The Voices of Civil Rights Project Collection

In addition to my work cataloging new oral histories for the Civil Rights History Project, I am also working on other collections related to the civil rights movement and African American history. One of these collections is the Voices of Civil Rights Project, a nationwide initiative of AARP conducted over the years 2003 to 2005.

In the first part of the project, a team of journalists interviewed 82 leaders and activists including well known people in the movement for African American civil rights, such as B.B. King, Robert Moses, and James Lawson. Other people who were involved in movements for the rights of ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities, were also interviewed, including Susan Brownmiller, Rep. Barney Frank, and Suzan Harjo. Excerpts of 33 of these interviews were included in the book My Soul Looks Back in Wonder published by AARP in 2004, but our collection at the American Folklife Center includes sound recordings and transcripts for all of these interviews.

Voices of Civil Rights participants in Greensboro, North Carolina, 2004. Voices of Civil Rights Project collection (AFC 2005/015), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

In the next phase, AARP sponsored a bus tour to collect oral histories of ordinary people who participated in or were affected by the civil rights movement. Starting in Washington, D.C., events were held in 48 cities, mostly in the South, Midwest and West Coast. Approximately 1,150 audio interviews were conducted by journalists at these events, which also included music performances and tours of historic sites related to the movement. An additional 570 video interviews were filmed by both AARP and the History Channel, some of which were included in a 4-hour documentary, also titled Voices of Civil Rights. A few of these interviews are now featured on a new website created by AARP. The collection also includes thousands of photographs taken on the bus tour and at the opening of an exhibit featuring items from the collection at the Library of Congress.

For the last part of the project, AARP decided to reach out to people unable to come to the bus tour events, by inviting members of the public to submit short letters about their memories of the civil rights movement.  This call for submissions was published in both AARP Magazine and Parade. Participants were also able to submit their written experiences through the Voices of Civil Rights website and by email, for a grand total of about 1,600 submissions.

Maya Thompson

AFC intern Maya Thompson, photographed by Valda Morris for AFC

The letters run the gamut of personal memories concerning racism and discrimination, but the vast majority include one of three common experiences: segregation on public transportation, school integration from the perspective of the baby boomer generation (who were the children at the center of these battles), and military segregation and integration after 1948 from the perspective of veterans.

One of our interns this fall, Maya Thompson, is helping me to finish processing the submissions. One of the most moving letters Maya has come across is from Lulu Westbrooks Griffin, who describes her arrest at age 13 in Americus, Georgia, for attempting to integrate a theater. Along with 32 other girls, Griffin spent 45 days in a jail known as the Leesburg Stockade.

Maya is also working on our item-level finding aid, which will soon be included on the Library of Congress finding aids website. In addition, all of the audio and video interviews have been digitized and are currently available to be viewed in the American Folklife Center Reading Room. Items from the Voices of Civil Rights Project collection, along with items from other collections related to the civil rights movement, will soon be featured on a new website under the aegis of the Civil Rights History Project in 2014.

 

 

 

 

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