Randall C. Jimerson 2014-02-11 11:08:28
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the dramatic climax of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama. In April 1963 Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Began a campaign to end public discrimination in Birmingham, at the time the most segregated city in America. By May the “children’s crusade”—a march by hundreds of students in the city— filled city jails and led police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor to attack demonstrators with police dogs and fire hoses. The campaign in Birmingham led President John F. Kennedy to declare civil rights a moral issue and to propose a civil rights bill (eventually passed in 1964). The August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom marked a high point of hope for progress on race relations. But, just eighteen days later on September 15, the dynamite bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killed four young girls and injured many others. Two black teenage boys also were murdered that day. As a young teenager, I became acutely aware of these events occurring only a few miles from my home in the suburb of Homewood. As this fiftieth anniversary of the Year of Birmingham approached, I wrote a personal memoir of my familyfs involvement in the civil rights movement.Shattered Glass in Birmingham: My Familyfs Fight for Civil Rights,1961. 1964, which will be published in early 2014 by Louisiana State University Press. In writing about my own experiences, I realized that the three years I spent in Alabama largely shaped my own career choices and my perspective on the role of archives and archivists. What do we do as a profession that might contribute in some way to our society? I have long thought that archives contribute important benefits to individuals and to society as a whole. In recent years I have been particularly drawn to the concept of archives for social justice. As Verne Harris, Terry Cook, and many others argue, archives and archivists can provide valuable support for efforts to achieve social justice. This resonates with me because of two formative experiences in my youth—two social changes that shaped my “baby boom” generation: the civil rights movement and the Vietnam-era peace movement. For now I will focus on the first of these. I want to address this in very personal terms. This is my personal provenance, as an archivist. Coming of Age during the Civil Rights Movement I first became interested in history at age seven, when my family moved from Massachusetts to Virginia. It astonished me that gas stations in Virginia had three bathrooms: Men, Women, and Colored. I was called a Yankee, and got in trouble for not saying “Yes, ma’am” to my second grade teacher. My mother took me to the library to get a book about the Civil War. She said it would help me understand the differences between North and South. About the time I turned twelve, in April 1961—just at the centennial of the start of the Civil War (which my teachers insisted on calling the War Between the States)—my father accepted a job offer as director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations. The next month—on Mother’s Day—segregationists bombed one bus carrying Freedom Riders outside Anniston, Alabama, and brutally attacked the demonstrators on a second bus when it reached the Birmingham Trailways station. Dad worked in Alabama for three years— August 1961 to August 1964—leaving shortly after Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was the only white person in Alabama working full-time in civil rights. After we moved to Birmingham’s deceptively quiet suburb of Homewood at the end of July 1961, my father—an ordained Baptist minister who had been a Federal prison chaplain in Virginia—preached a guest sermon at the church of a young minister who had attended the same seminary near Boston. But when certain members of the congregation found out that he was working for civil rights, they told Reverend Jimerson that he was not welcome in their Southern Baptist church. Our family spent most of the next year “trying out” other churches. We were asked not to return to two more churches before finding a place we could worship. It took a few months before the Ku Klux Klan caught up with my father. They never burned a cross on our lawn, as they had done to my father’s predecessor at the Alabama Council, but I secretly wished for such an exciting event. I was old enough to think that would be a recognition that my Dad was doing the right thing. But once the Klan got our telephone number, the hate calls began. In late evenings, especially when Dad was travelling out of town on business, I would answer the telephone and hear only heavy breathing on the other end of the line. Several times, though, a raspy voice drawled out threats such as “Your daddy’s gonna be six feet under!” On at least two occasions, my mother began writing down summaries of threatening phone conversations she received—including her insolent replies. This is a brief excerpt from one such transcript, written in pencil: Caller: “I hear your husband and that nigger secretary of his sho’ are havin’ a time down there. You’d better check into it.” Me: “You’re being very adolescent doing all this calling, you know. Who are you?” “I’m askin’ the questions.” “You’re being very immature with your telephoning.” “Well, you’d better see what that nigger and your husband are doing.” “I’m not worried about my husband. You can’t scare me that way. GOOD BYE.” Mom’s last comment read: “She’s talking away as I hang up.” Threats and intimidation even reached my brother, sisters, and me in school. In seventh grade my math teacher inexplicably interrupted class with a brief tirade against civil rights and human relations organizations, claiming that all of them were communists.At the time I wondered, “Does she know that my father works for the Alabama Council on Human Relations?” Now I am certain she did. Meanwhile, my father travelled throughout the state, nurturing local groups sympathetic to desegregation. He became the only person in the state who was respected and trusted by both the white business community and black leadership. He became close friends with the black president of Miles College and worked closely with civil rights activist Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. In 1962, while trying to mediate negotiations between black student demonstrators and white drugstore owners in Talladega, my father was indicted for inciting the very demonstrations he had tried to resolve. During my father’s trial, Dad and Mom took my sister Ann and me out of school to witness the spectacle of Alabama justice— complete with spittoons in the aisles, jurors dozing in