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The Terrain of Freedom: Mapping Stories about People and Places in the African American Struggle for Justice, Rights, & Equality

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holding me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say ’em loud, say ’em clear
For the whole round world to hear

Nina Simone, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free
(© BMG Rights Management, 1967)

On Monday, the American Folklife Center launched  Freedom – the latest Story Map from the Library of Congress.  Story Maps produced by the Library of Congress integrate text, multimedia, and interactive maps to bring into public view the incredible collections of the national library on topics ranging from the internment of Japanese American citizens during WWII to the intertwined histories of the US transcontinental railroad and the still camera to 15th century developments in printing. Those and other entries in the series can be found at loc.gov/storymaps.

So what is the focus of Freedom? At base, the Story Map illustrates the mid-to-late twentieth-century movements led by African Americans to achieve justice and equality in all walks of life – the culmination of centuries of resistance to and struggle against oppression dating back to the arrival of enslaved African people in the New World. The contemporary period is commonly referred to in scholarship and popular understandings by the phrases “modern civil rights movement” or “civil rights era.” The Story Map’s title, by contrast, reflects the insistence of movement participants and scholars to foreground “freedom” as the foundational principle for the many actions for change that permanently altered American society in that time.

Noted Stanford University historian Dr. Clayborne Carson, states that “black participants often called their movement a freedom struggle {emphasis mine} in order to express its broad range of goals.” These goals reached beyond the legislative and legal remedies that long-established civil rights organizations such as the NAACP sought through the courts and Congress and looked to bring about fundamental economic, political and social transformations. The freedom movement, located in the southern US principally (but not exclusively), was characterized by “locally initiated protest activity, decentralized control, and an increasing sense of racial consciousness among participants.” (Carson, Clayborne, “Black Freedom Movement,” Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, eds. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989; vol 1:267-71).

In one of the several recorded oral histories embedded in the Story Map, Ruby Sales, activist and educator, succinctly articulates the complex connections between the modern freedom movement, its historical antecedents, and its broader aims:

[It] was not only a movement for civil rights, but it was also a movement for human dignity. It was also a movement to abolish the violence and terrorism that whites executed against black people for more than a hundred years during segregation. It was also a movement that – where we wanted to move from the small spaces that segregation pressed us down into larger spaces that gave us expression: creative, political, and social expression…And I think that when you limit it to “civil rights,” you obscure, first of all, the horrors of segregation. You do not have to come to terms with the violence. You do not have to come to terms with the economic oppression. You do not have to come to terms with white people who wanted to turn black schools into plantations. You do not have to come to terms with the fact that no black girl was safe from rape in that society. No black girl was safe from rape in that society! You obscure all of that. And, at the same time, you obscure the long hard years of black struggle and the blood and the sacrifice that we have poured into that struggle. I think that it does not do justice by limiting it to – and it’s really not accurate, to limit it to “the Movement.”
Ruby Sales interview in Freedom Story Map.

Ruby Sales’s interview for the Civil Rights History Project (CRHP) along with several others from that collection largely populate the Story Map – the CRHP is a joint initiative of the Library and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Interviews include first person testimonials from eye-witnesses to well-known events like the shocking murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, as well as recollections of student organizers who worked with remote, local communities in the South. Visitors to the site will also encounter graphics and photographs from the Prints and Photographs division, historical television programs from the Motion Pictures, Broadcast and Recorded Sound division, and a sub-section featuring still images drawn from Glen Pearcy’s collection of rare photographs of the 1965 voting rights campaign in Alabama that is housed in the Center ( we would love to hear from anyone who can put names to faces in the images!)

Needless to say, the selection of materials in the Freedom Story Map can only aspire to be a representative sampling of the Library’s collections about these immensely complicated topics. The Story Maps initiative continues the Library’s long-standing tradition of providing access to the various dimensions of the freedom struggle through public programs, book talks, online and on-site exhibitions. In this regard, two recent webcasts of 2018 symposia expand our knowledge of the struggle’s many facets:  one on the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968  and its 2018 successor and another program on the establishment of the radical, black-owned bookstore, Drum and Spear, and other community-centered cultural organizations that developed in the movement’s latter years. Visitors to the actual (rather than the virtual) Library will want to take in the exhibition opening in the first week of December 2019 entitled “In Her Own Words,” featuring items from the Rosa Parks collection.

We, at the American Folklife Center – the special collections division which produced the Freedom Story Map – can’t thank our G & M colleagues enough for the essential conceptual and technical guidance to make this initiative a reality. Many thanks also to the brilliant scholars who conducted the oral history interviews included on this site, our partners on the CRHP at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and most importantly, the men, women, and children who labored long and hard to sustain the freedom struggle…and turned Nina Simone’s wishes into reality.