Opening Boxes of History

SCLC Archives hold clues to the past

By Maureen McGavin

Historic image

striking image: A photo from the SCLC records shows hospital workers protesting conditions in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1969.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference records. Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library

Historic carte de visite

Carte de Visite, Sojourner Truth, 1864

Robert Langmuir Photograph Collection. Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library

It is easy to associate the civil rights movement with iconic, black-and-white images from the 1960s South—sit-ins at luncheonette counters, bus boycotts, marches and protests, Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to rapt crowds.

These are authentic and legendary moments, to be sure, but in reality they represent only a few of the more well-thumbed pages in a voluminous history book that is still being written. Each of those memorable scenes represents countless hours of courageous discussion, planning, organization, and documentation by leaders and activists. Historians studying the movement will find a new, largely unmined vein of information about this rich and complex past in the archive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which opened in May to researchers and the public at Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL).

The collection of 918 boxes primarily covers the SCLC’s activities and business from 1968 to 2007, including administrative files with correspondence, reports, memos, notebooks, and meeting minutes, as well as photographs, flyers, and audio and video recordings. MARBL purchased the SCLC’s records in 2008.

Founded in 1957, the SCLC was the vision of a group of civil rights leaders from across the Southeast that included King, Ralph David Abernathy, and Joseph E. Lowery, each of whom also served as president. The organization continues to operate in its headquarters on Atlanta’s historic Auburn Avenue.

The SCLC archive offers a window onto the breadth and depth of the social issues that leaders were engaged in as the movement wore on. One of the most compelling parts of the archive is the collection of transcripts, audio recordings, and other materials for the radio show Martin Luther King Speaks, which aired from 1967 to 1979. The MARBL collection also includes planning files, photographs, and audio and video recordings that document a range of major SCLC activities, such as the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, its involvement in the Charleston hospital workers strike of 1969 and the Crisis in Health Care for Poor Black Americans hearings in 1984, and its Gun Buyback Program of the 1990s.

“SCLC spoke out about the voting issues in Florida surrounding the 2004 election, and we have documents about that,” says Sarah Quigley, the MARBL archivist for the SCLC collection. “I think anyone who is interested in the civil rights movement as an unfinished movement, or as a continuing movement, will find a wealth of information in this collection that illuminates the efforts to continue fighting for things like voting rights into the twenty-first century.”

The opening of the archive has been eagerly anticipated by historians and researchers. Among those on the waiting list to access parts of the archive are scholars from across the country, as well as from England and Germany. There also have been inquiries from family members of victims of the race-related violence that the SCLC spoke out against, says Ginger Smith 77C 82G, interim director of MARBL and director of external affairs for the Emory Libraries.

The processing of the collection was supported by a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Hidden Collections grant, funded by the Mellon Foundation.

“Emory is honored to house these records and make them available, with equal access, to researchers of every age and stage of scholarly research,” Smith says, “whether that person is a freshman in a history class or an award-winning historian writing another in a series of books on the civil rights movement.”

In the same month the SCLC archives opened, MARBL announced the acquisition of a rare collection of more than ten thousand photographs depicting African American life from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from photo collector Robert Langmuir of Philadelphia.

The images range from the 1840s—the beginning of photography—to the 1970s, with most of the photos falling in the post–Civil War to pre–World War II era. They include nearly every format, from daguerreotypes to snapshots, and cover a wide range of subject matter. A number of the photos were taken by African American photographers, a topic in itself.

“This collection sparkles with intelligent insights into the lives and cultures of the African American experience over many decades,” says Provost Earl Lewis, professor of history and African American studies. “Its breadth is incredible, its depth is considerable, and its sheer beauty is breathtaking.”

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