In Twilight of Life, Civil Rights Activists Feel ‘Urgent to Tell Our History’

Historians’ cameras are turned on. Vivian Washington Filer looks up, facing the camera. After decades of waiting, here’s your chance to set a record right here in Gainesville, Fla. – to share what it took for her and a friend to integrate the Alachua County doctor’s clinic in 1964.

“Today is April 4, 2019,” a University of Florida historian started, and when Mrs. Filer, then 80 years old, heard her name called, she looked straight ahead and smiled.

Marchers and organizers in their teens and 20s during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, when discrimination was legal and expropriation was common, are now in their 70s and 80.

With each year fewer activists have survived from that era, a monumental period of increased activism. It was one of the most consequential times in American history, mired in bloody beatings and deaths and remembered for the landmark laws passed after it happened. out.

Although the experiences of the most famous civil rights figures are well-documented, the views of many of the tens of thousands who stand by them are shared much more limited, or completely not recorded at all. Historians say the movement took place across the country in thousands of communities like Gainesville.

Efforts to capture the oral histories of these activists have existed for decades in some parts of the country. But the coronavirus pandemic has prompted historians to act. Many see the coming years as their last chance to gather testimony from people who have never been cited in papers or featured in history textbooks, despite devoting their youth to them. himself to seek justice.

“So many people my age have fought for freedom, there are so many things that we know others wouldn’t because our stories are dying with us,” Ms. recent afternoon. “So the urgency to tell our history is here and now.”

David Cline, a history professor at San Diego State University and one of the oral historians was asked in 2013 to conduct interviews in 2013. Civil Rights History Project. A joint initiative of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American Culture and History, it collects testimony from participants in the civil rights movement.

Professor Cline says he knows what he’s up against: time.

He packed up a tan suit, donned a collared shirt, and traveled across the country, racing to find local activists.

Professor Cline went to Chester, Va., he said, where Wyatt Tee Walker, a key strategist behind the civil rights protests, waited for him in a nursing home, appearing “wonderful and powerful” as he sat in a wheelchair, recounting his story. Mr. Walker died four years later, in 2018.

In 2016, Mr. Cline went to Santa Rosa, California, for an interview Elbert Howard, his wife warned the historian, “He’s unwell.” This is their last chance to record his story for posterity, she said. Mr. Howard, who was known as Big Man and was the founder of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, died two years after the interview, aged 80.

“In the broader circles of the civil rights movement, a lot of people are dying,” said Guha Shankar, who assisted Professor Cline and other historians in interviewing and coordinating the project.

He estimates that a fifth of the 178 people interviewed for the project have died in recent years.

“There will always be too many people to count, but the best we can do is find as many as we can now, before it’s too late,” said Courtland Cox, 81, a former field secretary for the Regulatory Commission. Distributing Nonviolence for Students, one strongman said. civil rights groups gathered power from young people and grassroots organizations in the 1960s.

Mr. Cox and historians from Duke University helped get it started Digital Gateway SNCCan oral history project with the goal of collecting testimonies from as many SNCC activists as possible.

Of course, he said, everyone knows about President Lyndon B.Johnson and Pastor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But what about the Black kids who got popped by the white fireman’s hose? Or teenagers thrown into scorching hot cells?

Now, oral historians are focusing on finding activists in undocumented rural and small-town areas.

“At the end of the day, these are the people that matter,” Mr. Cox said. “At the end of the day, if they don’t exist and don’t step up, we can’t survive.”

Briana Salas, a PhD student at Texas Christian University and an oral historian, said the pandemic has complicated her efforts over the past two years to reach activists from the next generation. there.

“We want to be able to protect them,” she said. “It’s a serious problem.”

In addition to documenting and documenting the activists’ role in history, these stories give educators and their students a new way to discuss that era in the classroom, John Gartrell, director of the John Hope Franklin Center for African-American Studies and Culture at Duke University.

“Activists share the goal of getting information out there,” Mr. Gartrell said.

Seth Kotch, director of Southern Oral History Programa project by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that has collected testimonies from the civil rights movement over the decades, says he has seen “disturbing evidence all around us” that people are not used to pertaining to this period of American history.

He listened to President Biden’s suffrage speech in Atlantain which the president asks elected officials, “Would you rather side with John Lewis or Bull Connor?”

For that question to have any weight, says Professor Kotch, people have to know the intimate ways in which black Americans are influenced by Connor, the segregation commissioner of a brutal police department in Birmingham, Ala. in the early 1960s.

“Who should we ask to find out what it’s like to be in one of his cellars?” Professor Kotch said. “Those stories will disappear.”

Activists from that era were fully aware of this. After Pauline Gasca Valenciano finished sharing her oral history In 2015, during her time as a civil rights activist in Fort Worth, Texas, she got up from her couch and chased historians down the hallway and into the parking lot.

Wait, she called Max Krochmal, a history professor at Texas Christian University.

“I have a lot to share,” she said, gleefully. Professor Krochmal took out his tape recorder and listened. Valenciano passed away in 2018 at the age of 82.

“It gave her a release, a historic release that she carried for a long time,” said her daughter Jodi Valenciano Gonzales.

It’s also the release Ms. Filer felt when she returned to Florida in 2019, sharing her memories in waves: Isolated doctor’s clinic, where whites have flower pots and coffee; waist-high windows in the back room for Black patients who were hunched over to examine.

Finally, she tells about the anger and stress that motivated her and Mable Dorsey come one day, walk by the front door, pick up a magazine, and sit with white patients.

“It was our turn to integrate,” Ms. Filer told historians. “And if someone was going to do it, we were.”

Ms. Filer is currently the chairman of the board of directors of Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center in Gainesville, in March, will produce “Grandma Stories,” a reading of the oral histories of women who lived under Jim Crow.

Ms. Filer will read the part of Miss Dorsey, her hero, who died in 1996.

“There are a lot of us,” she said. “That’s why the few of us left behind have to tell our stories.” In Twilight of Life, Civil Rights Activists Feel ‘Urgent to Tell Our History’

Fry Electronics Team

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