Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement -- 2 volumes now!

Paul Harvey

Scholars interested in religion and the civil rights movement need to be aware of a couple of new, new-ish, and newly available online primary source compilations. One is a nice 2-vol. book (vol II of which has just come out), and one consists of some newly digitized interviews that have been part of the Stanford Special Collections archive, now available online. Together they provide some of the best and most accessible material on this subject that we've ever had. (I would also mention the transcribed oral history collections from the University of Southern Mississippi --covering not just the civil rights movement but Katrina and numerous other topics. I'm not specifically highlighting those here because they've been around a bit longer and are more generally known among scholars).

Back in 2007, I reviewed the first volume of Davis Houck and David Dixon, Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965, a nearly 1000 page volume for which scholars should bow down and give thanks. Back then here's what I wrote upon reading the volume (ok, quite a bit of the volume :) )

Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon, eds., Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965. Baylor, 2006.

That rhetoric and religion “have conspired to cocreate reality” may be a truism, and that rhetoric and religion co-conspired memorably and effectively in the civil rights movement (a basic thesis underlying this book) is no great surprise. Yet to see these standard statements played out in hundreds of pages of rich primary source material is a treat and an invaluable service to scholarship. Scholars Houck and Dixon have compiled a massive compendium, an embarrassment of riches, that fleshes out that relationship. Starting with the Moses Moon collection, consisting of some eighty hours of audio tape collected in the early and mid-1960s, the editors then scoured numerous other libraries and archives for sermons, speeches, impromptu addresses, and exhortations. The editors lay out the material chronologically, and give each selection detailed and informative introductions. Readers then may peruse at leisure, picking and choosing among the selections. The paradox remains that these selections were originally oral performances, and the printed page cannot capture the essence of those moments – just as those oral moments would not allow for the extended contemplation that having the addresses in printed form allows. Indispensable.  

Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965Since then, Houck and Dixon have put out volume two, a little shorter than but, if anything, even better than vol. I. Featured in this volume is an extended transcription of an off-the-cuff address by Dick Gregory; the speech by Ed King which followed the eulogy for murdered civil rights worker James Chaney by Dave Dennis, often seen as a key turning point for those who were coming to question non-violence as a philosophy; and a speech from the late 1950s by Martin Luther King, Jr., in which King pronounces his hope that white southern moderates will soon rise up, make their presence felt, and smooth the way to a more just South. Quite a contrast to his famous condemnation of those "moderates" in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." 

Besides tapping the Moses Moon collection, Houck and Dixon really combed archives through the country, and anyone who does a lot of archival travel and research knows how much time, energy, organization, and just plain persistence that takes. 

As it happened, I was fortunate enough this summer to have a short email correspondence with one of the editors, and in the dialogue he happened to mention this particular resource, which has just became available online: Guide to the KZSU Project South Interviews. Click on the link and you'll find an astonishing resource for research: not just interviews with civil rights volunteers, although there are plenty of those, but also transcribed recordings of mass meetings and other impromptu speeches. Do you want to hear/read Fannie Lou Hamer upbraid southern preachers and talk about the religion she had found among the (often ostensibly irreligious or atheist) northern volunteers? Want to hear/read an impromptu debate at a mass meeting on whether blacks worshipped a God envisioned as white? And on and on. Here's a brief description of the types of material here:

This collection contains transcribed meetings and interviews with Civil Rights workers in the South recorded by several Stanford students affiliated with the campus radio station KZSU during the summer of 1965. The project was sponsored by the Institute of American History at Stanford. The collection includes information relating to black history; interviews of members of the Congress of Racial Equality, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee; transcripts of formal and informal remarks of persons working with smaller, independent civil rights projects, of local blacks associated with the civil rights movement, and other people, including Ku Klux Klansmen; transcribed action tapes of civil rights workers canvassing voters, conducting freedom schools, or participating in demonstration; speeches by and/or interviews with Ralph David Abernathy, Charles Evers, James Farmer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Hosea Williams; and a Ku Klux Klan meeting and speech made by Robert Sheldon, its Imperial Wizard.

Because the transcripts are PDF'ed and therefore keyword searchable, the researcher can zero in on topics that are of most interest (for me, it was discussions of religion, but many interviews range all over the place and researchers of virtually any topic related to the civil rights movement will find rich fodder here). Oh, also, right at the end there's a transcribed speech by Robert Shelton of the Klan. 

Here's a brief description from the site and how it came to be in the first place:

During the summer of 1965, eight students from Stanford University spent ten weeks in the southern states tape-recording information on the civil rights movement. The eight interviewers -- Mary Kay Becker, Mark Dalrymple, Roger Dankert, Richard Gillam, James McRae, Penny Niland, Jon Roise, and Julie Wells -- were sponsored by KZSU, Stanford's student radio station, and their original intent was to gather material suitable for rebroadcasting in the form of radio programs. Much attention was focused on white civil rights workers, although a great deal of other documentation relevant to black history was also obtained: the interviewers visited over fifty civil rights projects in six states (see appendix) and secured three hundred and thirty hours of recordings, including over two hundred hours of personal interviews. In addition to interviewing members of various, well-known civil rights groups -- the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or `Snick') -- the student interviewers also recorded the formal and the informal remarks of those working with smaller, independent civil rights projects, of local blacks associated with the civil rights movement, and of many others including Ku Klux Klansmen and Southerners connected with the Sheriff's Department of Clay County, Mississippi. The interviewers, in addition, spoke with many white volunteers who participated in Snick's `Washington Lobby' (aimed at unseating the all-white Mississippi Congressional Delegation) but who did not actually go south.
Several of the two-man interview teams recorded parts of the Jackson, Bougalusa, Greensboro, Crawfordsville, and West Point demonstrations, and also gathered various other action tapes of civil rights workers canvassing voters, conducting freedom schools, or participating in demonstrations. Finally, the interviewers recorded many mass meetings and gathered much material on the orientation sessions of MFDP in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and of SCLC in Atlanta, Georgia. All of these original tape recordings are now housed in the Library of Recorded Sound, Stanford, California. . . . . 
So you religion and civil rights historians, get busy, as we have been blessed with an abundance of material that is now so easily accessible, and full of research opportunities.