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"Opportunity Knocks: Documentation Strategies for Civil Rights Primary Sources in Alabama"
For the better part of a decade or more, archivists have been admonished in their professional literature to become experts at electronic records and to partner with historians, records managers, and others in order to become accepted as valued professionals in the collection, storage, and distribution of information. During the 1990's, Archivaria, American Archivist, Provenance, Records Management Quarterly , and other respected and refereed journals devoted considerable space to address both the professional image of archivists and the promise and pitfalls of the electronic environment. David Bearman, Richard Cox, Terry Eastwood, Margaret Hedstrom, Linda Henry, Steven Lubar, John McDonald, Duncan McDowall, and countless others have offered visions for the future of the profession which have sparked debate and enriched the reflective practice of archivists. Yet in the midst of an ever-changing strategic landscape which has brought increasing political and financial pressure on staffs, practices, and facilities, many archival agencies find themselves continually challenged to do more work with less funding and in an environment that offers too little appreciation for their craft, commitment, and value. Perhaps, the profession has found too few practical opportunities to assert itself and thereby assure a prominent place at the table.
One such opportunity for archivists, archival agencies, and professional organizations to demonstrate their value and importance would be to work pro-actively to amass inter-institutional documentation of primary source collections around common themes. Even the Code of Ethics for Archivists suggests that archivists should "cooperate to ensure the preservation of materials in repositories where they will be adequately processed and effectively utilized." Further, and more to the point of collaboration, the code also identifies a "professional responsibility to recognize the need for cooperative efforts." One example of a possible opportunity for cooperation and collaboration may be in the field of civil rights primary sources.
As we enter the twenty-first century, America comes closer and closer to commemorating landmark anniversaries which will continue to bring the contentious events of the 1950s and 1960s back into the public eye. This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the birth of the sit-in movement. Next year the 40th commemoration of the freedom riders will begin and in 2003 the University of Alabama will have been integrated for forty years. That same year, four innocent children who sought only to worship at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church will have been buried for forty years. In 2004, the Brown v Board of Education decision will be fifty years old and a year later the actions of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and the story of the Montgomery Improvement Association will be hailed and remembered all across the state, the South, and the nation for the fiftieth year. In 2005, the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the images that it seared into American memory will be forty years old. Simply put, Alabamians played key roles in the drama surrounding the destruction of de jure segregation, the emergence of another New South, and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Alabama has thousands of tales to tell from the rugged reality of settlement and expansion to the enduring heritage of the Civil War but none as powerful, relevant, and applicable as the story of the Second Reconstruction.
These important anniversaries are sure to usher in a new wave of scholarship and reexamination as new generations of Americans come face to face with the movement. Numerous universities and other institutions are likely to launch oral history programs as another wave of civil rights protestors and resistors endeavor to record their final thoughts about their experiences. No matter who elects to delve into this story, their journey will doubtless bring them, in one form or another, to Alabama. Simply put, the state of Alabama was ground zero for many of the most important and historic events of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps no two individuals are as symbolic of the extremes of the movement as Dr. King, a preacher whose first church was in the state, and George C. Wallace, arguably the most identifiable opponent of integration in the entire country.
Two months ago, the Auburn University Center for the Arts and Humanities in conjunction with the Auburn University History Department began a pilot project to identify every manuscript collection, oral history interview, government record, speech, artifact, and other documentary material relating to the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. While this project is in the early stages, it appears to represent a glittering opportunity for the collective archival community in the state, a possible resource of tremendous value for historians, journalists, and other researchers, and the promise of an educational and cultural gateway for every school, pupil, and teacher seeking to learn more about the most significant social revolution in American history. To that end, the purpose of my remarks and the resulting panel discussion is to relate some of the preliminary findings, to put out a call to arms to the profession, to spark a dialogue about the best way to catalog and document these sources, and to explore the possibility of constructing a partnership which could well serve as a model for others to follow.
