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Q & A with Journalist Vern Smith on the Voices of Civil Rights Project Collection

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Two weeks ago, Beth Domingo of AARP’s Life Reimagined Institute and journalist Vern Smith came to the American Folklife Center to talk with us about their work on the Voices of Civil Rights project (AFC 2005/015), sponsored by AARP and donated to the Library of Congress in 2005, and to hear about our recent work on the collection. Domingo helped coordinate AARP’s bus tour with stops in almost 50 cities across the country throughout the summer and fall of 2004. At each event, journalists interviewed participants of the African American, Latino/a, Native American, women’s, and disability rights movements. Interviewees ranged from leaders to grassroots activists to anyone who had a memory to share about what they witnessed or what these movements for social justice meant to them. Smith, a longtime Newsweek staff writer and Atlanta bureau chief, interviewed about 200 people, both on the bus tour and for a related book project edited by Juan Williams, My Soul Looks Back in Wonder.

The bus tour resulted in approximately 1,800 audio and video interviews recorded on 219 minidiscs, 79 cassettes, 10 microcassettes, 90 DVCAMs, 4 miniDVs, and 3 VHS tapes. With funding from the Civil Rights History Project, we were able to get these tapes and the other audiovisual materials in the collection digitized and ingested onto our servers last fall. Our fourth intern to work on the collection over the past two years, Raeanne Rider, is logging the videos this semester.

Vern Smith, former Atlanta bureau chief for Newsweek, and author of the "The Jones Men," a novel. Photography by Walter and used courtesy of Vern Smith.
Vern Smith, former Atlanta bureau chief for Newsweek, and author of the The Jones Men, a novel. © Photography by Walter and used courtesy of Vern Smith.

Smith spent several days that week in the AFC reading room, also watching video interviews from the project. I asked him about growing up in Mississippi, his work as a journalist, and his memories of the Voices of Civil Rights bus tour.

KS: I understand you grew up in Mississippi during the civil rights era. Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood?

VS: I grew up in Natchez, the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River, named for the Native American tribe that had inhabited the land before the French built a fort on the bluffs in 1716. Historians trace the earliest arrival of enslaved Africans to 1720. A place called Forks of the Road made Natchez a center of the domestic slave trade right up to the Civil War when it became a refuge for runaway slaves and then a staging area for many of them to muster into the Union Army and fight in the war. Natchez is one of the places where we first see the agency of black people in changing the meaning of American citizenship. I learned all this later through my own research, but I knew growing up it was a unique place.

Segregation laws enforced a stifling second-class citizenship, and there was an edginess to life because of the constant possibility that someone hateful could do something to you because they could. I grew up with the story of Emmett Till in the air. At the same time, every neighborhood we lived in had blacks and whites, and I’m still friends with white people that I grew up with.

Even though we were isolated and denied basic rights, I had a kind of idealized childhood because of my parents and the College Street-Woodlawn neighborhood I grew up in. It was anchored by Natchez College, which had been founded by a black Baptist group in 1885. We had a wonderful mixture of professional and working class families all geared toward making things better for their children. Our thing was education, sports, and music, and we weren’t intimidated or consumed by self-doubt. In many ways, our parents and teachers were preparing us for the day when we would have to challenge the racial status quo. They were very forward looking.

KS: What made you decide to become a journalist?

VS: I think the idea that writing could bring pleasure might have come from observing my mother at the end of her day, sitting down to write her sisters in San Francisco. She wrote in a tablet with a fountain pen, long, lively letters filled with vivid descriptions of the goings-on in Natchez, and she had such a peaceful, contented look, smiling to herself as she filled up page after page, that it really struck me. When I was around 12, I asked my Dad for a typewriter, and I was off to the races. I was sports editor of our little mimeographed high school newspaper, and in college I was a sports feature writer, and columnist, and later sports editor. I joined Newsweek after a reporting stint with the Independent, Press-Telegram in Long Beach, California.

KS: You’ve had a long career writing for Newsweek and other publications. What were some of the more memorable events you covered?

VS: So many. In no particular order, the bombing in the park at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the escape from a Tennessee prison of James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The “Atlanta Child Murders” case, and the election in Atlanta of Maynard H. Jackson as the first African American Mayor of a major southern city. I guess I would include my first Newsweek cover story on baseball legend Hank Aaron’s chase of the Major League Baseball Home Run Record.

KS: How did you come to be involved in the Voices of Civil Rights project? What was it like to be one of the interviewers on the bus tour?

VS: Someone who knew of my work for Newsweek recommended me. The Voices project was like a dream tour for me. When I moved to Atlanta in the early 1970s, all of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s associates, and other leading figures from the Movement years were still active, all the people you see in the movie Selma. John Lewis, the Georgia Congressman who was a leader of the Selma march, was running the Voter Education Project, so I had interviewed and gotten to know many of the leaders in the movement. The bus tour was an opportunity to hear first-hand from the “foot soldiers” who turned it into a mass movement.

