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Highlights Archives

Civil Rights Manuscripts Coming Online Soon


A person is dragged on the ground by policemen, Jackson, Mississippi, 1964
WHI 97870

The Wisconsin Historical Society houses one of the nation's largest archives on the civil rights movement. More than 350 manuscript collections document the movement, from the voluminous records of the Congress of Racial Equality in 150 boxes to single-file folders of one-time volunteers. For half a century, every serious researcher on the Civil Rights era has consulted the Society's archives. Those manuscripts will start to go online later this year in a new digital collection documenting 1964's Mississippi Freedom Summer.

Three Months That Changed America

During that summer, southern civil rights leaders invited hundreds of northern college students to help register voters and create Freedom Schools in the country's most viciously segregated state. On the project's first day, three volunteers — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — were kidnapped and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. For the rest of the summer, the nation's attention was riveted on the search for their killers.

In August 1964 local activists challenged the state's segregationist delegates to the Democratic National Convention. They argued that the all-white delegation did not represent Mississippi's Democrats because no African Americans had been allowed to vote. Democratic Party officials, afraid of losing the Southern states in November's presidential election, spurned them.

Media coverage of these events raised the consciousness of white Americans and swelled support for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. At the same time, brutality by segregationists and rejection by Democrats convinced many activists that nonviolence and conventional politics had failed. Many turned to the growing Black Power movement instead.

The Online Collection of Freedom Summer Documents

These events are revealed in more than 100 collections of unpublished manuscripts at the Society. About 15,000 pages from them have been scanned so far, with another 10,000 remaining. They include letters from organizers, diaries of volunteers, notes by black host families, minutes of meetings, photographs and maps, newspaper clippings, interviews and other sound recordings, and even the charred papers found in the burned-out car of the three murdered volunteers.

Because most of these documents were typed, researchers can search across the full text of thousands of pages of evidence at once. Staff are also manually tagging important people, places and topics. Entire folders of documents will be presented intact, and users will turn pages on their computers just as they would turn the originals at the Society's headquarters.

The collection will become available to the public later this year. It will be promoted to cultural institutions and educators around the nation so they can use it in 50th anniversary observations of Freedom Summer in 2014. Society staff are already working with a PBS documentary crew in New York and a museum in Jackson, Mississippi, that are working on anniversary projects.

Future Plans

If funds can be raised, a traveling exhibit with reproductions of key documents telling the story of Freedom Summer will be made available to local libraries and museums next year. A 50th anniversary symposium in June 2014 is also planned at which civil rights workers and the former Society staff who collected these manuscripts will share their experiences.

For more information contact Michael Edmonds, head of digital collections in the Society's Library-Archives Division, at michael.edmonds@wisconsinhistory.org.

:: Posted February 11, 2013

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