Keeping the past alive


History often remembers leaders and overlooks small acts of heroism. A Northern Virginia archive of the civil rights movement will help correct that bias, mindful that memory is often faulty and that tectonic changes result from an accumulation of small cracks.

Unveiled Monday at George Mason University, the digital archive’s oral histories and documents detail personal stories that propelled the United States eventually to pass and implement the 1964 Civil Rights Act: a protester’s peaceful march and subsequent jailing, a young man’s decision to join a search party for a missing African American later found to have been lynched, a black teacher’s willingness to venture into an all-white school in Prince William County, Virginia.

“The movement wasn’t that long ago,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., who spearheaded the project, said to us. “That came through Monday in stories of people who couldn’t sleep in motels, had to go to different schools. That’s really the story of the civil rights movement — all the greats were backed up by somebody. Many somebodies.”

The Rev. Kenny Smith is one of the somebodies. The archive contains his account of coming home from the Vietnam War with his uniform on and feeling afraid to step off the bus in a small town in Georgia.

“I had read that if you step off the bus, you might not make it back on again,” said Mr. Smith, who later fought for minority access to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia. “I didn’t understand why, after fighting for my country, I couldn’t get off a bus in my own state.”

Almost a half-century later, he still tears up when he pulls into a motel, reminded that he was refused entry to such places during his youth.

Mr. Smith’s story may feel distant. But as Mr. Connolly said, it hasn’t been that long. Many storytellers in the archive are still alive. Many continue to fight for equal rights today.

The world their children and grandchildren inhabit is drastically different from the one in which they grew up. Separate-but-equal facilities were slowly dismantled in Virginia, despite Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr.’s best efforts. African Americans have made substantial economic gains. Racial equality is accepted as a bedrock principle by an overwhelming majority of Americans.

Yet Jim Crow’s legacy persists. Incarceration rates for blacks are six times that of whites, and the unemployment rate for blacks soars above those of other races. Racial politics remain a factor in laws that make casting a vote more difficult. Schools are more segregated than in 1980.

The archive doesn’t provide a road map for solving these problems. Nor does it try to directly correlate each act of resistance to landmark laws or policy changes. It simply displays the small journeys that make up the American experience. Added up, the testimonies tell an inspirational tale of a time when the fortitude, blood and extraordinary sacrifice of thousands of ordinary people forced a nation to change.

 

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