Blogs > Cliopatria > MOVEMENT ON THE NET ...

Jan 18, 2004 3:37 pm


For the Martin Luther King Holiday, here are some major Net resources on the Civil Rights Movement. Very simple chronological frameworks are available in many places, but the Library of Congress's two-part exhibit of documents from its collections is perhaps the most interesting: Desegregation, Civil Rights in the Arena and on the Stage and Sit-Ins, Freedom Rides, and Demonstrations.

Historians of the Movement have long sensed the centrality of the church to the struggle, but how the hope for freedom was sustained in the difficult first half of the 20th century has been poorly documented. That is what interested me in creating the Vernon Johns Papers Project. Hardly representative of Afro-Baptist preachers of his generation, Johns was Martin Luther King's predecessor as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Both erudite and crude, he was an off-spring of extra-ordinary violence, who never repudiated violence as a means of achieving freedom. An erudite early sermon, "Transfigured Moments", appeared in a book of sermons by Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others; his advocacy of violent means to achieve freedom is a more complicated and personal story. Here is a deeply flawed biography of Johns. No wonder the biographer had such trouble with the only person who was involved in both the struggle toward Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. His papers were twice destroyed, so I am publishing the Vernon Johns Papers. [Does that sound like a non sequitur or what?] He is one difficult subject and I am one tenacious researcher. We have met our match and we are us.

Howard Thurman was one of Vernon Johns's more amiable friends. Again, hardly typical of Afro-Baptist preachers of his generation, Thurman was a mystic seer and we will learn much more about him and his influence from the Howard Thurman Papers Project. Even two atypical subjects cannot represent the typical, but they can point to the"representative" in the Emersonian sense of the word. If not a typical Afro-Baptist preacher of his generation, King was its representative in that sense. For 15 years now, the Martin Luther King Papers Project at Stanford has been teaching us about its subject. Easily the largest and most generously funded of any project cited here, it has the most sophisticated website. Unfortunately, it has deleted a highly useful"search" function, which allowed me to search on-line documents and publish "Quoting, Merging, and Sampling the Dream: Martin Luther King and Vernon Johns" (subscription only). You'll need to write a very big grant application if you want that kind of research done now. King Project researchers will do it for you for $125.00 per hour. [It says that's negotiable, but King-related efforts long ago learned that being a non-profit doesn't mean it should be unprofitable.] The Malcolm X Project at Columbia seems still unclear about what and when it will publish from the papers of Malcolm X.

Some of the net's sources on particular movements are more useful than others. The Greensboro Sit-Ins and the Albany, Georgia, Civil Rights Museum sites are good examples of these. Documentation projects, such as the Ralph Bunche Civil Rights Documentation Project at Howard University and the Civil Rights Documentation Project at the University of Southern Mississippi are generally more helpful to scholars. The latter's transcripts of oral history interviews with civil rights activists are especially useful.

Forty years of grim reaping has taken its toll, but Civil Rights Movement Veterans is the best place for locating survivors for interviews, reminiscences, and speakers. In a real sense, the Movement continues. Two important resources in that respect are Christopher Edley's Civil Rights Project at Harvard and, of course, a blog, Silver Rights. Its proprietor really should credit Connie Curry's book and its subjects for his title, but some civil rights activists were always more litigious than others and intellectual property rights have long been in play.

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