David McCartney 2017-01-12 12:26:16
Here’s something that archivists don’t discuss much—love. This two-part article explores the bonds that can develop between archivists and their collections, and what the outcomes might be for the archival profession. In part one, Colleen McFarland Rademaker, head archivist for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, defined love and challenged readers to think about how they might open their hearts, beyond affection, to their collections (see Archival Outlook, November/ December 2016, pp. 12–13, 29). In this second part, David McCartney, university archivist at the University of Iowa, poignantly shares his own deep archival encounter and the benefits gained by his institution. Part 2: Uncovering Friendship in the Archives It probably goes without saying that our first day on the job—any job—can be overwhelming. In addition to meeting new coworkers, understanding our responsibilities, and assessing what needs to be done, archivists are also prone to make note of people who have contributed to the history of the community, institution, or organization. We realize that our holdings don’t contain any documentation of these people, and their names join our evergrowing “must contact” list for their papers. I started keeping such a list soon after I began my job at the University of Iowa in 2001. Sometimes the names of these people resonate strongly with us; I admit to a conceit that their story may in some way align with my own. I grew up in a small, all-white town in rural Iowa in the 1960s, and as a child I was dimly aware of events that were enveloping our country: the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and later the emerging movements for women’s rights, gay rights, Native American rights, and rights of persons with disabilities. By the time I entered college in 1974, campuses had quieted down considerably, but the legacy of these movements persisted. I registered for the Selective Service as a conscientious objector the summer after I turned 18, and in September I attended my first political rally, protesting President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, who had resigned from the presidency in disgrace just a few weeks before. The 1960s informed me, but I was also detached from that decade, having grown up in a small town. During my sophomore year, a graduate student wrote a letter to the editor of our campus newspaper, lamenting the shift from activism to apathy in just a few short years. “It’s been a long time since the 1960s,” he wrote. “A damn long time.” My fascination with this period of US history was rooted in admiration for activism in its many forms as well as in a personal longing that I wasn’t born a few years earlier. Initial Encounter It was in this spirit that I came across the name Steve Smith early in my work as the university archivist. His name appeared in newspaper clippings; he was a sophomore who burned his draft card in the Iowa Memorial Union on campus in October of 1965. The protest received considerable news coverage. Steve was only the second person in the country to burn his draft card following an act of Congress two months before, which criminalized such civil disobedience with up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. And he was the first to do so on a college campus—before Berkeley, before Madison, before Columbia. I noted his name as someone to contact. But like many items on our to-do lists, this note languished for several years. That is, until one day in April 2012. On that day, I received an email from a student, asking for anything the archives might have on Steve Smith for a class project. I directed this researcher to our clippings file, but this time I resolved to follow through on my intent to find Steve and perhaps add to our knowledge of his time on our campus. First, I did what anyone would do—I googled his name. I was disheartened to learn that he had died three years before, almost to the day. Immediately I got angry for waiting too long to contact him. And I was suddenly grief-stricken, an emotion that lingers today. His obituary was brief and did not mention his controversial anti-war protest more than forty years before. I decided that, if I couldn’t meet Steve, I could at least reach out to those who knew him—his family, his friends, his colleagues. And so began a journey. A Nascent Political Activist Steve was born on November 18, 1944, in Marion, Iowa, a small town just outside of Cedar Rapids. While Marion epitomized white, middle class America, the civil rights movement was gaining national attention at the time of Steve’s high school graduation. With the movement’s rise came violent opposition from white supremacists such as the Ku Klux Klan. In Mississippi, intimidation of black residents attempting to register to vote was so strong and violent that in 1962 only seven percent of Mississippi’s black residents over the age of 21 were actually registered—the lowest number in the country. In response, several civil rights organizations banded together to form the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and organized the Mississippi Summer Project, later called Freedom Summer, an effort to register African Americans to vote. Word about Freedom Summer spread across the country. At the University of Iowa, about twenty students, including Steve—now a freshman, attended a meeting of the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the Iowa Memorial Union in April of 1964. A month