Julian Bond, one of the organizers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), once told me that they had a saying in SNCC, “You have to move when the people say move.” I feel that you hear from a lot of those people in these oral histories. The bus tour stopped at many of the key locations on the civil rights timeline–Richmond, Greensboro, Orangeburg, Atlanta, Jackson, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis, to name a few. But I also organized side trips to other communities where I knew there had been civil rights activity.

New reporters on the tour would come back to the bus after a day of interviews drained. They were not prepared for the stories of day-to-day terrorism that many people experienced under segregation, and I think they came away with a new appreciation for the courage and resolve it took to become a part of the Civil Rights Movement.

From left to right: Vern Smith, Lydia Lum (reporter), Franklin McCain (one of the Greensboro four at lunch counter sit-in), Nery Ynclan (reporter), and Lester Sloan (photographer) in front of the AARP bus with McCain's image. Photograph by Lester Sloan, © AARP 2004.
From left to right: Vern Smith (reporter), Lydia Lum (reporter), Franklin McCain (one of the Greensboro four at lunch counter sit-in), Nery Ynclan (reporter), and Lester Sloan (photographer) in front of the AARP bus with McCain’s image in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photograph by Lester Sloan, © AARP 2004.  Voices of Civil Rights Project Collection, American Folklife Center, AFC 2005/015.


KS: The approximately 1,800 interviews in this project have been largely untapped by researchers until recently. What do you think they will add to or change how we think about the Civil Rights Movement?

VS: Dr. King talked about being thrust into the leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott whether, at 26, he thought he was prepared for it or not because of the sheer determination of the people not to be abused and disrespected any longer. I think that kind of flinty will to be full citizens is what courses through the voices in this collection. I think it’s one of the reasons why you find so many of the people we interviewed were incredibly young at the time. In many cases the parents couldn’t hold them back. The unique value of these stories is that they capture that powerful human urge that propelled the Movement. I believe they also give us a fuller sense of the times and the way ordinary people coped in their daily struggle to deal with segregation.

Searching through these digitized audio and video interviews recently, I was struck by all the themes of how people navigated in a Jim Crow world. For example, in a video interview, James Edward Sheffield, who later became a Chief Judge in Virginia, talks about traveling across the country from Hot Springs, Arkansas with friends to earn summer money waiting tables, and relying on a tour guide called “The Green Book” to find hotels, private homes and restaurants that catered to African American travelers. One could do a whole discourse on “Traveling under Jim Crow” from this collection.

There are also numerous interviews with people who experienced the four-year shutdown of schools in Prince Edward County during Virginia’s “massive resistance” stance against the Brown Decision. And researchers will also discover unexpected reminders of how close to us this history is. I came across a startling video interview from the Baton Rouge stop of a woman named Mary Allen Taylor, daughter of Louis Allen, one of the martyrs of the voting rights struggle in Mississippi. She was three-years-old when her father, a logger and active NAACP member, was shot and killed in his driveway in January 1964. His death set the stage for “Freedom Summer,” when thousands of mostly white Northern college students flocked to Mississippi for a massive voter registration campaign.

KS: What was your favorite interview and why?

VS: I had a lot of favorites, but one that stands out in my mind is the interview with Mary Frances Mays of Lowndes County, Alabama, near Selma. She is a great example of the extraordinary voices of regular people in this collection. She was denied the opportunity to register to vote, but when the civil rights workers came into the area, she housed and fed many of them, and participated in the marches along with her children despite threats.


Here’s an excerpt from Vern Smith’s interview with Mary Frances Mays in Hayneville, Alabama, conducted on August 16, 2004 for the Voices of Civil Rights project:

Mary Frances Mays in Hayneville, Alabama, August 16, 2004. Photograph by Lester Sloan, © AARP 2004. (AFC 2005/015)
Mary Frances Mays in Hayneville, Alabama, August 16, 2004. Photograph by Lester Sloan, © AARP 2004. Voices of Civil Rights Project Collection, American Folklife Center, AFC 2005/015.

VS: You didn’t have no fear.

MFM: No, I ain’t never had no fear!

VS: And you didn’t have no fear when they started talking about going to vote, too.

MFM: No, no, I sure had never. Wanted to go, but I had nobody to carry me because they was scared. And when I did went over there, to vote, they asked me, “How many grains of corn on a cob? How many watermelon seeds?” I said, “How you know ’til unless you cut it open and count it?” That’s just the way they did. Sure did, asked how many watermelon–

VS: That was the test you had to take to–

MFM: That’s what they were doing over there in Hayneville!

VS: That was in Hayneveille, at the courthouse in Hayneville?

MSM: Just where they’re at now. That’s what they did back there then.

VS: Just so you, registered–

MSM: No, no. How in the devil you know how many seeds in a watermelon? How many grains in a corncob? There’s some ears of corn long enough that got more grains on them because I have counted. Now how you know how many seeds in a watermelon? I told them, I said, “You’re talking to us, and you don’t know yourself.” That’s what I told that white man. But honey, I ain’t bit my tongue. Talk to me right, I’m going to talk to you right. I said, “But if you step out of bounds, I’m going to tell you no.”

Researchers interested in hearing and viewing more of these interviews from the Voices of Civil Rights Project Collection and other civil rights collections can contact the Folklife Reading Room.


  1. This is very interesting and informative.

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