Media Veteran Offers Reflections on Documenting Civil Rights Era


Callie Crossley, a news producer whose credits include "20/20" and the civil rights documentary "Eyes on the Prize," repeatedly uged Saint Mary's students to take risks and be prepared to benefit from unexpected situations.

As this year's Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, Crossley spent a week talking to communications classes and student organizations about race and equity in the media and gave a keynote speech on "Passing the Baton: Activism in the 21st Century."

Emphasizing the importance of seizing opportunities, Crossley cited one of her most famous documentary subjects.

"In 1954, Martin Luther King was just a 26-year-old pastor of a small church in Montgomery, Alabama," Crossley reminded a Diversity Club audience. "He wasn't necessarily looking to do anything else."

When the Montgomery bus boycotts began that year, however, King helped spearhead a nonviolent resistance campaign that ultimately spread throughout the United States, leading to significant civil rights reforms and inspiring other social movements around the globe.

"But back in the beginning, no one had any idea that it would be such a success," Crossley said. "So you can't just be looking to be a success, because you don't always know what success will look like."

In her career, Crossley has taken on projects that did not promise job security or immediate acclaim. An established television reporter in the late 1980s, she was intrigued by the possibility of working on "Eyes on the Prize," a documentary project from the independent production company Blackside, Inc. She said the project resonated with her experience as an African-American who grew up in Memphis during the 1960s and 1970s, and was not intimidated by her lack of experience in documentaries.

"As journalists, we usually don't take 'no' for an answer," she said about overcoming initial skepticism from the series' more seasoned documentary makers.

During the project, Crossley gained the trust of African-Americans and whites involved in civil rights struggles across the South, many of whom were telling their stories for the first time. She also produced the series' final episode about the 1965 Selma, Ala. march, which spurred Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.

Crossley has continued to work on documentary projects, including "This Far By Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys," and is a commentator for radio and television programs such as "NPR News and Notes."

While Crossley has received journalism honors such as the Peabody and Edward R. Murrow awards, she acknowledged that women and minorities are underrepresented in mainstream media.

"There may have been a crack in the glass ceiling since I started," she said at a Women's Center event, "but the only way it will open further is if we use jackhammers and pickaxes."

--John Grennan
Office of College Communications