Library Launches Portal For Civil Rights History Project

(The following is a story written by my colleague, Mark Hartsell, editor of The Gazette, the Library of Congress staff newsletter.)

Simeon Wright / Civil Rights History Project

Simeon Wright / Civil Rights History Project

Simeon Wright still recalls the terror of the night they came and took his cousin away.

“I woke up and saw these two white men standing at the foot of my bed,” Wright said. “One had a gun, flashlight. He ordered me to lay back down and go to sleep. He made Emmett get up and dress and marched him out to the truck.”

Wright witnessed one of the most notorious incidents of the civil-rights era: the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago who was murdered during a visit to relatives in Mississippi in 1955. Wright drove into town with Emmett, watched him come out of the store, and heard him whistle at a passing white woman. And he was at home, asleep, when the woman’s husband and other men came to the house, took Emmett away and killed him.

“They drove off, and we never saw Emmett alive again,” Wright said. “But in that house that night, I never went back to sleep.”

Wright’s story is one of 55 interviews placed online by the Library of Congress as part of the Civil Rights History Project, a congressionally mandated initiative to collect, preserve and make accessible personal accounts of the civil-rights movement.

A Mandate from Congress

The Civil Rights History Project Act, passed in 2009, directed the Library and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to conduct a survey of existing oral-history collections related to the movement and to record new interviews with people who participated.

The American Folklife Center (AFC), which manages the project at the Library, today officially made videos and transcripts of those interviews and a database of oral-history collections around the country available online.

“The project is unique in its capacity to expand our collective awareness and understanding of one of the most fundamentally important social, political and cultural movements, not just for this country but the world over,” said Guha Shankar, project director for the AFC. “At the same time, the public can immediately connect to the intimate, unfiltered stories of people in the freedom struggle through the interviews online and also find similar stories that exist in libraries in their own backyard via the searchable database.”

Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Bradley / Prints and Photographs Division

Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Bradley / Prints and Photographs Division

The database, the first of its kind, makes available to researchers information about civil rights oral-history collections at public libraries, museums, universities and historical societies in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Library contractors conducting the survey of repositories nationwide discovered a surprisingly large number of collections.

“We thought they’d find maybe 150 collections and instead they found over 1,500,” said Kate Stewart, who helps manage the project for the AFC. “It’s a big and quite comprehensive database.”

The Library’s partner, the NMAAHC, chooses the interview subjects, and the interviews – now more than 100 of them – are conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program. The Library catalogs the interviews, makes the video and transcripts available, and provides copies to the Smithsonian for inclusion in the NMAAHC, scheduled to open on the National Mall in 2015.

A Movement of Everyday People

The project focuses not on prominent figures of the movement, but on foot soldiers – the young men and women who sang, marched and protested, who witnessed historic events, who watched great leaders work up close.

“There’s always been such a focus on the history of certain people, like Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks,” Stewart said. “These interviews tell different stories, things that you wouldn’t have thought about before.”

Jamila Jones recalls riding public buses in Montgomery, Ala., and Parks offering her Kool-Aid and cookies at an NAACP youth group meeting. She also recalled a tense moment during a police raid on a community meeting. The group began singing “We Shall Not be Moved,” and she spontaneously added the line “we are not afraid.”

Mildred Bond Roxborough, a longtime secretary at the NAACP, recalls working alongside many of the movement’s great leaders – and the impressions they made not as historic figures but as real people who could be funny, difficult, compassionate, tough.

“I never heard so many cuss words in my life, which was colorful,” Roxborough said of Thurgood Marshall, who later became the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice. “He was a wonderful raconteur. He had a tremendous sense of humor.”

Sisters Joyce (left) and Dorie Ladner / Civil Rights History Project

Sisters Joyce (left) and Dorie Ladner / Civil Rights History Project

Sisters Doris and Joyce Ladner grew up together, became activists together, helped organize the March on Washington together and, in interviews conducted for the project five decades later, still finish each other’s sentences. Joyce recalled the excitement and glamour of the March on Washington in 1963: seeing Josephine Baker and Marlon Brando, meeting Lena Horne – and the singer who crashed at their apartment in the days before the march and kept everyone awake.

“Bobby Dylan [was] sitting on the sofa strumming his guitar, and I wanted to go to sleep,” she said. “And he would sit there until midnight, and I just couldn’t wait until he would go to sleep.”

