Imagine if you lived in a building that only had windows on one side. You might tell your friends “I live next to a taquería and a hardware store.” And that could be a very good description of your neighborhood. Except that you would only be looking out at part of what was around you.
But what if one day a friend came over and asked “Why don’t you open the blinds?” And it turned out that there were windows there all along, but you didn’t even know they were there. When your friend opened the blinds, you could discover that you live next to a park full of trees, and it would be just as true to say “I live in a neighborhood that is leafy and green” as it would be to say “I live in a neighborhood with local businesses.”
Windows allow us to see out into the world. And sometimes there are blinds up that keep us from seeing out those windows, so we just don’t get the full picture of what is out there. Henry Hampton invited millions of people into a more complete picture of the world by opening up the blinds of prejudice and ignorance. His films shared people’s stories in a way that allowed a more complete picture America to come through.
In 1965 Henry was working as information director at the Unitarian Universalist Association. He, along with many people of faith, including Unitarian Universalists, responded to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to participate in a march for civil rights in Selma, Alabama.
And while he was at that march that was so significant in the movement for civil rights for African-Americans, he had an important realization. He was watching history in the making, but no one was telling the story—at least not from the perspective of the many Black people who were organizing, and walking and singing and boycotting and protesting for justice. It was as if there were a giant blind up over the window that showed the real lives of African-Americans at this crucial point in history.
So Henry decided to become a film maker, to film and show the stories of the leaders of the movement for civil rights and of the many not-famous Black people who put their lives on the line for justice. But Henry wanted to open up even more windows, so he included the voices of white people as well, including people who opposed the Civil Rights Movement.
Three years later Henry founded a film company, called Blackside, Inc., which had as its mission “design and production of film and audio-visual products aimed at minority audiences.” You see, part of Henry’s goal was to open windows—to let people see things that were not regularly in the public eye. But Henry also wanted to hold up mirrors—to let people see their own lives reflected back. At the time, pretty much all you could see on television or hear about on the radio were programs that showed white people, as if white people’s lives were the only lives that were worth portraying. Henry wanted to hold up mirrors that would show people of color their own faces—or faces that looked like theirs. He wanted to give everyone more windows into America’s story.
Henry Hampton went on to make many important documentaries: Eyes on the Prize was a 14-part television series that showed the Civil Rights movement from 1954-1965, and Eyes on the Prize 2 looked at the pursuit of racial justice in the US from 1965 into the mid 1980s. Millions of people watched these programs, and saw a window into a world they had never seen—the world of courageous Black activists. And millions of people watched these programs and saw a mirror—people who looked like them finally portrayed in the media in their human complexity.
Henry Hampton made many more documentaries, on subjects from the Black activist leader Malcom X to the Great Depression to African American art and religion. He opened up the blinds so that Americans could see through the giant window that is African American history and culture, giving us all a fuller picture of the nation we live in, the nation we are still building together.