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A Tribute to Henry Hampton

By Andrea L. Taylor, President
Benton Foundation

Henry Hampton (1940 - 98) was one of the 20th century's most influential documentary filmmakers. His work chronicled America's great political and social movements and set new standards for broadcast quality. Blackside, Inc., the independent film and television company he founded in 1968, completed 60 major films and media projects that amplified the voices of the poor and disenfranchised.

Over 20 million viewers watched Eyes on the Prize, his miniseries that won six Emmys, a Peabody, the duPont Columbia Award for Excellence in Radio and Television and an Academy Award nomination. Eyes on the Prize, the story of the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. from 1954 - 1985, is the definitive television history of that era and is used as a teaching tool in most U.S. schools and colleges. In addition, the Blackside team produced several other landmark series including Malcolm X, The Great Depression, America's War on Poverty and I'll Make Me a World.

During a remarkable career, Henry Hampton's vision of a just and compassionate future for all Americans never faltered. His work celebrated the resilience and nobility of the human spirit in the face of adversity and appealed to audiences throughout the world. Despite challenges in his own life, he exhibited great courage by overcoming the effects of polio at an early age and in a battle against cancer in later years. He never allowed physical disabilities or racial identity to restrict his ambition.

Henry Hampton was a licensed pilot and loved to fly, frequently soaring above the New England coast in his own Beechcraft Sundowner. Golf was also his passion whenever there was time. His record of service reflects a deep commitment to community justice and social change. For nearly 25 years he was Board Chairman of Boston's Museum of African American history and led the campaign to acquire and restore the African Meeting House, the oldest standing African American church in the U.S. He was a long-time board member of the Children's Defense Fund and the Revson Foundation.

Recognition for his outstanding work include a designation in 1990 from President George W. Bush as one of five Americans who had made outstanding contributions to the humanities, the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, and 14 honorary degrees. His enduring legacy is the legion of filmmakers that were led, trained and inspired by his commitment to excellence. Orlando Bagwell, Lillian Benson, Callie Crossley, Jim DeVinney, Jon Else, Louis Massiah, Sam Pollard, Judy Richardson, Terry Rockefeller, Paul Stekkler, Tracy Strain and dozens of others helped him to make Eyes on the Prize and subsequent films and their work is influencing the field in the 21st century.

Henry Hampton grew up in St. Louis, graduated from Washington University and dropped out of medical school. He went to work for the Unitarian Universalist Church as Director of Information, traveling extensively in the U.S. and abroad and making his first visit to the Deep South for the Selma to Montgomery March led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His participation in that event was the inspiration for Eyes on the Prize, and for storytelling about what he called "messy history" that dealt with difficult and divisive issues. Although he chose not to become a surgeon like his father, Henry Hampton's life was dedicated to healing with truth and using the power of media to help the nation learn the lessons of history and to envision a brave new world.

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