Welcome back to Civil Writes, my sporadic series on data management practices from the American Civil Rights Movement (aka Freedom Movement) where I present archival research about the data cultures of organizations like SCLC and SNCC and make inferences about what activists today can learn from their habits.

I looked back at my records and I realize quite a few months have passed since my last post. What’s happening? Well, I lead a series of synchronous workshops on this topic with a social justice organization which was an INCREDIBLE opportunity (for all of us, I hope!). I learned a lot about trying out these ideas, and about what they could actually look like in practice. I want to keep doing this work, so if this paragraph sparks anything for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out! I can share materials, ideas, or even dream up a way to do this with your org!

Now, back to the task at hand.

Today, I learned about a new (to me) digitized archive of civil rights materials and ephemera from the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is SOOOO cool! Want to learn more on your own? Check out the Photo Collection here (I am not going to cover it in this blog post). Most of the photos show people having meetings and attending protest. And while I absolutely LOVE that stuff, my focus is on the behind-the-scenes elements which usually don’t capture the attention of photographers and journalists. The nitty gritty. The mailing lists, fundraising tallies, agenda books, board minutes, and administrative ephemera. That’s what makes my heart and mind expand with a new sense of possibility and what I am going to write about here.

This is how I stumbled upon the COFO files in Delta Ministry office which appears to be a summary of “every single COFO and FDP volunteers’ file” from 1964 and 1965 initiatives.

Reference: COFO = Council of Federated Organizations, which was the coalition of civil rights orgs that initiated Freedom Summer with Bob Moses at the helm. FDP = (Mississippi) Freedom Democratic Party, a brave, interracial political party that exerted influence to send an interracial delegation from Mississippi to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, with Fannie Lou Hamer as a prominent figure.

From my understanding of the library guide, Dr. Mary Aickin Rothschild, a graduate student interested in the experience of white women who took action in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, found these files and summarized/annotated them with detailed notes about each volunteer. The archive contains Dr. Aickin’s notes, not the original documents. Dr. Aickin went on to write several articles and a book drawing on this material as well as other ephemera and interviews, but her research departed from my central area of interest so I won’t discuss it further.

In other words, COFO maintained FILE CABINETS with a folder for each individual, organized by last name. Letters, interviews, application forms, and other types of correspondence were collated, probably by a combination of administrative staff and volunteers, for hundreds of volunteers over several waves of political organizing in Mississippi. We don’t have this level of detail without visiting the archives in person, but we can see what Dr. Rothschild deemed important enough to summarize in her disjointed prose.

So. What do we find? 75 pages of, well, semi-structured data that shows up in a few different formats.

After pg 14, it seems that Dr. Rothschild forgot to number her rows (see first image above), and went back to add in and added them by hand. She kept doing this through pg 24 (row 331).

The data in this “set” are much more organized but much less detailed.

The library guide says, “there is significant overlap between the two lists, as many Freedom Summer veterans applied to stay on in Mississippi the following year.”

I haven’t taken time to scrape the data (not a skill set that I have, sadly) and compare the lists. But this is the kind of insight that I love to bring to lists of names and that social justice orgs frequently get stuck on!

What struck me, when encountering these files, was that different “types” of information are combined in a fascinating, poly-vocal medley. For example, we have direct quotes from a written application, interview recommendations, volunteer history, volunteer preferences, contact and address data, volunteer skills, and narrator interjection (ie crossing off names, abbreviations/short hand, choosing what is important).

These files are basically a longform, written database of information and aspirations of hundreds of people at a critical point in social movement history. And to think that the way this was compiled, and more importantly, USED, was folders full of papers, notes, and anecdotes. All of these materials tell/told a story about what was important to the orgs at the time.

At the very least… DATA was important. They had tons of it and it was well organized and well maintained. At my first job, I spent hours every week filing invoices. Sometimes the files got so thick that we needed to transfer chunks of the alphabet to new drawers and “shift right” so to speak. I thought I knew the alphabet (!), but in order to do the task effectively, I need to write it on a piece of tape attached to the cabinet. Filing this volume of information is no joke! Witnessing COFO’s commitment to keeping strict records is inspiring to me. No matter how tedious data entry (clean up, analytics, etc) can feel in the short term, stories like this remind me that we are participating in a grand history of documenting our own movements when we take good care of our data. Inspiring? You bet!

