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The Civil Rights History Project: Primary Sources and Oral History

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This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2015 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

History is most fascinating when we feel connected to the people with direct experience of the events. One way to pique student interest is by using primary sources from the Library of Congress –  letters, photographs, and oral histories — that document real people’s lives. The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress recently launched the Civil Rights History Project, a digitized collection of interviews with active participants in the Civil Rights movement and essays about the movement.

Ruby Sales, participant in the Selma to Montgomery Marches

These oral histories offer students the opportunity to watch and listen to real people, many of whom are still living, tell their stories about working with groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), participating in events like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963), the Freedom Rides (1961), the Selma to Montgomery Rights March (1965), sit-ins, and voter registration drives in the South.

Gertrude Newsome Jackson, community organizer and school activist
Gertrude Newsome Jackson, community organizer and school activist

Consider listening to portions of interviews that relate to what you are studying in class. Each interview includes a time stamped, searchable transcript. One method of introducing students to oral histories is to begin by asking students to listen and watch without distraction. Watch and listen a second time with the transcript. Invite students to annotate the transcript. Select questions from the Analyzing Oral Histories Teacher’s Guide to prompt students to observe, reflect, and ask questions about what they hear and see. After listening a second time, ask students: What did you notice the second time that you didn’t the first?

Add ”Thinking Like a Historian” routines to deepen analysis:

  • Source: Identify the item’s author and purpose. Consider point of view and credibility.
  • Contextualize: Situate the item and its events in time and place.
  • Close Reading: Identify and evaluate what the source says, paying special attention to word choice.
  • Corroborate: Compare claims and evidence across multiple sources to determine agreement and disagreement.
  • Reading the silences: What is missing? Details? Perspectives?

Encourage students to reflect on the significance of oral histories when studying the civil rights movement of the 1960s by asking:

  • What can we learn from oral histories?
  • How is learning from an oral history different from studying other formats?

Reflect on your own teaching:

  • How do oral histories support your students to help them develop listening skills?
  • What opportunities do oral histories present for evaluating a speaker’s point of view and reasoning?
  • What kinds of resources would help your students develop a more complete understanding of the events?

Share in the comments below: How will you engage your students with oral histories from the collections of the Library of Congress?

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