Eyes on the Prize: Two Societies (1965-1968)

About This Episode

"This is a racial incident...it represents one simple thing: black people want control of black communities." - Reverend Albert Cleage, Detroit religious leader

The 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles signal that the Civil Rights Movement has work to do outside of the South. In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) try to improve housing, jobs, and schools for Chicago's black residents, who live in decaying, segregated neighborhoods. After six months of little progress due to Mayor Richard J. Daley and his political machine, activists take their protest from the slums into all-white areas. King proves that realtors systematically deny blacks access to housing in white neighborhoods. In response, angry white mobs attack the protesters.

The summer of 1967 brings an explosion of tensions around the country. In July, Detroit, Michigan, a city experiencing an economic boom for its white citizens, descends into chaos. The 95% white police force, known for the brutal treatment of blacks, raids an illegal after-hours club. A growing and frustrated crowd quickly turns hostile, eventually looting and burning the city. Twelve hours in, Governor George Romney calls in the Michigan National Guard. Nearly 4,000 are arrested in the first two days, and over 7000 by the third; most are young and black. Federal assistance arrives in the form of 4,700 U.S. Army paratroopers, under orders not to use live ammunition. After five days of anarchy, more than 40 people are dead, hundreds are injured, and damage estimates hit $50 million.

Following the riot, President Johnson appoints a commission to investigate its causes. When the Kerner Commission report is published in March 1968, it describes America as two societies, black and white, separate and unequal, and recommends new government programs to break down racial barriers and increase opportunity. However, with the growing costs of the Vietnam War, Johnson chooses to not act.

The award-winning documentary series Eyes on the Prize tells the definitive story of the civil rights era from the point of view of the ordinary men and women whose extraordinary actions launched a movement that changed the fabric of American life, and embodied a struggle whose reverberations continue to be felt today.