Without the boundaries imposed by a full-on database structure, COFO was free to creatively store information in any format or category. No need to create new fields to capture whether or not someone “volunteered last year?” If it was important to the person receiving the information at the time, they could file it. I can imagine this being somewhat liberating and I can see the results have a lot of texture and nuance. Perhaps they are even closer to the “real world” roundness of these people. However, the downside is some unevenness. I can imagine Dr. Rothschild had this problem. For a research interested in gender, I notice that some entries appear to have a gender abbreviation and others do not.

The third noticing is that these volunteers appear to have a long-term relationship with COFO. Sure, there are 55 pages of lists of names with less descriptive significance, but there is more than enough information here to show that these were not one-off volunteers at a creek clean up, but rather, long-haul volunteers with an enduring connection to the org and to civil rights as an issue of personal and collective significance. Modeling data over time is something that I find very challenging and what makes relational databases interesting and useful. TIME is what makes us divide “volunteer history” from Contact Name and Address. We might want to record each time a volunteer, volunteers. That means two separate lists where there used to be one list! Modeling all of these data into a searchable format would be fascinating-challenging-fascinating! Perhaps a project for a weeklong “sprint” with a crew of dataphiles, but probably not a measly blogpost.

I’ll be that list-making was very difficult with information stored in file folders! Did someone thumb through them, reviewing volunteer info before making a phone-bank list? Perhaps there were “super lists” of recent or former volunteers, some type of “index” to make this task easier? (Or perhaps the smarter thing to do was to just call Bob Moses, Septima Clark, and Rosa Parks directly, they were famous for their constellation of relationships and encyclopedic memories.) Did folders disappear when well-meaning staffers grabbed them and forgot to put them back? Did names or notes simply get lost? How did orgs EVER have the staff capacity to keep track of this much information?

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, these are all problems that we still have today!

If you or your org(s) have trouble with data entry feeling like too much work … or organizers not entering data from 1:1s… or forms being cumbersome… or data stored in multiple places… well, like I said before, you’re in good company! Here are a few ideas I think we could try out based on this deep dive:

  1. Try writing biographical sketches of volunteers and storing them in your database or spreadsheet system. Sure, they will eventually become out of date, but they might be a fun exercise to help you engage with your data scattered in different places. Other systems become out of date too!
  2. When you are doing data tasks, remember that we are connected to generations of activists who have dedicated their time to the data side of movements. Data management is just as much a part of transformation as speaking into a megaphone!
  3. Look at the two types of data in this sample (paragraphs vs coding system). Do you gravitate to one or the other? Thinking in terms of categories can help balance out the need to record absolutely everything (about the first 5 people… and promptly run out of steam) or names that are entirely devoid of context. The types of information that are important to you should rise to the surface pretty easily. This can also be a great group activity! Each type may become a column (email address, favorite color) or a separate list (first volunteer date, middle volunteer dates, most recent volunteer date, future volunteer commitments).
  4. It’s ok to change your mind. I love that these samples aren’t consistent across all 75 pages. Sometimes we need breadth. Sometimes we need depth. Sometimes we forget to number things and then go back and write it in. It’s ALL important. It’s ALL valid. It’s ALL a learning experience!
  5. Think of your successors. We already did some acknowledgment of our data ancestors. But guess what? You’re an ancestor too! Future-you, and your future collaborators, and future researchers, and nerds like me (hi!!) care deeply about your data efforts.

On your own, take a peek at the data here and think about the individual people. Some of the entries are really moving and I didn’t dedicate space in this blog post to offer a close reading. I’m telling you – these people were rad as heck – and I’m so glad, deep in my heart, that someone compiled, summarized, and digitized this amazing treasure trove so that we could engage with it all these years later!

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