‘Voices’ Come to Life

Posted February 25, 2005 at 5:43pm

Despite a snowstorm postponing its formal kickoff ceremony, the Library of Congress still opened the doors last Thursday to its newest oral history exhibition, “Voices of Civil Rights.”

The exhibit, which is on display in the South Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library, takes visitors beyond the textbook history of the civil rights movement and instead focuses on the personal stories of those asked to reflect on the events they lived through a half century ago.

The display stems from the Voices of the Civil Rights project, a collaborative effort between the Library, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the AARP, which was launched last fall to create the world’s largest collection of firsthand accounts of the civil rights movement. More than 4,000 oral histories were gathered during a 70-day, 39-city bus tour during which volunteers sought out interviewees while traveling to various historic sites in 22 states. Many of the photographs used in the exhibit were taken by award-winning photojournalist Lester Sloan, who traveled with the bus tour.

And while the new exhibition features just a small sample of the enormous collection of personal stories which are being donated to the Library, the 20 oral histories that are presented take visitors from World War II through the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and shows how different aspects of the civil rights movement affected Americans of various racial backgrounds.

“We wanted to let people know what was in the full collection,” said exhibition director Carroll Johnson. “We picked these to show the full spectrum of the civil rights movement.”

The powerful and sometimes disturbing personal stories selected for the exhibit are accompanied by vintage and contemporary pictures of either the narrator or the events relived by those interviewed. In one memorable display, Harold Dahmer, a black Army veteran from Mississippi, vividly recalls returning home from military service in the 1960s to experience a Ku Klux Klan fire bombing. He remembers how the attack charred his father’s skin so badly that the flesh had peeled off his body.

Other stories highlight events such as the 1960 Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-in, the deaths of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo and the internment of Japanese Americans in the early 1940s.

The centerpieces of the exhibit are two audio-visual booths, which feature actual interviews and a video narrated by actor Danny Glover about the oral history bus tour, both of which were produced by the History Channel.

Audrey Fischer, a Library of Congress spokeswoman, said the collection, which is being made available to researchers and historians studying American history, will help round out the Library’s already extensive collection of civil rights material. The Library currently houses the personal papers of numerous civil rights leaders including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Thurgood Marshall, and it stores the original documents of several organizations that led the fight for civil rights such as the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

The “Voices of Civil Rights” exhibit will be on display through March 26 and is also accessible on the Library’s Web site at https://www.loc.gov/exhibits. The full project can also be viewed at https://www.voicesofcivilrights.org.