their seats, and a general sense of chaos and indifference. In spring 1963, during the early days of the Birmingham demonstrations, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Asked my father to set up a meeting with white clergymen, so that he could explain what he hoped to accomplish.Dad later had a private lunch with King to discuss strategy. When the Birmingham campaign began to stall, Dad arranged several private meetings between white businessmen and civil rights leaders, including Reverend Andrew Young, to discuss negotiations for a settlement. On the day of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, Dad met with black leaders to express sympathy and to discuss how to respond to the tragedy. During the afternoon he visited the bomb site and picked up several large pieces of shattered stained glass as evidence of the crime. In 2002 my family donated part of this glass to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.3 On September 9, 2013, we donated the remainder of the stained glass to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Archival Traces The growing number of archives and museums documenting civil rights represent part of what we mean by “archives for social justice.” In writing my family memoir of our years in Alabama, archival research supplemented— and often corrected—my memory of personal experiences. My father always said he had been too busy doing things to save letters, daily logbooks, and other documents. Yet, by following the trail of provenance, I realized that he would have communicated regularly with his supervisors at the Southern Regional Council (SRC) in Atlanta. I found more than a cubic foot of his letters, reports, and documents in the SRC records at Atlanta University Center’s archives. Other valuable documentation exists in the personal papers of his attorney, Charles Morgan Jr. (in the Alabama Department of Archives and History), and colleagues such as David Vann and Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter (in the Archives Department of Birmingham Public Library). Before my father died in 1995, I conducted several oral history interviews with him about Alabama. A biographer of Fred Shuttlesworth later provided a transcript of his 1988 interview with Dad.I found other oral histories of his associates in the archives of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Both my niece (for a school project) and I had interviewed my mother about her experiences. My sisters, Ann and Sue, contributed a dual interview they conducted for StoryCorps two years ago. They and my two brothers, Paul and Mark, also wrote brief accounts of the impact of their childhood experiences for an epilogue to Stained Glass in Birmingham. These and many other sources—primary and secondary, directly or indirectly about my father and other family members— made it possible to compile an accurate account of our family’s experiences. Following the Call of Justice When I became an archivist it seemed accidental—I needed a job while finishing my PhD and preparing to become a history professor—but in retrospect it appears to be a logical step based on my childhood experiences. I wanted to follow my father’s example: to contribute something to making life better for people, to help achieve what King called “the beloved community.” Archival documentation makes it possible for us to reconstruct the lives of ordinary people, as well as the rich and powerful. It enables us to hold government leaders and others accountable for their actions. In doing so, we can contribute to the quest for a better society for all people. We can, in many but not all situations, respond to what Nelson Mandela identifies as “the call of justice.” For me, this has been a logical progression, one that makes me proud to be an archivist.However, I do not ask all of my fellow archivists to take the same path. Many of us will be constrained by our employers, institutional policies, personal values and opinions, and other factors from taking such a stance.I understand and respect that position. The August 2013 Annual Meeting session at which I first presented these comments was titled “Ideal and Real: Striving for Archival Perfection in an Imperfect World.” We know we cannot be perfect. But we can try to be better. As archivists we can fulfill our responsibilities to our employers, donors, researchers, communities, and colleagues.In doing so—whatever our personal values may be—we can follow our “core values” as a profession. First among these, alphabetically and symbolically, is Access and Use.Our values also include: Accountability, Advocacy, Diversity, History and Memory, Preservation, Responsible Custody, Selection, and Service. Alphabetically last, but for me one of the most important, is Social Responsibility. An archivist does not have to be a political activist to accept and follow these core values. But the Core Values of Archivists statement does provide a rationale that can support heeding the call of justice. For me, at least, this is an integral part of my personal commitment to archives and the archival profession. It is the necessary context for understanding my writings about social justice. It is my personal provenance as an archivist. For me the “perfect” archival profession is multidimensional as well as multicultural. It cares as much about the poor as about the rich, about social and political conservatives as much as about liberals or radicals. It is an archival profession that should represent all of us, in our imperfections, in our daily lives, in our struggle to remain human and humane in a world fraught with temptations, dangers, and tragedies—as well as with love, hope, laughter, and joy. Notes This is a revised version of a paper presented during Session 707 gIdeal and Real: Striving for Archival Perfection in an Imperfect Worldh on August 17, 2013, during the CoSA/SAA Joint Annual Meeting in New Orleans. 1 During the 2002 SAA Annual Meeting in Birmingham, I spoke for an hour with Reverend Shuttlesworth, who said that my father had shown great courage in those days. 2 This connection became the basis for asking Ambassador Young to deliver the keynote address at the 2005 SAA Annual Meeting in New Orleans. 3 See my essay, gOn Becoming a Donor,h Archival Outlook (November/December 2002), 6.8. 4 The Washington Post carried a front-page story about this donation on September 7, 2013. See: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style /piece-of-16th-street-baptist-church-being-donated-to - smithsonian/2013/09/06/ddd78b26-1661-11e3- a2ec-b47e45e6f8ef_story.html. 5 For my exploration of these issues, see Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (SAA, 2009).
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