later, Steve was selected, along with 800 volunteers, by COFO to work in Mississippi. Freedom Summer The work was dangerous. Just as Freedom Summer was getting underway, three civil rights workers were reported missing. Several weeks later, the bodies of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner were discovered, the victims of Ku Klux Klan-instigated violence. For reasons of safety, organizers gave workers the option to return home. Nearly all elected to stay, including Steve. Steve was assigned to work in COFO’s headquarters in Jackson. His duties included delivering voter registration materials around the state. On the night of July 15, while en route to Greenwood, he and his coworker, Eric Morton, were stopped by sheriff’s deputies and several White Citizens Council members ten miles outside of Jackson. Steve was severely beaten and, with Eric, detained in a nearby jail for three days. The incident, one of 60 occurring between 1962 and 1964, is recounted in an affidavit signed by Eric Morton in “Mississippi Black Paper,” a report issued by the US Commission on Civil Rights. The incident would haunt Steve for the rest of his life, in the form of recurring nightmares. Public Protest Steve’s political activism continued after he returned to Iowa. In March of 1965, he led an eight-day hunger strike in front of the Iowa City post office to raise money for civil rights workers in Selma, Alabama. The action raised more than $4,000. In the fall, Steve turned his attention to the war in Vietnam. At the student union’s weekly open mic session, he burned his draft card in a public protest that led to his arrest by the FBI two days later. He was later tried and convicted in US District Court in Des Moines and sentenced to three years’ probation. He never returned to the university and, though the protest era was well underway, he was largely forgotten in the years that followed. Documenting a Life Not long after I began my journey to learn more about Steve, I met his widow Barbara over coffee at a restaurant in Marion. That morning she brought photo albums, sharing with me her memories of her late husband. She described how he was followed by FBI informants for several years after his sentencing, how it was nearly impossible for him to keep a job during that time. She told me they met in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1991 and married eight years later. By this time Steve was a professor of computer science at a community college in Cedar Rapids. It was the second marriage for both of them, and the newlyweds were looking forward to full and enriching lives together. About a year after they married, as Steve was leaving work and walking to his car, he suddenly collapsed. He had suffered a heart attack and stroke. He survived but, because of oxygen deprivation for several minutes, never fully recovered. As Barbara recalled, he had the functionality of a five-year-old child for the remainder of his life. Steve died nine years later, in 2009, at the age of 64, in an assisted care facility in Waterloo. Barbara said the stroke robbed Steve of his memory—he no longer recognized her—with the exception of that terrible night in Mississippi. Despite his stroke, his nightmares did not stop. As Barbara recounted his story, I held her words close. After we said goodbye and agreed to keep in touch, I walked out to my car and wrote down everything I could remember, filling two pages of a legal pad. And then I sobbed, uncontrollably, for a few minutes. Since that meeting over coffee with Barbara, I have met and interviewed about a dozen people who knew Steve, including his two children, his academic mentor, two of his roommates, several of his high school classmates, two people who witnessed his anti-war protest, and his sole surviving brother. The archives has also obtained a transcript of his trial and FBI file, both from the National Archives, and we have located correspondence in our own records confirming that the president of the university had implored the US Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, to ensure the safety of Iowa students in Mississippi. Coincidentally, the letter was written two days before Steve’s attack. The Lessons of Steve Smith What have I learned from Steve, and what does he continue to teach me, even in death? In personal terms, Steve forces me to ask myself: What would I have done if presented with the same circumstances? He has led me to understand better the civil rights movement—and today’s Black Lives Matter movement—not only in my head, but also in my heart. Frankly, I am not proud of the fact that it was through the experience of another white boy from small town Iowa that I came to understand more fully the burden of racism and its continuing ugly presence today. In professional terms, meeting Steve has opened doors for the university archives. Additional collections have arrived, including the papers of Eric Morton, who said that, because of his friendship with Steve and their shared experience that summer in Mississippi, it was his wish that his papers be housed alongside Steve’s. Documenting Steve’s life has also opened another door—the formation of the Historical Iowa Civil Rights Network, an initiative to identify collections around the state pertaining to civil rights activism. To date, twelve repositories are participating. As we meet others and learn of their experiences, we walk with them. Love and friendship in the archives, indeed.
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