March 17, 2008
civil rights research
By Elaine Justice
Woodruff Library’s Jones Room was packed, media and guests were in place, and smiles were all around when Provost Earl Lewis stepped to the mike March 6 to announce that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had placed its archive at Emory.
“Included in this archive are materials that document some of the most significant moments and elements of the country’s civil rights history,” said Lewis. He and SCLC President and CEO Charles Steele gave brief remarks, then took questions from reporters.
The SCLC was co-founded in New Orleans in 1957 by Martin Luther King Jr. and other African American leaders from across the South with the purpose of advancing the cause of racial equality.
“These materials comprise a bold and sweeping, yet personal and moving, window on a period in the history of this nation and the world,” said Lewis.
The SCLC archive, some 1,100 boxes, now becomes the University’s second largest, surpassed only by the Sam Nunn congressional archive. Most of the materials date from 1968 to 1977, during the terms of the two longest-serving SCLC presidents, Ralph David Abernathy and Joseph Lowery.
“It would be easy for us to allow the many, many boxes of history we have to remain stacked away somewhere in a closet,” said Steele. “But that would not be consistent with the vision of Rev. Abernathy, Dr. Lowery and other SCLC leaders who guided this organization through one of its most challenging periods of activism.”
Thanks to efforts of the Atlanta History Center, the archive is in excellent shape, said Steele. But what touched him about the need for preserving the SCLC archive, he said, is that without proper preservation, some of the materials were in danger of fading away.
“We fell down on the job in telling our story,” he said. “Around the world, people are asking: Teach us the alternative to violence. We changed the world and we never fired a shot.” The SCLC’s history as a nonviolent social movement for human rights needs to be preserved and told, said Steele.
The provost, a social historian, pointed out that some 50 to 60 years after the height of the civil rights movement, “we’re realizing that a generation of individuals who were so key to changing the tone and texture of America are themselves dying.” Preserving those moments, documenting that past, said Lewis, is critical.
Lewis noted that the archive comes to Emory at a pivotal time and will serve as an invaluable resource for the University’s initiatives on race and difference, such as the James Weldon Johnson Institute and the Vulnerability Program of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project.
Perhaps the greatest impact of the SCLC archives, said Lewis, will be on the classroom and on individual students, “who will help write part of the next chapters of race relations in the United States.”