I began this project by exploring information about civil rights primary sources available on the world wide web. As might be expected, I found considerable information online, but it soon became obvious that different agencies within the state have different procedures for posting descriptions about their civil rights holdings. Some agencies post only the name of a series or the titles of manuscript collections; others offer more detailed descriptions which summarize the nature of the record group. Still other agencies have intricately identified the material down to the folder level. Of course, many reasons exist for these differences, including funding, manpower, time, and agency mission. Yet it remains possible if not probable that a researcher, relying on the web for identifying the location of important source material, may not be able to find essential documents. It seems plausible that some collections. For one reason or another, may not be posted on the web. And even a cursory examination of the civil rights historiography suggests that scholars are overly dependent on some sources while not using others that are in our state's repositories.
Although I have done graduate coursework in archival studies, I view this project through the lens of an historian and cannot help but imagine the benefits of a detailed catalog of all civil rights primary sources in either a web-based or CD-ROM platform. Such an information product could also include sources which are located outside of Alabama, but which detail events that occurred within the state. It may be appropriate to offer an example about how this hypothetical catalog of primary sources could be used. Consider the case of a researcher who wanted to identify primary sources about the Selma-to-Montgomery March. This researcher might use the catalog to identify all available sources. Going further, perhaps this researcher wanted to find only oral history transcripts about the march, or possibly even only those interviews conducted before 1970, or maybe even those relating just to female subjects. Properly designed and constructed, this hypothetical catalog of primary sources could be sorted by date, place, type of source, description of source, or any other relevant parameter.
To be sure, one can already anticipate the calls to actually provide reproductions of documents, photographs, or records of all provenance on this catalog. In other words, some might suggest that this hypothetical catalog provide information from holdings, not just about holdings. It is not, however, prudent to provide actual records through this hypothetical catalog. Although such an approach would allow researchers to do their work from the privacy of their own homes and offices, something that appeals to me as an historian, it would not serve the interests of the individual agencies where this material is housed. The hope is that researchers would utilize this finished product in whatever form it appears to alert them to material that they might have otherwise missed, thereby insuring that they will visit or otherwise communicate with the individual agencies. In the end, this hypothetical catalog should boost traffic in your facilities, enhance the value and prestige of your collections, and help to demonstrate the value that archivists who understand their collections can bring to the narrative of history.
The road to any comprehensive and definitive master finding aid is indeed a multi-step process. The first step is to marshal as much data as possible about sources and locations. Within the first few weeks of this process and by analyzing only a handful of agencies, I collected nearly one hundred pages of text describing source material. Quite obviously, our suspicions about the tremendous amount of material available for researchers were quickly confirmed. So what is the next step? Perhaps the Alabama archival community should consider the value and feasibility of a collaborative civil rights project.
It is hoped that these proposals and ideas along with the preliminary work we have started at Auburn can serve as a starting point for a collective dialogue; they are not intended as a final destination. What is most needed are ideas, suggestions for sketching a broader documentation strategy, specific details and procedures to give flesh to the skeleton, and most importantly expertise in communicating your own extensive knowledge about your collections and the best way to describe them. In the end, repositories represented in SALA and agencies in neighboring locales which hold civil rights sources have an opportunity to work together to preserve and make available the documentary heritage of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. Along the way, we might just develop a model for integrating the professional acumen and vision of archivists and historians and thus put theories into action. The opportunity and need are there. What is left to decide is whether this is the type of project which can unite the archival and historical community and demonstrate the collective strengths and value of both professions.
Archivist, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
I agree wholeheartedly with Jeff’s premise that there is an enormous amount
of information available that many of us in the field do not know about and that
is severely under utilized. The increasing demands of this ever widening
electronic age of ours places intense pressure on archival institutions to
respond to the expectations of a public encouraged to view computer technology
as having all the answers. I often get inquires from local researchers
asking about what is available online even before they consider coming down to
the Institute. I respond that we have brief descriptions online, but that
access to primary material and the attendant benefits of its use would involve a
visit to the Institute.
