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

The oral historians’ camera turned on. Vivian Washington Filer looked up, facing the lens. After decades of waiting, here was her chance to set the record straight in Gainesville, Fla. — to share what it had taken for her and a friend to integrate an Alachua County doctor’s office in 1964.

“Today is April 4, 2019,” a University of Florida historian began, and as Ms. Filer, then 80, heard her name spoken, she looked straight ahead and smiled.

The people who marched and organized in their teens and 20s during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, when segregation was legal and disenfranchisement widespread, are now in their 70s and 80s.

With every year, there are fewer surviving activists from that era, a monumental period of surging activism. It was one of the most consequential times in American history, mired in bloody beatings and deaths and remembered for the landmark laws that were passed in its wake.

While the experiences of the most prominent civil rights figures have been well documented, the perspectives of many of the tens of thousands who stood beside them have been shared in a much more limited manner, or gone unrecorded altogether. The movement, after all, transpired across the country, historians say, in thousands of communities like Gainesville.

Efforts to capture these activists’ oral histories have existed for decades in some parts of the country. But the coronavirus pandemic jolted historians into action. Many see the coming years as their final chance to collect testimony from those who were never quoted in articles or named in history textbooks, even though they had dedicated their youth to seeking justice.

“A lot of people my age who fought for freedom, there is so much we know that others won’t because our stories are dying with us,” Ms. Filer said on a recent afternoon. “So the urgency to tell our history is here and now.”

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

Professor Cline said he knew what he was up against: time.

He packed his tan suit, put on a collared shirt and traversed the country, racing to find local activists.

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

In 2016, Mr. Cline traveled to Santa Rosa, Calif., to interview Elbert Howard, whose wife warned the historian, “He is not well.” This was their last chance, she said, to record his story for posterity. Mr. Howard, who was known as Big Man and was a founder of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, Calif., died two years after the interview, at age 80.

“In the wider circles of the civil rights movement, there are so many people who are dying,” said Guha Shankar, who assisted Professor Cline and other historians with interviews and coordinated the project.

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

“There will always be too many people to count, but the best we can do is find as many as possible now, before it’s too late,” said Courtland Cox, 81, the former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a forceful civil rights group that gathered its power from young people and grass-roots organizing in the 1960s.

Mr. Cox and historians from Duke University helped start the SNCC Digital Gateway, an oral history project with a goal of gathering testimony from as many SNCC activists as possible.

Of course, he said, people know about President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But what about the Black children who had a white firefighter’s hose turned on them? Or the teenagers thrown in burning hot jail cells?

Now, oral historians are focusing on finding activists in underdocumented rural areas and small towns.

“At the end of the day, these are the important people,” Mr. Cox said. “At the end of the day, if they did not exist and did not step up, we could not exist.”

Briana Salas, a Ph.D. student at Texas Christian University and oral historian, said the pandemic had complicated her efforts over the last two years to reach activists from that generation.

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

In addition to acknowledging and recording activists’ role in history, these stories give educators and their students a new way to discuss that era in classrooms, said John Gartrell, the director of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture at Duke University.

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

Seth Kotch, the director of the Southern Oral History Program, a project of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that has captured testimonies from the civil rights movement for decades, said he saw “troubling evidence all around us” that people were unfamiliar with this period of American history.

He listened to President Biden’s voting rights speech in Atlanta, during which the president asked elected officials, “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?”

For that question to hold weight, Professor Kotch said, people must know the intimate ways in which Black Americans were affected by Connor, the segregationist commissioner of a brutal police department in Birmingham, Ala., in the early 1960s.

“Who are we going to ask to learn what it was like to be in one of his cellars?” Professor Kotch said. “Those stories are going away.”

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

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

“I have more to share,” she said, welling up. Professor Krochmal took out his recorder and listened. Ms. Valenciano died in 2018, at age 82.

“It gave her a liberation, a release of her history that she’d been carrying around for a long time,” her daughter Jodi Valenciano Gonzales said.

It was the same release Ms. Filer felt back in Florida in 2019, sharing her memories in bursts: The segregated doctor’s office where white people had flower pots and coffee; the waist-high window in the back room for Black patients, who bent their spines to check in.

Finally, she told of the anger and nerves that had propelled her and Mable Dorsey to one day walk in the front door, pick up a magazine and sit alongside white patients.

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

Ms. Filer is now the chair of the board of directors at the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center in Gainesville, which, in March, will produce “Grandma’s Stories,” a reading of oral histories from women who lived during the time of Jim Crow.

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

“There were so many of us,” she said. “That’s why the few of us who are left have to tell our story.”

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