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.”
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 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.