice with all of ours. And we all continue to benefit from how he changed the stories on American television.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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