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Experts Corner: Civil Rights Collections

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(The following is an interview from the July-August 2013 edition of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

Adrienne Cannon, African American history and culture specialist for the Manuscript Division, discusses the scope of the Library’s civil rights collections.

When did the Library of Congress begin collecting material documenting the Civil Rights Movement?

Throughout its 213-year history, the Library has endeavored to document every facet of the African American experience. With the establishment of the U.S. Copyright Office in the Library of Congress in 1870, a large percentage of these materials have been collected as copyright deposits, while others have been acquired as gifts or through purchase and subscription. The Carter G. Woodson Papers, given between 1929 and 1938, provided the first manuscripts related to the fight for civil rights. The collection includes the papers of John T. Clark, a National Urban League official.

Several years ago the Library mounted an exhibition marking the centennial of the NAACP. How did the Library come to acquire this important collection?

The Library acquired the NAACP Records in 1964 with the help of Morris L. Ernst, a friend of Arthur Spingarn, the NAACP’s longtime counsel and president. Totaling approximately 5 million items, the NAACP Records are the largest single manuscript collection acquired by the Library— and the most heavily accessed.

The NAACP Records are the cornerstone of the Library’s civil rights collections. The Library’s comprehensive civil-rights collections also include the original records of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the National Urban League and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; and the microfilmed records of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). These records are enhanced by the papers of such prominent activists as Roy Wilkins, Moorfield Storey, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Joseph Rauh, Mary Church Terrell, and Jackie Robinson. When Thurgood Marshall donated his papers to the Library in 1991, the documentation of his 60-year career, from civil rights lawyer to Supreme Court Justice, were finally brought together in one place.

Does the Library’s Manuscript Division continue to acquire material pertaining to the struggle for civil rights?

Yes. The Roger Wilkins Papers, a gift, arrived in January 2013. They chronicle his career as a civil rights lawyer, journalist and professor. In recent years, the division also received the papers of James Forman, Herbert Hill and Tom Kahn. Forman’s papers cover his leadership of SNCC, as well as his involvement in CORE, the NAACP and the Black Panther Party. Hill’s papers document his multi-faceted career, including his tenure as NAACP labor secretary. Kahn’s papers include his memoranda and notes on the 1963 March on Washington as first assistant to Bayard Rustin, the event’s chief organizer.

What other resources does the Library hold on the Civil Rights Movement?

In addition to the personal papers and organization records in the Manuscript Division, the Library’s other custodial divisions hold related resources in a wide variety of formats such as photographs, newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, film and sound recordings. The Library’s American Folklife Center preserves oral history interviews with those who experienced the movement first-hand. The Library is also collaborating with the Smithsonian Institution on the Civil Rights History Project, a congressional initiative to survey the nation’s existing Civil Rights-era oral history collections and to record additional interviews that will be housed in the American Folklife Center.


Civil Rights Resource Guide

View the NAACP centennial exhibition

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