Civil Writes, vol xiv!

I love neat and tidy records – and I know I am not alone. Accountants, librarians, auditors, actuaries, teachers, bankers, farmers, and many more trades rely on records to make decisions and even predictions for the future. From donor records in a database to ephemera records in an archive, my curiosity seems to be limitless.

Don’t even get me started on organizers! I’ve seen y’all with your volunteer spreadsheets, your phone bank logs, your social media content calendars… and I know you can whip a logistics plan into shape faster than I can make a banana split sundae with hot fudge and a Maraschino cherry. Ok, maybe not that fast… but I want to make the point that we ALL cherish well organized information, even if getting it into the ideal format takes a little bit of time, skill, and resolve. Now about that sundae…

In the rest of this blog post, I’m offering some fragments and reflections based on a close read of two microfilm guides. To make heads or tails of these sources, I had to learn what a Microfilm Guide even is. The best I can come up with is that the United Publications of America produces these special guides to help researchers know which archive boxes contain the files that are most relevant to their research questions. In some cases, these files have already been digitized (on microfilm or microfiche) and in other cases, the researcher would need to gain access to the primary source files directly. These guides both benefit from an introduction written by social movement historians with expertise in the specific subject matter.

Resources and questions

In my quest to study archival resources from the American Civil Rights Movement, this morning I encountered two parallel documents that illuminate multiple perspectives on the administrative history of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Council), the main organizing platform of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Doc 1: A Guide to the Microfilm Edition of Black Studies Research Sources: Microfilms from Major Archival and Manuscript Collections (General Editors: John H. Bracey, Jr. and August Meier) Records of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1954–1970 Part 2: Records of the Executive Director and Treasurer

Doc 2: A Guide to the Microfilm Edition of Black Studies Research Sources: Microfilms from Major Archival and Manuscript Collections (General Editors: August Meier and John H. Bracey, Jr.) THE MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., FBI FILE Part II: The King-Levison File

First of all, these are basically both “indexes” to digitized documents, not the documents themselves. My aspiration is to one day visit these (and other) archives to be able to study the primary sources. For now, I am content to look at these guides to familiarize myself with the kinds of information that are available for researchers like us.

Second of all, you may take notice that one of these sources represents official documents from the SCLC and its governing officers. The other source is the result of FBI wiretapping, arguably unconstitutional and invasive eavesdropping on sensitive conversations between some of SCLC’s most vulnerable and influential leaders. I think comparing these files may shed light on some juicy important questions, like:

  • to what extent does the “official” record corroborate what the FBI documented?
  • to what extent did leaders find themselves discussing administrative matters in comparison to campaign strategy? do the two files differ in this regard?
  • what can social movement campaigners today learn from how the SCLC documented itself?
  • how do we deal with unethical research materials?
  • how should activists today produce documents and archives of our campaigns and organizations?

I’m not quite ready to answer all of these questions, but I think asking them is a good start!

Annotations on Source 1

History as remembered/recorded by SCLC documentarians.

The writers of the Scope and Content note for source #1 above seem to be equally excited and optimistic about the potential of digging into these resources. It’s notable to me that there are entire files dedicated to the administrative history of this (and other) groundbreaking orgs, despite the fact that most people in mainstream discussion are much more interested in speeches, journalistic accounts, and the “hero stories” of civil rights leaders. Man, I wish I could dig into those financial statements right! now!

The organization’s records provide researchers with a treasure of
primary source material on the complexities of organizing a successful
mass protest movement. Organizational working papers, internal
memoranda, correspondence, minutes of meetings, field reports, press
releases, pamphlet publications, questionnaire replies, statistical
compilations, and many other types of documents bring to light the
struggle for civil rights. Making these records widely available in
microform provides students, scholars, and other researchers with the
opportunity to experience the inner workings of this pivotal force in
the modern civil rights movement.

Introduction, vii

The next gem was tucked in between descriptions of various types of personal correspondence between SCLC directors and movement partners. In my experience processing donation transactions (and boy is that tedious), the notes from donors make the whole affair worth it! There is SO much value in fostering these connections, writing back, and feeling uplifted/sustained by the kindness and generosity of donors. I’m tickled that this note made it into the archive brief! I wish some of those notes were sampled and included! Fundraisers and donation processing superstars – this one is for you!

The SCLC Finance Office was responsible for preparing receipts for
contributions, supervising the payroll, and for administering
personnel policies within the organization. Most of these financial
records are in the form of individual contributions, cancelled checks,
and payroll records, and these have not been microfilmed for this
publication because of their massive volume. The letters
accompanying contributions sometimes reflect the emotions that the
SCLC fund-raising campaigns elicited.
These records are available for
research at the Library and Archives of the King Center.