They also recalled the murder of activist Medgar Evers in 1963 – they’d known him as girls in Mississippi – and the horror of the trial of the man charged with the killing, Byron De La Beckwith. Each day, they said, De La Beckwith would enter the courtroom to a standing ovation from some in attendance – applause he received with a bow.

“Like some famous rock star,” Joyce said.

‘Powerful, Very Powerful’

Freeman Hrabowski, now president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, participated in the “Children’s Crusade” march of young people in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. Hrabowski, then 12, was leading his group, when they were confronted by a policeman.

“He was so angry, he spat on me,” Hrabowski said. “I’ll never forget it. He spat in my face. Picked me up and threw me. They came and got the kids, and they just threw us into the paddy wagon.”

Later, King led parents to the jail where the students were held and spoke to the crowds outside.

“We were looking through the bars, and they were singing the songs,” Hrabowski said. “And he spoke. He said, ‘What you do this day will have an impact on children yet unborn.’ I didn’t even understand it, but I knew it was powerful, powerful, very powerful.”

The AFC eventually will place all the interviews online, and excerpts will be included in the Library’s exhibition, which opens in June, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“The civil-rights movement is such a fundamental part of American history,” Stewart said. “You can read about it in textbooks, but oral history is such a moving way to learn. It really engages people in a way I don’t think the average textbook does.

“A lot of these people are talking about things they did as teenagers. What motivated them to do that? They were really risking their lives or putting themselves in danger to do this.”

The database of oral-history collections related to the civil-rights movement is available here.

Inquiring Minds: Commemorating the Federal Writers’ Project

David A. Taylor is the author of “Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America” and writer and co-producer of the Smithsonian documentary, “Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story.” On Thursday, he joins others at the Library for an event marking the 75th anniversary of “These Are Our Lives,” a collection […]

InRetrospect: March 2014 Blogging Edition

March came in like a lion with lots of interesting posts in the Library of Congress blogosphere. Check out this selection: Inside Adams: Science, Technology and Business Carl Sagan, Imagination, Science, and Mentorship: An interview with David Grinspoon Guest blogger Trevor Owens interviews astrobiologist David Grinspoon, who knew Carl Sagan as a child. In Custodia […]

InRetrospect: February 2014 Blogging Edition

Between winter and the winter olympics, the Library of Congress blogosphere offered up a variety of posts during February. Here is a sampling: In The Muse: Performing Arts Blog ASCAP on the Occasion of its 100th Birthday with Jimmy Webb and Paul Williams The Library celebrates ASCAP. From the Catbird Seat: Poetry & Literature at […]

Remembering Pete Seeger

Folk singer, activist and friend of the Library of Congress Pete Seeger passed away Monday in Manhattan. He was 94. The Library’s American Folklife Center and the Music Division are home to multiple collections documenting Seeger and his family’s extraordinary musical accomplishments. (The following is a repost from the American Folklife Center blog, Folklife Today.) Pete […]

Welcome to Folklife Today

Today we welcome the  newest member of the Library of Congress blogosphere: Folklife Today, a new blog produced by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. AFC has one of the largest archives in the world relating to traditional folk culture.  The center’s team of bloggers will be posting regularly with interesting information about its […]

Inquiring Minds: Sabor! Latin American and Hispanic Cookbooks in the Library of Congress Collections

(The following is a guest post by Kaydee McCann, humanities editor for the “Handbook of Latin American Studies” and reference librarian in the Hispanic Division.) Historian Natalia Silva Prada is a visiting researcher in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. Supported by a fellowship from Goya Foods, she spent two months preparing an annotated bibliography […]

Inside the March on Washington: Speaking Truth to Power

(The following is a guest post by Guha Shankar, folklife specialist in the American Folklife Center and the Library’s Project Director of the Civil Rights History Project, a Congressionally mandated documentation initiative that is being carried out in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.) Dr. Martin Luther King’s […]

Inquiring Minds: Alan Lomax Goes North

(The following is a guest post by Guha Shankar, folklife specialist with the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.) A fall landscape of orange and red foliage rushes by a car winding down a long road…a stern-faced singer draws his bow across a single-stringed lute and sings a ballad in Serbian about the 1389 Battle […]

Library’s Flickr Site Celebrates the Taggable Twos

(Guest post by Michelle Springer, Library of Congress Office of Strategic Initiatives) Jan. 16 is the two-year anniversary of the launch of the Library’s account on Flickr, the photosharing website. We started with approximately 3,100 photos in our account; today 30 additional archives, libraries, and museums from the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, Great Britain, the […]