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Winding Down the Civil Rights History Project: A Retrospective and Appreciation

As African American History Month concludes in 2020, the AFC is proud to announce the culmination of the Civil Rights History Project (CRHP) with the online release of the last batch of the 145 video interviews recorded with veteran activists for the collection. All the interviews are available on the Civil Rights History Project page, at this link.

CiviL Rights History Project wbsite image

Civil Rights History Project website featuring images of the last batch of interviewees

The US Congress mandated, via public law (PL111-19) in 2009, that the Library and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) work in partnership to a) conduct a nationwide survey of extant documentary collections detailing the fight for justice, freedom and equality for African Americans, and b) to conduct fresh oral histories documenting the experiences of activists in the struggle–particularly at the grass-roots level–during the latter half of the 20th century. As of the close of the undertaking in early winter 2020, the Civil Rights History Project Collection (AFC 2010/039) contains more than 1200 items consisting of born-digital video files (the individual segments that comprise each interview event), digitized videocassettes, digital photographs and full-text transcripts for all interviews. The interviews are also accessible through the Library of Congress YouTube site and the website of the NMAAHC .

The newly uploaded interviews were recorded mostly between late winter 2015 and summer 2016, principally in locations in Mississippi, the Washington, DC area, and California. We concentrated on interviewing local activists who worked for organizations like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Black Panther Party chapters in the Bay Area, Chicano organizations in Los Angeles, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The subject matter expands the scope of the CRHP beyond stories of the struggle for voting rights and economic self-reliance in the early to mid-1960’s to actions and events after Dr. King’s murder in 1968, such as the Poor People’s Campaign, the emergence of Black and Brown Power movements that articulated forceful, even revolutionary demands for social and economic justice (as well as the brutal suppression of those movements by the state), and unique initiatives aimed at cultural expression and self-representation through the establishment of arts and cultural centers in black communities. The stories of Norma Mtume, Ericka Huggins, Judy Richardson, Carlos Montes, Maria Varela, Worth Long, Ellie Dahmer, and Betty Garman Robinson, among others, lend depth, texture and powerful intimacy to our understanding of the seminal struggles for justice and freedom that shaped this country.

The CRHP has provided the Folklife Center opportunities to produce an extraordinary range of public programs, such as a symposium in 2014 and another in 2015, and book talks featuring a range of scholars and activists. It has yielded up rich primary source records to use in exhibitions such as The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom, print and web publications, and academic conferences. The project also enabled the Center to locate and acquire primary source collections from documentarians and scholars like Glen Pearcy and Felipe Hinojosa.

Most recently, a gathering at the Library marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, featuring participants from that event who were joined by their present-day counterparts from the 2018 Campaign. The webcast of that gathering is available in the player below, or at this link on loc.gov.

Also in 2018, the Center produced a panel session examining how SNCC workers sustained their passion and mission for social justice after the close of the southern Freedom Movement’s actions for various rights and focused their energies on community-centered enterprises. Several of the founding members of the Drum and Spear Bookstore, which was a critical locus for African American intellectual life and cultural programming in Washington, DC, shared their reminiscences with a Library audience. The event was documented on video, and you can view it in the webcast in the player below, which is also available at this link on loc.gov.

A StoryMap entitled Freedom,  published in late 2019, draws attention to key moments in the freedom struggle via a digital platform that links oral histories from the CRHP collection with other Library items including photographs, images and graphics. The image below links to the map.

Library of Congress for the website for the StoryMap, entitled Freedom

As for myself, the opportunity to work for the project for the last ten years has been one of the most profoundly fulfilling experiences of my life and career. For that, I thank the many activists who shared their amazing memories of the struggle and deep knowledge of life with the Library, the NMAAHC and the world. I had the privilege of being on location as producer and crew member for several dozen of the interviews and of viewing all the files in the course of editing them for access on the website; many stories remain vivid. The Advisory Board for the CRHP, which included Julian Bond and Clement Price (both deceased), Bernice Reagon, and Taylor Branch, drew upon the wealth of their experience in the struggle and their personal networks to point to individuals whom they deemed crucial to interview.  The interviewers, professional historians of the Movement mostly, brought deep knowledge of the subject matter and demonstrated a level of professionalism, ethical conduct and respectful engagement with the interviewees that shine through in interview after interview. Before I began working on the initiative I had read well-known authors like Taylor Branch and John Dittmer (both of whom conducted interviews for the CRHP), but my bookshelves now also include the works of historians and rising “stars” in the profession like David Cline, Emilye Crosby, and Hasan Kwame Jeffries. It was inspiring to witness them in their interactions with the interviewees, as I was able to do on several shoots. (Subsequently, these folks did double duty by  presenting their research at the Library, along with other talented scholars such as Adriane Lentz-Smith, Josh Davis, Thomas Jackson and Gary May – webcasts of their presentations are available on the Library of Congress website.)