However, we are in the middle of an information and technological revolution that requires us to inform our researchers in the best possible way about the kinds of material we are preserving. As Jeff has indicated, that is the challenge, but equally challenging for the Institute is collecting information about the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham that may not be primary source material from that era. To make up for some of this shortfall, the Institute has an initiative of the sort that Jeff referred to in his comments.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute houses the only on?going oral history project that focuses on gathering interviews of participants who were instrumental in the development of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and the state of Alabama. Now in its sixth year, the Project covers such diverse topics as race relations, African American culture, Birmingham, and civil rights, and the importance of Southern history to current national and international affairs. Over 300 interviews have been done since 1994 and are available to be viewed on video, read as transcriptions, or in part, accessed electronically via computers in one of the Institute's galleries. Another 275 individuals have been identified for interviews to be conducted in the near future. The interviewees have included leaders who were closely associated with the decision making process of the Movement; women who were intimately involved with day-to-day activities of the marches and mass meetings; adults who were children when arrested and who had to spend several days in jails around the county; men who served as guards to protect the homes and churches of Movement leaders; Whites who were supportive of the Movement, and/or instrumental in the civic and business communities; and many, many others.
In addition to specific discussions on the Movement, the interviews have
provided detailed information on the development of Birmingham; the evolution of
race relations in the city; how African Americans viewed themselves in
comparison to the local White community; the meaning of education, self
sufficiency, and the strong work ethic of African Americans who were forced to
survive in a setting designed to minimize opportunities for half this area’s
population. The Institute’s Oral History Project has given those most
responsible for the success of their Movement a voice. To this date, they
have been silent on their roles in the struggle for justice and equality in what
was once "the most segregated big city in the country.” The Institute’s
project is testimony to the eloquence of individuals who can relate their story
from their own perspectives.
I believe Jeff’s call for alliances and partnerships, which could lead to a strong documentation strategy benefiting all Alabama archival institutions, is appropriate for the times we now face. However, we will have to keep in mind that the success or failure of those partnerships will rest squarely on the shoulders of those of us in this room today. We do indeed have our work cut out for us.
Dr. Gwen Patton
Response to Jeff Frederick’s presentation,
“Opportunity Knocks: Documentation Strategies for Civil Rights Primary Sources in Alabama”
I am elated that we as historians, sociologists, archivists and other related professionals appreciate the necessity for our organized collaboration to make fully accessible our invaluable collections on the Civil/Voting Rights Movement. The people, particularly African-American Alabamians, were the vanguard in ushering in the watershed “Second Reconstruction” that continues to impact the world in its quest for freedom and democracy.
Several concerns must be addressed if we wish to establish partnerships with integrity:
1. Provenance—each repository should have its ownership, control its intellectual property and should be cited when information is shared. Too often, and I have experienced this insult, small colleges are “stereotyped” by larger institutions as not having the “capacity” to house special collections. (Trenholm is a 2-year college and the only one in the system to have an archives with 18 special collections of Montgomery’s Pioneer Voting Rights Activists.) Moreover, I have experienced larger institutions revisiting primary sources and insist that they withdraw their legally-custodial collections from Trenholm’s archives to their institutions. Policies must be hammered out so that all archives and archivists in the collaboration will be accorded professional respect and courtesy. These attempts to raid and to undermine each other must stop. This is not a Black-White concern, but, also, one of small and large institutions, including those within the Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) community. There are enough primary sources in the field for all of us to collect and catalog if we have a sincere, academic motivation to preserve the legacy of the Civil/Voting Rights Movement.