Scope and Notes, xvi-xvii, emphasis added

Last, I’m totally buoyed by the description below of Rev. Ralph Abernathy and how he wove together financial and campaign strategy in leadership. This should be a model for all of us !!! Also, damn, he was treasurer for 11 years during a period of intense turmoil and increasing financial complexity! I don’t think I fully internalized how big of a movement contribution that was until I started to write this blog post.

The activities of the treasurer were not confined to the financial
affairs of the SCLC. Reverend Ralph David Abernathy—the only
treasurer represented in the collection—also played an active role in
the direct action campaigns of the SCLC, especially as an aide and
frequent jailmate of Dr. King. Abernathy served as treasurer of the
SCLC from its founding in 1957 until his ascension to the presidency
in 1968.


Reflections on Source 2

History as recorded by FBI wiretaps

The sheer volume and invasiveness of these files makes me feel creeped out to even look at the table of contents. After all, these were intimate, private conversations between confidantes, not meant for the FBI’s eyes nor ours. I read them with great interest both with awareness/accountability of the FBI’s wrongdoings and compassion for the surveilled subjects. It is so rare to read that heroic figures felt tremendous pain, uncertainty, insecurity, and even impostor syndrome. So if you feel those things too (now or occasionally), know that you are in good company.

Mailing lists are referenced 165 times in the 168 page file, spanning 1962-1969 (FBI). In contrast, the term is only used 11 times in the 163 page file (SCLC).

This staggering fact indicates that it was a topic of much discussion at the higher echelons of SCLC leadership, but somehow didn’t make it onto official meeting agendas so often (or was deprioritized in minutes… or was deprioritized in the archive notes…). This could also be explained by division of responsibility – Dr King and Stanley Levison were extensively involved in matters of fundraising and public narrative, maybe to the exclusion of other institutional bodies. My gut instinct and experience suggest that technical aspects of data management were heavily valued in 1960s movement orgs and have relatively recently been de-coupled from strategy efforts, and further de-prioritized, and under-resourced in equivalent organizations today. It’s hard to imagine that the senior leaders of the NAACP nowadays are discussing appeal segmentation (but maybe they should!)

These topics even made it into the subject index, with extensive references. Would you expect to see such an emphasis on operations in an FBI log? I wonder if the wire tap recorders were fascinated or bored by the snoozefest. I can talk about this stuff all day long; I would have been riveted. (But to be clear, I would NOT do that job)

This is a serious treasure trove of information for those of us who want to learn how to build effective organizations and strategic communications efforts, since we already know that SCLC was on the cutting edge of direct mail technology at the time.

I am tempted to question the reliability of some of these records, as they are truly discussions between friends and never meant to draw formal conclusions. However, I am equally tempted to question the “official” narrative. After all, we all want to seem more solvent, organized, and confident that we may (in all honesty) actually be. The SCLC certainly had an ego problem! This is why I think these two documents, in dialogue with each other, offer so much potential for further study.

Plus, through this close reading, I got to learn where the official SCLC donation receipts are kept, which is an incredible resource!

So what?

EQAT (Earth Quaker Action Team) is the organizations where I have spent the most time and I know that despite being a relatively young organization, our archives are stored at Swarthmore College (in the Peace Library). However, despite being a former board member of 7 year tenure, I don’t know what the archive truly contains. I remember collecting photos, flyers, and board minutes. I highly doubt whether strategy documents, internal memos, newsletters, and donation receipts have been archived. I’ll try to find out! I wonder how useful they will be to future activists. If this blog post is any indication, they may be of great interest.

I did some research this evening (admittedly, not exhaustive) to see if a recently completed campaign, like the victorious anti-Keystone XL Pipeline campaign had any archives available. I thought it might be similar in scope to some of the SCLC campaigns, due to national relevance and coalition partners. In some sources, I found website content curated with a KXL tag or the like. There is an index provided by the State Department. The Sierra Club has a small repository of fact sheets, videos, and materials. I’m not sure who or how one would compile an archive that is as robust as the SCLC files, complete with MOUs, letters, forms, receipts, financial statements, etc. I sincerely hope (and doubt) that activists were granted more privacy than Dr. King and Stanley Levison. It will take years for these files to be declassified, if they exist, and for researchers to collate them.

Archival research is not my area of greatest strength – I know there’s so much for me to learn about this method and about the movement itself. I’m not sure what my big takeaway is, except that (1) I am eager to learn from the breadcrumb trail left behind by movement activists; and (2) I think it’s important for movement activists today to leave a breadcrumb trail for our successors. I think that might look very different today than it did in the late 60’s, but nonetheless, we should endeavor to do it with real dedication.

Setting up and maintaining great spreadsheets and databases is a contribution toward this lofty goal! I’ll leave you here, in this rather improvisational civil writes blog post, and pick up the “pen” again another time soon. Thank you for coming along on this journey with me!

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