The filmmaker who shot all the interviews (save for a handful) and delivered such “pretty pictures,” as my colleague Carl Fleischhauer admiringly notes, is John Bishop, documentary filmmaker with decades of experience. John’s commitment to social justice issues dates back to his college days in the mid-1960s, when he was a member of the UC-Berkeley chapter of the student activist group, Students for a Democratic Society. This commitment and his professional “chops” are readily apparent in the many films he has made, both individually and in collaboration with folklorists and anthropologists over the years. On most of the CRHP interviews, all at the same time, he was the camera-person, the audio recordist, the lighting grip, and the driver (!) His  ability to take on several roles made for a more contained and efficient documentary process. (This is a discussion for another day, but I will note that in my experience on film productions, it is the case that fewer crew members – in this case, a two or three-person team – greatly reduces distractions for interviewees caused by several foreign bodies crowding in on their personal space.)

The administrative and logistical management of the interview team – a considerably complicated task – was ably accomplished thanks to the skills and efficiency of Seth Kotch and the Southern Oral History Program at UNC-Chapel Hill (my alma mater). The survey that resulted from the diligent research of four scholars – Danille Christensen, Liz Gritter, Will Griffin and Andrew Salinas -  in the project’s initial stages was ably directed by the American Folklore Society under the guidance of then-Executive Director, Tim Lloyd; The remote database portal for completing bibliographic entries was designed by Washington State University’s Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation.

At the NMAAHC, Elaine Nichols and Kelly Navies have been responsible for curating the joint collection and producing public programming; their efforts and curatorial insights were integral to the functioning and accomplishments of the CRHP.  Their work takes place under the leadership of senior managers such as former Director Lonnie Bunch ( now the Smithsonian’s Secretary), Deputy Director Kinshasha Holman Conwill, and Associate Director Rex Ellis. At the Folklife Center, the leadership is comprised of the Director Betsy Peterson; Nicki Saylor, Head of the Archive; and John Fenn, Head of Research and Programs. Preceding them were Director Peggy Bulger and David Taylor, Head of Research and Programs.

Apart from these highly visible names and faces that are associated with cultural heritage institutions, there is much “hidden labor” in the world of archives, libraries and museums that enables these organizations to accomplish their missions on a daily basis. Accordingly, I would be remiss in not calling attention to the efforts of colleagues, past and present, who work(ed) diligently behind the scenes to manage the project and preserve and provide access to the interviews. Accordingly, Smithsonian museum staff who have been critical to the project include Blake McDowell, Walter Forsberg and Crystal Sanchez on the archival digital asset management end.

At the Library’s American Folklife Center, the responsible personnel for the CRHP, and its many productions, include now-departed staff members, Kate Stewart, Maggie Kruesi, Bert Lyons, and Julia Kim. Currently, the care and maintenance of the collection rests in the hands of archives staff Kelly Revak, Ann Hoog, Mathew Smith, Valda Morris, Steve Berkley, and a number of interns . Thea Austen, Jon Gold, and Steve Winick support the production of the previously mentioned public programs and publications. From the inception of the project to its completion, these individuals have sustained the joint goals of preservation and access–the mantra of cultural heritage archives everywhere.

To sum up the experience (hopefully for all involved in producing the project) I invoke the Brown Beret founder, Carlos Montes, who at a 2014 symposium at the Library was asked about his reaction upon arriving in Washington for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. The question had something to do with the impact of the multi-racial coalition that had gathered for the event and the effect of all that extraordinary energy and diversity on participants “consciousness” (or some such sociological term). Montes, in his inimitable plain style, exclaimed, “I don’t know about all those fancy words, man! My mind was blown!”

So too with the CRHP.

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