2. The total story must be told as evidenced in our collections. The Hon. Rufus A. Lewis Collection of over 20,000 items has a host of news articles and other items that demonstrate the implacable resistance of White Alabamians to Blacks pressing for their democratic and human rights. Mainstream historians have historically omitted African-Americans’ contributions in building this country, e.g., the building-construction of the nation’s Capitol. It is my hope that in this instance historians will not omit the “White Fight-Back” in telling the story. Omission is as racially egregious as commission of racist acts.
3. Uniformity— I don’t see too much difficulty in cataloguing on-line, no matter the software, if we give descriptive data in the 500 series. I favor descriptive data on the “author,” as well as a composite summary as to what is in the document box. Of course, each folder name or item should be listed in the 600 series. I do see great problems when we move to digitizing print and photo images in describing metadata, i.e., do we describe technical information as well as the content?
4. Web-pages—I have serious concerns as to the assurance and maintenance of intellectual property. Of course, we want to share and open up access, but when I see on the “E-bay web-page” the selling of original Movement leaflets for $3,5000, I’m concerned as to who really owns the original document. Trenholm (Lewis, Patton, Redden, and Carter Collections) has many original leaflets, posters, brochures, photographs, buttons and other civil/voting rights memorabilia. These primary sources must be protected.
Lastly, however we move to collaborate and to share our resources, I hope the format will be user-friendly. We need to develop a popular format that will not only attract scholars, but, also, lay people. I foresee, and Trenholm already has a large patronage, everyday people visiting archives to see papers and artifacts that tell the stories of their lifetimes, stories in which they had a part in shaping. Thank you.
I would like to expand on two of Jeff's points that I think are especially important. First he correctly points out that "even a cursory examination of the civil rights historiography suggests that scholars are overly dependent on some sources while not using others that are in our state's repositories." Much of the scholarship on the Civil Rights Movement--and almost all documentary film making and reporting by the news media--follow a prescribed formula regarding the perimeters of the movement and the ways in which the movement is interpreted. Scholars, students, journalists, and filmmakers return to the same sources, the same film clips, the same photographs, material already bled dry by other scholars, students, journalists, and filmmakers before them. An unfortunate result of the overuse (or one might say exploitation) of certain photo images from the movement is that those images have lost much of their power because they have become so familiar. With many students, many journalists, and most filmmakers this tendency to take the well-traveled road may be attributed to simple laziness. But even among some scholars the lack of adventurousness, and the lack of interest in being adventurous, can be striking. One also senses some reluctance among scholars to question many aspects of accepted civil rights interpretation.
A documentation project that collects information relating to current holdings in Alabama's archives, and that reaches out to collect new material for those archives, should help broaden the horizons of civil rights scholarship.
Secondly Jeff advises against trying to put a virtual archives of civil rights related documents on the Internet. To do this, he argues, "would not serve the interests of the individual agencies where this material is housed." Jeff is quite right. A project to post large numbers of documents on the Internet would be beyond the resources of most institutions. It could quickly drain most archives' budgets and overwhelm their staffs. The practical approach is to gather information about our holdings and make it easily available in one place.
And finally I would like to recommend a recent article entitled "Toward New Histories of the Civil Rights Era" by Charles W. Eagles (The Journal of Southern History, November 2000). Eagles provides a good overview of civil rights historiography and points historians in a number of scholarly directions heretofore neglected.
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It is past time to begin actively collecting materials relating to the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. The Montgomery Bus Boycott’s 50th anniversary is quickly approaching as is the 40th anniversaries of the Birmingham protests and the Selma to Montgomery March. Many of the key players have already passed away and many of the others are old and frail. It is crucial to begin actively collecting now. Who does the actual collecting, provided these institutions are able and committed to the preservation and providing access to these materials, is not as important as whether or not this extremely important movement is documented. This collecting needs to be done cooperatively so as not to waste valuable and scarce resources competing over the same materials while other collections are lost or discarded. It is time for various institutions within the state of Alabama to develop some sort of mechanism to ensure the long term preservation of these irreplaceable materials.
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